How teachers can enhance their students’ literature learning experience


In this article, we talk to Mr Matthew Low, a thoughtful and articulate scholar of the literary arts. A focused educator and Nanyang scholar, Matthew teaches Languages Arts and Literature here at Academia, with the goal of developing in his students an authentic appreciation for Literature.

Q: What first piqued your interest in Literature?

I’ve been a bookworm since childhood, but I only truly gained an interest in literature proper during secondary school. In Secondary One, my school assigned us The Outsiders, a novel by S.E. Hinton about the struggles of two rival teenage gangs in 1960s America. This was not a novel that I would have chosen for myself, given that my reading diet at that age was dominated by fantasy and science fiction. I began reading with some trepidation, hardly expecting to find any interest in the lives of underprivileged teenage gang members. Furthermore, this was a story drawn from a time, place and cultural landscape that was completely foreign to me. Why would a sheltered thirteen-year-old living in modern-day Singapore care about American working-class youth subcultures from the 1960s?

Despite these misgivings, The Outsiders seized my attention almost immediately after I started reading. I wound up tearing through the novel within the span of a single day. Hinton’s rich, detailed portrayals of these struggling teenagers fully drew me into this world of “greasers” fighting against rival gangs, societal prejudices and their own self-destructive tendencies. I was drawn in by how Hinton unflinchingly depicted the struggles of growing up amidst poverty, hardship and broken families. This was a story that could have easily slipped into tired cliches, or leaned on violence and shock value to keep its readers amused. Instead, the narrative drew its power from characters that were authentic and believable. The novel’s cast of troubled teenagers were rebellious, spiteful and even violent, but Hinton took care to show that they could also be sensitive, vulnerable, honourable and selfless.

The Outsiders was the first novel I’d read that aspired to make its characters feel fully human, and it was also the first novel that I properly studied as a literature text in a school. I was blessed that year with a literature teacher who was passionate about this novel and who strove to make his classroom an engaging environment. His interest in the characters and the language fed my own curiosity, encouraging me to look deeper into the novel and appreciate its craft. In his classes, we were challenged to respond to the story by developing our own insights rather than just absorbing it. Over the course of that year, I grew to truly enjoy writing about literature as an act of self-expression about works that I appreciated for their power and craft. My interest in literature has only grown since then, but The Outsiders and that Secondary 1 class will always have a treasured place in my memories.

Q: How has your experience been with teaching Literature at Academia?

When I first began teaching with Academia, I took a Secondary 1 student for a series of one-on-one classes. It was one of my first times teaching a student on my own rather than as an assistant teacher. This student had been struggling with Literature for some time, as many students do when first introduced to this subject. Although she had some inklings of how to approach her schoolwork, she also clearly lacked confidence in her own abilities. As a ‘fresh’ teacher still learning the ropes, I was also dealing with some nervousness of my own! Nonetheless, I strove to do the best job I could while learning on the job.

Over the course of my classes with this student, I gradually worked out how best to explain key concepts and writing fundamentals, learning how to match the pace at which she learnt as I went along. I got to witness this student steadily learning to hold her own as a writer, making great strides in terms of organisation and precision. When her end-of-year exams came around, she was rewarded for her efforts with the first A1 she’d ever scored in Literature. Although I’ve taken on many more tutees since then, this first experience of seeing a student grow so much (and seeing myself grow alongside her) remains one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences I’ve had as a teacher.

Q: Beyond the classroom – why does Literature matter?

Any sort of written work (be it a story, poem, play or anything else) that has the power and courage to make us see the world through fresh eyes.  

Learning about literature, and coming to enjoy it, opens you up to a wide and wonderful world of incredible stories and powerful works of art. Diving into this world allows you to explore the deepest insights of people across time and space and from all walks of life, while also teaching you how to voice your thoughts confidently and persuasively.   

Q: How can teachers help students develop an authentic appreciation for Literature?

A teacher with a genuine passion for literature is one of the most important elements of an effective literature classroom. For many students, literature can be a bewildering and deeply frustrating subject. They’re bombarded with works that they don’t care for written in language that they can’t understand. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they are then tasked to write essays about all of this! If these students are then saddled with a teacher who treats the text as a chore to get through, there’s very little hope that they’ll ever learn to engage with the text on their own. A passionate teacher is important because their energy and interest can show students why a work that seems confusing and arcane at first is actually worth appreciating. Getting students to care about literature, and thus getting them to put effort and care into their work, begins with showing them why I care about literature.

Thanks to the sheer variety of literature out there, I’m always learning about new works and authors through the texts that my students bring to me and through my own research. Sometimes my work even results in me learning to appreciate works that I had once overlooked! I had read Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible once as a teenager and promptly forgot about it. However, when I revisited The Crucible last year to help a student who was studying the play for his ‘O’-Levels, I found myself developing a new respect for Miller’s strengths as a playwright. While I was digging through the text to prepare lessons, Miller’s skilful construction of tense, dramatic sequences and deeply flawed yet sympathetic characters struck me as it never had before. Experiences of this sort mean that teaching literature has never truly gotten boring for me, as I’m always being kept on my toes.

Of course, teaching a literature text to students can evoke its own kind of joy. It’s one thing to enjoy a book or a poem in the privacy of your own mind, but there’s also a certain excitement that can only be found in sharing your thoughts with someone else. Oftentimes I’ve found that my appreciation of a text is enriched when I see a student come to appreciate the beauty of a work or when a student shares their own personal perspective – especially if it’s a perspective that I hadn’t considered!  

Learning and enjoying literature asks for more personal input than most other subjects. A student of literature must be able to communicate not only what they know, but also what they believe: their own opinions, perspectives and personal takeaways from a text. For some students, this need for personal input can be intimidating or uncomfortable at first. How are you supposed to reliably study for something like an unseen poetry exam, where the text you’ll be tested on is one you’ve never read before? Consequently, part of growing to enjoy literature lies in becoming more confident in your own voice. My goal as a teacher is to bring my tutees to the point where they can enjoy literature in this way: as students of literature who have the know-how, experience and confidence to both figure out what they think of a text and to argue persuasively in defence of their perspectives.

Q: Tell us a bit about how you teach Literature.

The first element of literature that students should be familiarised with is learning how to recognise the different literary devices and techniques that authors use to make their works more striking and effective. Learning how to pick out these literary devices is the first step towards being able to recognise how a literary work achieves a certain effect or communicates a certain message.

My favourite method of teaching students about a text is to go through the text with them, alternating between explaining concepts and techniques that they’re unfamiliar with and asking them for their own interpretations. I find that this approach strikes a healthy balance between providing students with insights that they would struggle to find on their own and encouraging them to tackle the text on their own.

Similarly, my favourite method of teaching students how to write is to walk through a literature question together with them, guiding them through every step from breaking down the question to writing out the essay itself. I find that this approach grants me deeper insight into my students’ thought processes and habits, allowing me to better diagnose their individual strengths and weaknesses. I’ve also found that it helps my students build up confidence in their own writing skills as I get a chance to show them how to hone their writing first-hand.    

At the same time, it’s important not to spoon-feed your students! Some students are very accustomed to lessons where the teacher gets them to copy notes and annotations off a slideshow. These kinds of lessons are simple to execute and don’t ask much from students – but those characteristics are exactly why this approach falls short. If your students come to think of Literature as a subject where they simply have to parrot their teacher’s opinions then they will come to think of Literature as an unengaging chore. Allocate time in your lessons to let your students tell you what they think of the text and challenge them to form their own opinions and arguments. If you want your students to enjoy Literature then they have to come into class knowing that they are both expected and encouraged to develop and share their own personal perspectives.     

Introducing Academia’s 2023 Literature Programme

Academia’s Level 4 Literature Programme caters specifically to students who choose to undertake Literature at Upper Secondary level. Our curriculum focuses on developing authentic and transferable analytic skills, so as to empower students with the tools they need to deconstruct and critically analyse all kinds of texts, using critical theory that is relevant to all forms of literary analysis. We’ll also teach our students how to construct their essays, in particular developing a seamless literary flow on top of the archetypal body paragraph structure. Students will receive substantial content notes in our signature house style, accompanying an individualised learning experience with plenty of personal feedback. This programme is suitable for IP, IB and O level Year 3 – 4 students, as well as advanced Year 2 students with a keen interest in the subject. Students who take both English and Literature classes will enjoy a 15% discount on their Literature lessons!

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