Lydia Ridding, English Subject Advisor
This blog was first published in 2019. As we are now entering the last teaching days of December, we thought you might like to revisit of some of the useful teaching and learning ideas for Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
We hope you’re not feeling too ‘bah, humbug!’ in the run up to the end of term! As we get well and truly into the festive season, there’s no better time to consider teaching A Christmas Carol, one of our GCSE English Literature 19th century novels.
A Christmas Carol tells the tale of Scrooge, whose miserly ways are transformed after ghostly visits on Christmas Eve. In keeping with the ‘spirit’ of this time of year, I’ll take you through this latest text addition – with a little bit of help from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
A Christmas Carol is shorter and less linguistically heavy than some of our other 19th century novels and so may be more accessible for some students.
Before you start reading, talk about charity, selfishness, morality, isolation, family, choice, time. Make sure you’re all working with similar definitions. Synonyms can help students here and give them a better chance at nuance.
First published in 1843, the original version of A Christmas Carol includes some fantastic illustrations by John Leech. Try asking your students to look at these images and make predictions about which characters and moments are represented in them. You will find that many students are familiar with the story of Scrooge already (even if it is The Muppet Christmas Carol version), and are able to spot key features in the images.
Talk about Dickens’ narration and the titles of each stave. Why start after Marley’s death as opposed to before? Why go in chronological order?
It can be really helpful to pick apart Dickens’ sentences. This can help students gauge where important information is likely to be, reminding them that struggling with outmoded sentence forms is understandable as well as offering rich examples of complex sentence structure.
Getting students to realise that the issues at the core of the text are just as relevant today is crucial. We looked at childhood poverty rates; discussed the annual school Christmas Hamper drive and debated how Scrooge would feel about it in each stave of the book.
Understanding what ghosts represent and how each ghosts’ characterisation indicates the tone of the stave really helped students map the arc of the book. Talk about different cultural views of ghosts; why might Dickens have chosen ghosts to guide Scrooge over other supernatural forces.
It’s easy to teach Scrooge as a villain who sees the light but students respond better to nuance. Delve into Scrooge’s school days and family relationships, speak to students about neglect and trauma.
Along with the above, it’s always helpful to get students thinking about quotations and textual references as you’re teaching the text. ‘Quotation jars’ (or similar) are good for this – fill each jar with references relating to specific themes, issues, characters and relationships presented in the text. You can add to the jars as you go and then use them as a revision aid at the end of the course.
There are plenty of resources out there but the British Library in particular have some great resources to help students with context.
You may find it helpful to download our sample assessment materials and past paper questions from Teach Cambridge (login required, talk with your exams officer). The 19th century novels are assessed in Paper 1, Section B. Students answer either an extract based question or a discursive question. Both options carry 40 marks and assess AO1, AO2, AO3 and AO4.
The 19th century novels are assessed in Paper 1, Section B. Students answer either an extract based question or a discursive question. Both options carry 40 marks and assess AO1, AO2, AO3 and AO4.
The extract based question enables students to use the extract as a springboard to the wider text – up to two thirds of their response can be focussed on the extract. The extract also provides a good base to demonstrate detailed AO2 analysis.
Your students should link the extract to at least one other moment in the novel. They can focus less on close language analysis if they have covered AO2 sufficiently in the extract, instead exploring the focus of the question – character, theme etc.
The discursive question enables students to provide a perspective on the text. The ‘How far’ prompt means that students can develop an argument/point of view even if their conclusion has moved them on from their original starting point.
Encourage your students to look at two moments from the text in detail, or to take an overview of the character, theme or relationship in the whole text through several moments – either approach is valid.
With both question options, understanding of contextual factors should come through discussion of the text and must be relevant to the question. You can help your students with this, teaching relevant contextual knowledge as it arises in the text and linking it clearly to settings, characters, situations and relationships.
Whether you’ve taught A Christmas Carol before or are new to it, why not give it a go in the coming year? Look out for further support by finding our A Christmas Carol candidate exemplars and commentaries on Teach Cambridge.
For now, we wish you all a relaxing Christmas break and a happy new year.
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Prior to joining OCR in June 2023, Lydia spent 20 years working in a range of sixth form colleges across the country, teaching A Level and GCSE qualifications in English. She was a coursework moderator with OCR for a number of years and has an MA in Victorian Studies from Birkbeck University. This republished blog was originally written by Keeley Nolan. Keeley has since moved on from the OCR English team and now works as Head of Regulation at Cambridge English.