At first glance, reading Modernist fiction with language learners might seem like a challenging idea. However, it can turn out to be an inspiring experience and you can build a whole literary and cultural trip around it.
Grab opportunities like the current Virginia Woolf Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and combine it with watching the excellent film The Hours, which introduces us to Woolf’s life as well as one of her most famous novels, Mrs. Dalloway. However, we recommend you start reading another one of Woolf’s ‘classic’ Modernist trilogy (Mrs Dalloway, 1925; To the Lighthouse, 1927; The Waves, 1931) with your students. To the Lighthouse (see the original text here) might be a more approachable text for your young adult and adult learners. Our level 5 To the Lighthouse reader offers an easy introduction to the world of Woolf, and it can encourage your students to read more novels from her as they improve their English.
Reading Woolf with students
Terms such as 'stream of consciousness' or 'shifting point of view' may initially seem intimidating for your students. Get round the difficulties by reading aloud (or using an audio book, such as the one in our To the Lighthouse reader). Students soon get into the thought process by careful oral guidance and these techniques soon seem natural ways of describing situations and emotions. Starting your students’ Modernist experience with the combination of an exhibition, a film and a reader which presents the text at an understandable level can open the door to a new journey in their literary exploration.
And remember that your students are used to all sorts of narrative techniques and devices. Think of film culture: they might not be able to label the techniques, but they are certainly able to recognise and negotiate a wide variety of narrative styles.
Follow our steps to introduce the life and writing style of Virginia Woolf to your students.
You can download our Teacher's Notes in PDF format. Use the steps below in your classroom on an IWB (Interactive Whiteboard), project it onto a screen or show it on your laptop screen to smaller groups or individual students.
- Level: CEFR B1; Cambridge PET, Trinity 5, 6
- Age: 13+
- Themes: Art, Human interest
Step 1: The Exhibition
Who is this woman?
When and where do you think she lived? What was her profession?
Read or listen to a short text about the life of Virginia Woolf on page 6 in the reader. Retell her life in your own words using the phrases below.
- 25th January 1882
- intelligent conversations
- tragic life
- nervous breakdowns Bloomsbury Group
- Leonard Woolf
- Modernist movement
- stream of consciousness
- drowned herself
Timeline at the National Portrait Gallery
Follow this link to study a timeline of Woolf's life.
What happened in Woolf's life in these years?
- October 2 1905
- December 22 1910
- September 9 1913,
- April 24 1917
- July 1 1919
Portraits at the Exhibition
Go to the main page of the Exhibition. Look at the images and choose your favourite. Why do you like it?
Step 2: The Film
Film trailer: The Hours, 2002
- Film on IMDB
- Do you notice anything similar between the three storylines?
- When do you think the stories of the three women are set?
- Study the definition of the literary device 'leitmotif'. Can you recongise an example of it in the film trailer?
The leitmotif is the leading motif in a work (e.g. film or novel). It can be an object or the repetition of a phrase. Woolf uses leitmotif a lot in her work to create a sense of continuity of thought through non-linear time.
Watch the film and find information about Virginia Woolf's family.
- Who was Vanessa Bell?
- Who was Leonard Woolf?
Mapping the life of Woolf
Find information about the places where Virginia Woolf lived. Mark them on a map.
Here you can see an example.
Step 3: To the Lighthouse
Look at this image from the Helbling Reader To the Lighthouse.
- Now go on Wikipedia and find an image about the Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall, England. Can you see any similarities?
Two literary devices of Modernist fiction
Talk about the following two devices with your class:
- stream of consciousness
- shifting point of view
Try to identify these devices when you are reading To the Lighthouse.
Write a paragraph using the stream of consciousness technique
Choose a theme from below, and start writing about it. Do not worry about the grammar or the right word choice. Write as if you were thinking, and do not stop to think too much. Write for about five minutes.
- My first day at school
- My best summer day
- My worst summer day
- My favourite journey
- My favourite Christmas
Try to answer questions like:
- ‘What can you hear?’; ‘What can you see?’; ‘How do you feel?; ‘Can you smell or taste anything?’
In the resource book Imagine That! (The Resourceful Teacher Series, Helbling Languages), you can find a guided visualisation activity on pages 54-55.
- Download the activity
- Download the Teacher's Notes here.