Should Chaucer Be Taught As Part Of The KS3 Curriculum?

Arguments exploring the pros and cons of studying a key, but dated, literary figure in secondary schools.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a writer in the 1300s and is known as the Father of English Literature. Therefore, he is an extremely significant literary figure, and arguably someone who should be studied as a compulsory element of English because of this.

However, because he was writing so long ago, the language used is very different from Present-Day English. So, with that in mind, is there much relevance in studying him, since the language is so different from the English we speak and write today?

Here, we will explore the pros and cons of studying Chaucer in school, and if and why this is either a benefit or a hindrance to students in Key Stage 3 (age 11-14).

Biting the Bullet and Tackling the Hardest Element First

One advantage of studying Chaucer in school is that, in theory, it would make any other aspects of older English less daunting and more accessible- almost like a biting the bullet approach…

This was not my own personal view of studying Chaucer at a young age until I really sat and thought about it, as my view was initially largely negative. However, this point does have some merit, and I guess this view largely depends on the teacher and their approach.

Some teachers may like this view of teaching Chaucer so early on, getting arguably one of the most difficult aspects of English covered so then it’s done and does not have to be looked at again until students choose to pursue English at a higher level ie at University.

A Symbol of Hope

Another major positive of teachers taking this view is that going forward, nothing seems as daunting or difficult as Chaucer. Therefore, studying English throughout the rest of school is both easier and more enjoyable, because students feel hope that they can tackle any text going forward.

If they have conquered Chaucer, then they can conquer any writer on their GCSE and A-Level specifications, because he is arguably the hardest one to cover. Therefore, whilst the term studying him may be tough, once it is done, the students may be provided with a much-needed ego-boost and sense of hope that studying English is possible and that they can do it.

As a core subject, students must study English; there is no way around this and they will be studying English until the age of 16. As such, not every student enjoys English, it can feel like a chore, like they do not want to be there; not necessarily because they do not like English as a subject, but because once teenagers are told they have to do something, they are automatically less likely to want to engage with it.

However, by going into their GCSEs with the knowledge that they have once studied one of the oldest and hardest writers possible, they could feel proud, and also hopeful, that they can conquer more challenges within English as a subject.

The Support of Other Subjects

Studying Chaucer also supports cross-curricular learning; this is because students have the chance to learn about root words and the development of language.  A root is “the core of a word that is irreducible into more meaningful elements.” – Wikipedia. This essentially means without the use of prefixes and suffixes, so students are learning about the words in their own rights, almost serving as an introduction to studying linguistics.

Further, this then serves as aiding the study of Modern Foreign Languages, as students are learning about word roots which then teaches them to recognise words.

The Middle English used in The Canterbury Tales includes a lot of Germanic and Latin word roots. Latin also helps with recognising words in French, Spanish and Italian, combined with the Germanic roots leads students to have a basic ability to recognise words in other languages, which would then help them in their studies of Modern Foreign Languages.

Moreover, the study of Chaucer and its benefits in root words and language development can also help students in their studies of drama, as they have the chance to develop their oracy and spoken language skills, as well as the written ones taught in English.

There is Much Historical Relevance in Chaucer

When writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer chose to write in English, and not French. The British Library states that “The Canterbury Tales was one of the first major works in literature written in English” (1)

Thus, Chaucer has essentially paved the way for every writer who has written any text throughout history and for any emerging or future out there throughout time.

That is a huge legacy to have created and, as such, it makes clear sense as to why Chaucer is studied in schools: because, without him, there may not have ever been a subject of English Literature for us to study in the first place.

Following this logic, I completely understand why Chaucer is included on Key Stage 3 specifications, however, there are also reasons as to why perhaps studying him so early on in one’s English career can be more of a hindrance than a help…

The Technical Difficulty of Studying Chaucer May Put Students Off Studying English

Some may think that Chaucer’s work is too hard for students at this age so, therefore, avoid teaching it. This is understandable because studying Chaucer is fundamentally difficult. For reference, Chaucer pre-dates Shakespeare, and the language used in The Canterbury Tales is known as Middle English, which is very different from present-day English, the language we speak today, therefore may provide a great deal of confusion to students.

As an example of the difference in language, here is an example of some of Chaucer’s work, this extract has been taken from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales:

“But now, sire,—lat me se—what I shal seyn?

A ha! by God, I have my tale ageyn.

Whan that my fourthe housbonde was on beere,

I weep algate, and made sory cheere,

As wyves mooten, for it is usage,

And with my coverchief covered my visage;

But for that I was purveyed of a make,

I wepte but smal, and that I undertake!” (2)

Did you find this easy to understand? Even now, as an undergraduate, I cannot read this without the help of a translation, let alone as a 12-year-old who had not found her flair for English yet.

Studying Chaucer May Negatively Affect Confidence

The difficulty in Chaucer’s language could lead to a loss of love for English as a subject because students see it as “too difficult”, and uncomfortably so rather than a challenging topic that they still have hope to conquer. Therefore, they may, in time, lose their passion for it because they believe they are not good enough to achieve highly in English.

I studied Chaucer myself when I was in Year 8 and honestly could not gel with the work, I found it exceptionally difficult which meant I went on to dread studying other older writers such as Shakespeare because I had a preconceived belief that it was too hard and I would not be able to handle it.

Moreover, Chaucer never appeared on my specifications again until University, and I was reluctant to pick the module based on Chaucer because I was so scared that I was “not clever enough” to study him and his work. However, I bit the bullet and decided to take the module nonetheless, but I know that some of my peers did shy away from taking it because of bad past experiences in studying him.

I also think this is very teacher-dependent as to how students perceive Chaucer by the way in which his works are taught to children. For instance, leading the first lesson on Chaucer with “this will be challenging” immediately gives students a belief that the following lessons will be hard. From my experience, whilst this approach is realistic as opposed to optimistic, it can serve as disheartening to teenagers.  

As such, there are both positives and negatives to studying Chaucer, and some may argue that the positives outweigh the negatives, and others may argue that the negatives outweigh the positives.

For me personally, having had the chance to explore this theme in more depth by writing this article, I believe that Chaucer should be studied in school, although originally, I was a firm believer that he and his work should not be studied at a young age.

Having been able to think about this from more than just the angle of my insecure teenage self, I now see the benefits of learning about the “father of English literature”, and why this is relevant to all studies of literature beyond The Canterbury Tales.

I more than understand and am empathetic towards the fact that studying Chaucer is exceptionally difficult to study, and that this can pose as a setback to students; however, I do also now understand and acknowledge the importance of learning about a figure so significant, therefore I do believe that his work should be studied by secondary school students.

tales of Geoffrey Chaucer
Studying for a degree in English; working as a tutor and as a writer. Charity founder and lover of literature.

No Saves yet. Share it with your friends.

Write Your Diary

Get Free Access To Our Publishing Resources

Independent creators, thought-leaders, experts and individuals with unique perspectives use our free publishing tools to express themselves and create new ideas.

Start Writing