A Complete High School British Literature Curriculum

Which Beloved Classics to Include in Your High School British Literature Curriculum

In my British Literature course for senior / 12th grade students, we study major literary works from Anglo-Saxon to the twentieth century (although not in chronological order!). This selection of works of British Literature can also easily be used in an AP Advanced Placement Literature and Composition course.

I have spent years revising and adapting to student interest and I want to share my most recent complete curriculum for high school students with you!

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Classic Works and Lesson Plans

Throughout the year I try to hit on all the major genres of classic literature. This can be difficult! 

As English teachers we juggle so much trying to build a rich curriculum. We create lesson plans that are tailored to a high school student’s ability level that are meant to improve critical thinking skills and enhance class discussions. 

These lesson plans include creative projects and assignments that offer opportunity for self-reflection and further study in literature. 

We are always working to cover the material on the final exam, while focusing on the students’ experience before they move on to their next adventure. It can be a lot! 

My hope is that this list of classic works helps you to easily choose literary works that still work in the contemporary classroom.

Contemporary Fiction, Vocab, and Grammar

Side notes: 

The works I cover in this post are all part of the British literary canon, but know that I offer independent reading projects throughout the year with modern works. Check out my other posts linked at the end of this article to see the contemporary books my high schoolers love!

In senior year I continue to focus on further study of literary elements/terms. Vocabulary is embedded in the text and the study of grammar is on an as needed basis. When I see something, I say something!

The Complete British Literature Curriculum

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The Earliest Written Work of British Literature: Beowulf

My students still enjoy reading the epic of Beowulf

I shorten this unit to two to three weeks in length because we only cover the three battles. I also read them passages from John Gardner’s Grendel to give an alternate perspective of the bloodthirsty monster. 

What is interesting about this is that Beowulf is read after we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Gardner’s Grendel gives off major Frankenstein’s Monster vibes for my students. It leads to great conversations about what a ‘monster’ really is. 

In the Beowulf unit we focus on kennings, stock epithets, caesuras, the epic hero archetype, apposition, and diazeugma for literary devices / literary terms. 

I have them write a short paper (one page or 500-word essays) choosing two devices and discussing how they further a theme from Beowulf. This can be a difficult assignment, as it is more AP Literature focused, but I think it is worthwhile to have them give it a try. 

Beowulf - More Info

They are also really interested in Beowulf as the hero. One of the epic hero characteristics is that the hero is the embodiment of society’s ideals, and Beowulf is kind of unlikeable. He is arrogant and only wants the glory – this has led to some interesting discussions about modern heroes and whether or not they need to be selfless.

Side Note: In my district, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is taught sophomore year in World Literature. I would include it in my curriculum if I could. 

Many of you will be familiar with Miss Effie, who has been providing English teachers with amazing project ideas and lesson plans for as long as I have been teaching. Here is the link to her page on Beowulf.

The Medieval Period:
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

My students really enjoy the two tales that we read from The Canterbury Tales. They are not as excited about the Prologue! I am always looking for a more interesting way to approach The Prologue, so if you have any great ideas please send them my way!

Right now I teach the Prologue as a small group presentation project, splitting the pilgrims up and having the groups teach each other. It is an okay assignment. 

We read the two most popular tales, “The Pardoner’s Tale” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”. My students thoroughly enjoy each, but they especially love the Pardoner’s moral tale of the rioters.

We read the tales in class together. A popcorn read would work here, but I just go from stanza to stanza, student to student.

This is usually followed by an informal debate about who the old man is, whether they deserved death, if drinking in the morning is really as gross as it sounds, etc. Ha! I love high school students!

Satire Unit

I include The Canterbury Tales as part of a unit on satire, and the culminating assignment is one of the few creative writing stories that we do throughout the year (super unfortunately). 

The assignment is to write a satirical moral tale, using the CT tales as models, and including an original character prologue and an original moral tale. Bonus points for poetic flow! The kids come up with funny, crazy stories, and I have them share in small groups.

The Renaissance Era:
Macbeth, William Shakespeare

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This unit takes about four to five weeks of study and my students LOVE it. We have a lot of fun with Macbeth!

Much of the tragedy is read in class, and we act it out as much as possible. We study drama terms, Shakespeare’s life, and do some research into which aspects of Macbeth are based on truth and what is strictly playwright’s authorial freedom. 

This unit is focused on power and ambition and we read Macbeth after our study of Beowulf. There is so much to relate to modern times here. We talk about famous celebrities, politicians, and athletes who made it big and then blew it big time. 

I also throw in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (I know – not British) and discuss the protagonist’s lack of power over her situation and what that does to her mind. 

We also discuss Shakespeare’s message with the female characters in the play – Lady Macbeth, Lady MacDuff, and the Witches. I mean, who is really in control in this play?

For me, this unit culminates in a test, in preparation for the final exam, but there are so many cool projects that are possible with this unit. 

Hamlet and A Video

Side note: Hamlet is taught sophomore year in my district, so it is off limits for me, but I highly recommend teaching it!

I show the video Shakespeare Uncovered: Macbeth with Ethan Hawke:

The Restoration Period:
“A Modest Proposal”, Jonathan Swift

I use this essay as part of my satire unit. We read it and discuss it, but I only spend maybe two class periods on it. The students enjoy the shock of it, for sure, and I think it is important to include, but time is tight. 

Side note: I also have recently begun teaching the poem “Thank You For Waiting” by Simon Armitage. Check out the poem/video here.

Romanticism:
An in-depth look at Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley

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Frankenstein is the first novel that we read together as a class, after summer reading and writing college essays.

The students enjoy it, as do I, but I am considering changing it up for next year. Certainly not because of lack of student interest, but I am kind of tired of teaching it. Maybe I will try Dracula in its place? If you have thoughts on this, please shoot me a message!

The students LOVE to discuss Frankenstein. Of course, it is surprising to them that the real story is so different from what they know from pop culture, but their real interest lies in the ethics and morality (or lack thereof) of the characters.

They certainly do not expect to feel sympathy for the monster or to blame Victor for his own demise and the deaths of others. They are also very interested in Mary Shelley’s life and have fun researching her. 

Gothicism Unit

I spend a lot of time discussing Gothicism in this unit. The idea of the gothic is really appealing to today’s teenagers. They see it in modern form through television, movies, and video games.

We focus on the damsel in distress theme and the role of women in a patriarchal story written by a woman. We look at the idea of victim and torturer and who fulfills these roles in the novel, among many other gothic ideals.

It definitely keeps the students’ interest and lends itself to strong thematic essay ideas for the culminating analytical writing assignment. 

The Victorian Age:
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

I know I keep saying this, but my students LOVE this play (I promise!). It is wry, funny, and clever. It is a fast paced read, which we do in class. 

My students chuckle OUT LOUD at the muffin scene. It’s so, so great. This is obviously part of my satire unit, and I am also having them read articles from The Onion and watch Monty Python clips and SNL commercials. 

We watch The Importance of Being Earnest film together, starring Reese Witherspoon, Dame Judy Dench, and my boyfriend, Colin Firth. 

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Even if you are not planning on teaching the play. WATCH THE MOVIE. I am linking the trailer below:

20th century Literary Icons:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie

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Last, but certainly not least, we spend some time on mystery and suspense. This is sometimes part of a unit I do on true crime right before the end of the school year, and sometimes it is included as an independent reading project. 

Either way, I think it is important for my students to leave high school with some knowledge of both of these famous authors. Some middle schools teach And Then There Were None, which many of my students have told me was their favorite book ever, but many have not had any experience with either author. 

As high school seniors, I take the approach of the students as detectives and criminal profilers. Who did it – and WHY? How did the detectives solve the crime? What were the overt and hidden clues?

It is a fun unit that also involves some author research. These two icons lived fascinating lives!

Other Beloved British Classic Works

Other well-known and beloved classic British novels that I would love to include: 

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens 

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

Any of Jane Austen’s novels

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare

And that sums up the classic literary works that I teach. I also include independent reading projects throughout the year with more contemporary authors, linked below. 

 A Mystery Your Students Will Love: The Thirteenth Tale

Independent Reading Lists – Parts One / Two  / Three  / Four

Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!

I hope this complete high school British literature curriculum is helpful to you!

10 thoughts on “A Complete High School British Literature Curriculum”

  1. Hi…
    I am very interested in using your curriculum for British Lit…this will be for 11th grade. Could you possibly send me the link to purchase your material? Also, do you have an instruction guide? You mention the number of weeks…and going out of order…could I see what you mean by that?
    Thanks so much
    Sabrina Walker

    1. Hi Sabrina!
      Thank you so much for your comment! I do not have any material to purchase as of yet. On the blog I just like to give people some insight into what I have taught with success, in hope that it gives others some ideas and inspiration. When I mention how many weeks a unit takes, I am referring to the weeks it takes for the students to read the work, add in supplementary materials (such as short stories, poems, videos, podcasts) that enrich the unit, and be properly assessed. When I talk about going out of order, I mean chronologically. I do not start at Beowulf and try to get to the Victorians by the end of the year, for example. I used to teach that way and I hated it. Some of my favorite works (and my students’!) are more relatively modern, and I felt that I was squeezing them in at the very end when my seniors could not give their full focus.
      I hope this is clarifying and helpful to you. Thank you SO much for reaching out and feel free to do so again. I wish you all the best this school year!
      Liz

      1. Hi Liz,
        Thank you so much for your response…and yes, it is helpful! Could you give me an idea of where you start if you choose not to go chronologically? I feel like starting with Beowulf would transform my students into zombies before we get started! I work in a small private high school that specializes in students with dyslexia. It is a fine line to make sure I cover the curriculum while not overwhelming my students. What would you suggest for your first unit? I hope I am not being too needy…lol! I had this course given to me at the last minute and I’m stressing a bit. Thanks so much!
        S

  2. This is amazing!!! This is my first time teaching Brit Lit in my homeschool and I even I have a daughter in her masters for Library science 🤦‍♀️ Soooo how do I set up my lessons? I need like step by step instructions 😂 I have been homeschooling for almost 20 years but this is a whole new world to me!

    1. Hi! I am so pleased this is useful to you!
      My lessons are always leading to the final assessment, which is generally an essay discussing a major theme of the novel. I have the students annotating while they read, always looking for evidence (direct quotes and specific examples) to prove the theme.
      I also like to include outside sources while we are reading the main novel, play, etc. I try to include a short story, poem, podcast, and an article in every unit. For example, with Frankenstein, we read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and one of Edgar Allen Poe’s poems. I always have them read an article about the history of grave-robbing in the United States and offer up some true crime podcast episodes for them to make connections.
      I also have them do some research into the life and times of the author. With the Mary Shelley example, she was living in a time where Arctic exploration and galvinism were constantly in the news, and that explains the Robert Walton storyline and Victor’s creation of the monster.
      I hope my ramblings are helpful to you! Have a wonderful school year!
      Liz

  3. Hi! I was just curious about what order you teach these units in? If you’re not going chronologically, how do you typically order the works? Thanks!

    1. Hello!
      I am not teaching British Literature this year, but here is my basic plan from last year:

      Semester One:

      August/September:
      ● Summer Reading: The Thirteenth Tale
      ● College Admissions Essays
      October:
      ● Gothicism Unit ● Frankenstein
      November:
      ● Satire and Society Unit
      ● The Canterbury Tales
      ● The Importance of Being Earnest

      Semester Two:

      January
      ● Annual research paper
      February/March/April:
      ● Monsters Unit
      ● Beowulf
      ● Macbeth
      May:
      ● True Crime Unit
      ● Agatha Christie – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
      ● Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes short stories

      I hope this helps!

  4. Hi! This very helpful! Would you mind sharing the order you present these units? I’m curious what order you have found to be most successful. Thank you!

    1. Hello!
      I am not teaching British Literature this year, but here is my basic plan from last year:

      Semester One:

      August/September:
      ● Summer Reading: The Thirteenth Tale
      ● College Admissions Essays
      October:
      ● Gothicism Unit ● Frankenstein
      November:
      ● Satire and Society Unit
      ● The Canterbury Tales
      ● The Importance of Being Earnest

      Semester Two:

      January
      ● Annual research paper
      February/March/April:
      ● Monsters Unit
      ● Beowulf
      ● Macbeth
      May:
      ● True Crime Unit
      ● Agatha Christie – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
      ● Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes short stories

      I hope this helps!

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