Literature: appropriate classics, a challenge for high school students


“Young people today do not read anymore! Punctuated by an embittered sigh, this well-known chorus is often complemented by considerations of the misdeeds of the Internet – without even considering for a second that browsing the Web can mobilize reading skills. These remarks can also be concluded by a questioned question: “But what do their French teachers do? ”

According to the National Book Center’s latest study , youth over the age of 15 read more than the average adult, and the reading rate in this age group (91%) increased by 9 points between 2015 and 2019. 4% of young people say they hate to read while 80% read 3 hours a week, especially school readings but also for their leisure.

Literacy program requirements for reading have not dropped, far from it. On the website of the Paris Academy, we can consult the very interesting archives of the description of baccalaureate for the oral test of French Ghislaine Dan, an experienced teacher.

In 1991, high school students had to read two complete works (a novel and a play) to prepare for this test, which were supplemented by reading excerpts of argumentative and poetic works. In 2013, we go on to read 8 complete works, in addition to excerpts, and the description has been considerably enriched by additional documents. If I consult my own archives, I make exactly the same observation.

Creative scriptures

The new programs for the Baccalaureate 2020 emphasize these ambitious reading objectives, by choosing to highlight the reading of complete works, which will be defined by a national program: the first students will all have to read eight books ( classics for the most part), to which it will be necessary to add still some courses associated with these works, composed of extracts.

For the moment, only two women, out of twelve authors of choice, are integrated in what will strengthen the existence of an official literary “canon” for the general bac: Madame de La Fayette, and Marguerite Yourcenar. But can the school order suffice to make all our students read? One remembers Daniel Pennac, who in As a novel , affirmed that the verb to read does not conjugate with the imperative.

The new French programs have an interesting lever, which teachers must seize: the writings of appropriation , which allow students, thanks to creative writing projects, to hang more easily to reading. This element of the programs is inspired by the work carried out for years on the “reader subject” first by Annie Rouxel and Gérard Langlade, then by Sylviane Ahrwith Versation of a literary reading in high school and finally, more recently, Bénédicte Shawky-Milcent and his essay exciting reading, it is useless!

The latter thus defines the appropriation: “To have appropriated a work is to have made it” own to oneself “, to have transformed it into a component of what one is, into an element of a personal culture, inscribed in the memory. It nevertheless specifies that the conditions of conservation of this interior good are very precarious. If we appreciate a book that has been devoured, will we be able to talk about it precisely months later?


To transform our students into readers, we must avoid substituting for the subjective, personal reading of our scholarly readings of teachers. Sylviane Ahr highlights the opposition between two theories of reading in schools. The theory of the effect, on the one hand, supposes that the meaning is programmed by the text: there is a model reading, ideal, and the pupil must recognize the direction expected by the teacher. On the other hand, the theory of reception assumes that reading is an encounter between a book and a reader, it is not unique, it is a personal experience.

These two theories illustrate two conceptions of reading: one, common to all readers, would be an objective reading, while the other, variable to infinity, is subjective, specific to each. For her, the reader-subjects reconfigure the work read. In high school, the theory of the effect prevails: we must make room for the subject-reader, but how? The goal of any French teacher, beyond exams, is to transform his students into readers for life.

Sylviane Ahr and Bénédicte Shawky-Milcent advocate the development of self-portraits of readers that help teachers to better understand students’ reading difficulties or preferences. It’s a practice that has personally brought me a lot.

Thus, my students in difficulty can describe very finely the obstacles that they feel towards the books, like Alexander in 2018 who affirmed: “I do not feel anything in a book whereas before an animation I arrive in certain cases to be the hero , to feel like him “, or Lilian who described his difficulty in putting a face on the characters of a novel.

We must help these students to create their own images of readers. The reader’s notebooks, which are kept as a diary of personal impressions, as you read, can be of great help.

Class projects

The writings of appropriation around the reading of the complete works in high school can become real class adventures, when one makes of them collaborative projects, by mixing with the reading the pleasure of the invention.

This year, I proposed to my second year students a challenge: that of “Saving Boule de Suif” – prostitute heroine of the famous Maupassant news that sacrifices itself for its fellow travelers but only incurs their contempt. It was for the students to write alternative outcomes, in different places of Maupassant news. How could “Tallow Ball” survive? This is also an exercise that raises ethical questions: could she not be persuaded by the count? Could she escape during baptism?

The students, interventionists, determined the fragility of the plot to deflect and save the heroine. The set gave an interactive book online. Last year, with fantasy, we wondered what would have happened if the Internet had existed in the time of Bel-Ami , the character of Maupassant: a project that led students to read the novel. They created character accounts on social networks, they fully transposed the novel into the world of the digital age with a lot of motivation.

We also created with students from first the true-false records of Journey to the end of the night , Celine: I was actually impressed at the creativity of students. Another year, to facilitate the creation of personal images in the reading of the Years of Annie Ernaux, we created a collaborative album of images, from quotations from the book, which we then sent to the author. And the most wonderful thing is that she answered us.

Many of us believe that appropriation projects can be a decisive aid to reading. Just check out i-voix , Jean-Michel Le Baut’s wonderful blog at the Iroise High School in Brest or the superb Britannicus-blog from Charlie Chaplin High School in Décines.

These practices do not imply any lowering of the requirements, nor the abandonment of the canonical exercises of the commentary or the dissertation, on the contrary, since they allow a lively reading of the works on the program, and thus favor the pleasure of reading, but also the memorization of works. They also develop an aesthetic and ethical conscience.

Author Bio: Françoise Cahen is Associate Professor of Modern Letters, Academic Trainer and Doctoral Student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris 3 – USPC