- The "Great Knock" Method of Teaching Reading
Above all his other attributes, C. S. Lewis was a master teacher. Whatever he learned, he was able to teach, either directly through instruction or indirectly through writing. Ultimately a don at Oxford and Cambridge, Lewis's own education had been a near disaster—until he fell under the tutelage of the "Great Knock," the teacher's teacher.
Dubbed the "Great Knock" by the Lewis men (C. S. Lewis, Warren Lewis, and their father), William T. Kirkpatrick (1848-1921) had been the headmaster of Lurgan College in England, which Lewis's father had attended. After retiring, Kirkpatrick and his wife moved to the village of Great Bookham in Surrey where they took in occasional boarding students to be tutored for university entrance exams. C. S. Lewis was one of those fortunate few.
After arriving on Saturday, September 9, 1914, Lewis was informed by Kirkpatrick that they would begin Homer on Monday. Having studied Greek only in the Attic dialect, Lewis assumed that they would approach Homer through some preliminary lessons on the Epic language. He was wrong. As described in Lewis's spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, on the following Monday, he was introduced to the Great Knock's method of teaching reading, in this instance, of Greek.
We opened our books at Iliad, Book I. Without a word of introduction Knock read aloud the first twenty lines or so in the "new" pronunciation which I had never heard before. . . . He then translated, with a few, a very few explanations, about a hundred lines. When he had finished he handed me over Crusius' Lexicon and, having told me to go through again as much as I could of what he had done, left the room. It seems an odd method of teaching, but it worked. At first I could travel only a very short way along the trail he had blazed, but every day I could travel further. Presently I could travel the whole way. Then I could go a line or two beyond his furthest North. Then it became a kind of game to see how far beyond. He appeared at this stage to value speed more than absolute accuracy. The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language.(8) [End Page 134]
Separated by time, space, and culture, that quiet solitary young man in a small upstairs study in Surrey would appear to be unfathomably remote from boisterous groups of black children in Atlanta's inner-city over sixty years later. The differences are not vast, however. The inner-city children have much in common with the young Lewis, not the least of which is inferior elementary schools. They ultimately also share a common teacher—the Great Knock. No one would be more surprised to hear this than that crusty old atheist himself, William T. Kirkpatrick. Great teachers can cast very long shadows indeed.
One Monday in 1977, I found myself in a school library surrounded by hordes of the aforementioned children pondering the Great Knock. How I found myself there was by embarking on a decidedly quixotic educational quest. I had decided that children's literature, usually taught at the undergraduate and graduate level, should be taught in elementary schools, and that I would do it. I arrived at this temeritous conclusion by a tortuous route.
When I began teaching in 1961, I was fully committed to being a classroom teacher; I just had difficulty deciding which grade level I most wanted to teach. I also had the great good fortune to be teaching at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta. The administration of this independent school tolerantly allowed me to change grade levels from year to year. After little more than a decade, I had taught every primary grade from kindergarten through sixth except the second (and I may get to that one yet). The unforeseen result of this jumpy approach to teaching is that I acquired not a theoretical but a practical overview of elementary education. Because...