High School World Literature: A Thematic Approach

High School World Literature: What to Cut?

“World literature” can mean literally any book ever written. The hard part of planning a world literature class is narrowing the focus: Do we cover antiquity to the present? Do we focus on broad world-wide representation? Do we read “the classics” (European classics, that is) that haven’t already been covered in British literature? Do we read modern American books that are written by authors with global backgrounds (i.e. non-European)?

What to do? My advice for British lit is even more applicable here because the difficulty is choosing what not to teach even more than what to teach. Know your students, first and foremost. Perhaps more than with any other high school literature class, knowing your students is critical for world literature because the sky’s the limit. How old are your students? What have they already read? What year is this course for them? (Is this an introductory course or have they already grappled with Shakespeare and Dickens?) Is this an elective or a requirement? Etc.

Know your goals for your class. Are you teaching at a school with an established book list that you need to follow? Trying to imitate what other schools in your area are covering? Preparing students for an AP exam? Do some research. The formerly standard titles for world literature are no longer standard. Increasingly, I’m seeing lists at public schools reflect what’s hot and what’s not in today’s literature canon; titles like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Kite Runner instead of The Odyssey or Crime and Punishment are cropping up. Knowing your goals before you create a book list will help you pick and choose more intelligently.

Finally, be willing to change things up: read some titles aloud. Watch a movie. Vary the genres. Don’t read what everyone else is reading if it’s not right for your students. Do be willing to challenge them.

High School World Literature: A Thematic Approach

I’ll be teaching world literature at my local homeschool co-op this year. Some moms want me to teach the great epics because I read them for fun whereas they’re scared of them. My director suggested choosing 10-12 titles. I recommended the class for 11th-12th graders, but I know I have some 9th graders in the mix. So… what to do? Many of my students have never read an epic poem. Some of them don’t even like to read (I’ll reassure them that I still love them). 10-12 works of world literature can get pretty heavy pretty quickly.

I decided to approach world literature thematically, reading some of the great works of antiquity and then jumping all the way forward to the 20th century. That allows me to cover some non-Western perspectives, to show students that we’re still writing about the same ideas, and to work in some shorter works.

World Literature Survey Course

My goal is a world literature course that zeroes in on worldview and each author’s context. Incidentally, this is a very traditional method of literary criticism, but it’s fallen out of favor in contemporary academia. Rather than reading chronologically, we’ll pair old and new works together thematically. That will help break up the reading, and it should prompt some interesting discussion. We will focus on the following skills, themes, and ideas as we read:

  • Learn to discern worldview in the works, the culture, and the time periods we study.
  • Gain an understanding of, and appreciation for, the great Western classics of antiquity.
  • Grow in our ability to conduct literary analysis of different genres, particularly through the Socratic method.
  • And, examine the “-ty” ideas that authors have been writing about since Genesis: piety, society, masculinity, femininity, authority, docility, domesticity, community, hospitality, etc.

Fine print: this is not a published curriculum. I do not claim any authority to say what “counts” for a high school world literature credit, I cannot promise the list below will work for your situation, and I am not claiming that this course is better than one of the many excellent pre-packaged world literature curricula on the market. But I do urge you to examine what your children and students are expected to read. Know your children and students, and do not feel obligated to read a book just because you feel like you “should,” especially if you think it unwise or unbiblical. Remember, we should read under grace, not law.

More fine print: Some links below are affiliate links; read our full disclosure for more information.

General and Reference Resources

Specific Literary Works

Summer Reading: The Iliad

The Iliad is foundational, but we can only dive into so many texts during the school year. Having a grasp of The Iliad will help students more fully understand Odysseus and Aeneas, whom they’ll meet again. The Iliad also helps set up a clear picture of ancient pagan worldviews, particularly in regards to heroism, warfare, and the Greek gods/goddesses.


20th (and 21st) CENTURY WORKS:

I tried for a variety of genres and cultural perspectives in this list.

cover of two old women


If I had tons of time and/or students who’d read a lot of these titles and/or needed extra project ideas, I’d offer some of these contemporary options, too.

What would YOU add or swap in for your own ideal high school world literature class? Tell us in the comments!

Teaching American literature instead? Here’s what I did with my students for American lit last year. And here’s what I planned for my British literature class.

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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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  1. Danielle on July 10, 2023 at 12:07 pm

    Love the Realms of Gold book. I’ve used several of these same titles in our homeschool co-op: The Odyssey and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Also, we’ve read Night and Things Fall Apart.

    • Betsy Farquhar on July 10, 2023 at 12:47 pm

      I considered both of those, especially Things Fall Apart. I decided it wasn’t the best fit for my current group, but it’s a title that deserves more attention. Very thought-provoking.

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