Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Making Meaning in Literature Grades 6-8
Conversations in Literature — Workshop

About Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

Individual Clip Descriptions

1. Introducing the Envisionment-Building Classroom
2. Building a Literary Community
3. Asking Questions
4. Facilitating Discussion
5. Seminar Discussion
6. Dramatic Tableaux
7. Readers as Individuals
8. The Teacher’s Role in a Literary Community
9. Whole Group Discussions




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Point of Reference

When the purpose of reading is primarily for discursive purposes — to share or gain information (as when students read science and social studies texts), the reader's orientation can be characterized as "maintaining a point of reference." In this orientation toward meaning, from early on, readers (and writers) attempt to establish a sense of the topic or point being made (or to be made in their own writing). Once established, this sense of the whole becomes a relatively steady reference point. Unlike the frequent reconsiderations of the possibilities done during a literary reading, in this case, students attempt to build upon, clarify, or modify their momentary understandings — but rarely change their overall sense of the topic. Their sense of the whole changes only when a substantial amount of countervailing evidence leads them to rethink how what they are reading or writing "holds together."

There is thus an essential difference between the two orientations toward meaning, a difference that can have a substantive effect on our understanding of critical thinking in education. While questions are raised in both literary and discursive approaches to understanding, it is the ways in which the questions are asked — where they emanate from and how they are treated - that mark the essential distinctions.

The exploration of horizons of possibilities lies at the heart of a literary experience. Here, use of the word "horizon" is critical, referring to the fact that horizons never lead to endings but continually advance; whenever a person (reader) takes a step towards the horizon (moving toward closure), the horizon itself shifts (and other possibilities are revealed for the reader to explore). Continually raising questions about the implications and undersides of what one understands (and using those musings to reconstrue where the piece might go) precludes closure and invites ambiguity. It can be argued that questions are at the heart of discursive thinking as well, and this is certainly the case. However, the reasons why those questions are asked differ, thus affecting the individual's cognitive orientation. For example, scientific researchers usually consider their studies to be best if their initial questions lead to other questions - research is as much to generate questions as to uncover answers. However, the underlying purpose of the researcher's questions is to narrow the gap between what is known and what is not about a field of inquiry, to move toward some form of closure, although true closure rarely occurs; it generally is yet another question that will help move thinking along. Thus, although "full" knowledge may never be reached, and successive questions may sometimes seem to muddy rather than elucidate what is known by pointing toward more complexities, the far off goal is the explication of knowledge. Here is the essential difference from a literary orientation where the musing itself is the goal.

Although I have been discussing the two orientations toward meaning in extreme terms, as if they were dichotomous, in actuality neither orientation operates alone, completely independent of the other. Instead, as suggested earlier, together they provide alternative ways of sense-making that can be called upon when needed. Although both purposes, literary and discursive, generally interplay in a variety of ways during any one experience, each situation seems to have a primary purpose, with the others being secondary. For example, when writing a paper providing important historical details on the Gulf war (involving a discursive orientation), a student might momentarily slip into a literary orientation - get caught up in describing the day-to-day life experiences of a member of an oil clean-up crew or of a woman soldier who had to leave her newborn when called up from the reserves — although most of the paper presents details and commentary on the war itself. Conversely, when writing from a literary orientation about a soldier or clean-up crew member (by portraying the personal lived-through experiences of the people, their relationships - their joys and tragedies) the student may at times "step out" of the living text she or he is creating and momentarily assume a discursive orientation in order to provide specific and accurate information about the details of the bombings, or the world's reaction to Saddam's dumping oil into the Gulf. In each case, it is the primary purpose that shapes the student's overall orientation to the shape of the piece, but it is the interplay of the two that can add richness to the understanding that results.

However, research indicates that literature is usually taught and tested in a nonliterary manner, as if there is one right answer arrived at through point-of-reference reading or writing. Arthur Applebee's Literature Center study of English classes across the United States (1993) indicates that literature is often taught as if there is a point or predetermined interpretation the reader must build toward, or as a literal reworking of the plot line from start to finish — with no room for the students' explorations to be sanctioned or to take form.

Similarly, in history classes, even where the goal is to introduce literature into the curriculum, literary narratives are often used exclusively to mine information. For example, students are rarely given the opportunity to "live through" the polar expeditions of the arctic explorer or to "feel" the living conditions described by Isabel Allende, William Faulkner, Athol Fugard, Barbara Kingsolver, Zora Neale Hurston, Nadine Gordimer, Betty Bao Lord, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Alice Walker, and therefore to explore the possibilities involved in the worlds they create.

The same too often also holds true in "literature-based" primary grade classes (Walmsley & Walp 1989) where trade book stories are basalized, with detail questions retracing the story line instead of using students' shared questions and developing interpretations as the primary focus of the lesson.

Alan Purves' studies at the Literature Center (e.g., Brody, DeMilo, & Purves, 1989) indicate that literature tests (in anthologies, statewide assessments, SAT's, and achievement tests of all sorts) treat literature as content, with a factual right answer rather than with possibilities to ponder and interpretations to develop and question and defend. His favorite multiple choice literature question, typical of those in many large-scale assessment tests, is: "Huck Finn is a good boy. True or False." Such items call for superficial readings rather than thoughtful interpretations, or the weighing of alternative views.

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