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Conversations in Literature

Envisioning

Dr. Langer explains the four vantage points that effective readers take as they build "envisionments," and the research process through which she identified them. She explains how each vantage point, or "stance" — being outside and stepping into an envisionment, being in and moving through an envisionment, stepping out and rethinking what one knows, and stepping out and objectifying the experience — contributes to an evolving and expansive understanding of the text. The stances are demonstrated as the readers discuss Gary Soto's poem "Oranges."

Introduction

What actually happens when readers encounter a text for the first time? How do they make sense of it and what processes do their brains go through as they get further immersed in the literature? Why are some readers successful and others are not? More importantly, how does our teaching impact the success of readers?

Dr. Judith Langer spent more than eight years studying these questions. She discovered that readers who have close transactions with text take a journey in the text world as they read. She describes the process these effective readers go through as envisionment building. Competent readers build envisionments, or their own understandings of the text, by moving through a variety of stances. Stances are options that allow readers to gather information, make personal connections, reflect upon their own lives, and critique and analyze the craft of the author and their experiences with the text. These options occur throughout the reading process, in a random sequence.

In this second workshop program in the series of eight, Dr. Langer defines the process of envisionment building, examines the stances or positions readers take in relationship to the text, and comments on the implications this research has on classroom practices. Panelists also comment on their own reading experiences and journeys with text as they build envisionments. They celebrate these journeys together as they talk about the ways their discussions helped them form closer, personal transactions with a variety of literary texts.

For a complete guide to the workshop session activities, download and print our support materials.

Key Points

  • Effective readers engage in a close transaction with text, totally immersing themselves in the text world.
  • Envisionments are text worlds in your mind full of a vast horizon of possibilities. Successful readers actively live in these text worlds during their reading experience and through it build rich literary understandings.
  • While all readers create meaning by unconsciously utilizing the envisionment-building process, less successful readers have difficulties applying these skills to what they read in order to create a rich interaction with the text.
  • The term stance refers to a mental process that readers employ in order to make meaning out of what they read, no matter what reading ability they have achieved. Stances reflect the way readers stand in relationship to the text at any given point in reading. Effective readers adapt four basic stances as needed, creating their own unified understanding of the text.
  • Envisionment building is not a teaching method imposed on readers, but rather it describes how successful readers interact with texts and suggests ways to help students build competence.
  • Research demonstrates that many language arts instructional practices are based on the premise that literary texts are seen as sources of information to be mined, rather than as text worlds that invite interaction and reflection. Many teachers have been taught this way and trained to teach this way. Thus, techniques such as gathering plot summaries and searching for the best interpretation of the text have often been ingrained in their pedagogical practices. Yet, teachers want their students to have rich literary experiences, and they need to find new ways to accomplish that.
  • Teachers can help students grow as envisionment builders by creating literary communities that allow for thoughtful discussions by providing opportunities for students to think about text in multiple ways, from a wide assortment of perspectives.

The Four Stances:

Being Out and Stepping Into an Envisionment
When readers step into the text world, they search for clues in order to form initial impressions about the literature and their journey through it. Readers stand in this position from the first moment they pick up the book. This relationship to the text also occurs when readers are confounded by new information in the text, and are then forced to return to this stance to clarify or adjust an envisionment.

Being In and Moving Through an Envisionment
Being In and Moving Through text allows readers to connect personal experiences and background knowledge to the text world. Here, readers move through the text world, observing the lives of the characters, breathing in the setting, conflicts and dilemmas, and wondering what they might do if they were in the characters’ situations. Readers become part of the text world through their own cognitive journey. As they take multiple perspectives and consider possibilities, their understandings deepen.

Stepping Out and Rethinking What One Knows
When readers Step Out and Rethink, they use the text as an opportunity to reconsider aspects of their own lives, reflecting upon decisions, experiences, and dilemmas. This is one of the most powerful reasons we read literature — to understand ourselves and the world around us better. In this stance, readers have an opportunity to examine their past lives, their present lives, and the lives that lie ahead of them.

Stepping Out and Objectifying the Experience
This stance provides readers with the opportunities to critique the text as a literary work, analyzing the author’s craft, use of imagery, language, structure and allusions and objectifying their interpretations of the text. In this position, readers have the opportunity to see how the literary elements relate to the whole work’s meaning, as well as how the work relates to other texts.

Principles of an Envisionment-Building Classroom:

  • Students are treated as life-long envisionment builders.
  • Questions are treated as part of the literary experience.
  • Class meetings are a time to develop understandings.
  • Multiple perspectives are used to enrich interpretation.

Teachers can offer support to students as they grow as envisionment builders by:

  • Providing framed questions that provoke students to respond to text in multiple ways.
  • Building a literary community of engaged readers where mutual respect is the basis. Here, students have respect for the text, for one another, and for the unique perspectives that each community member offers, and for well-developed and well-explained interpretations.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, participants will be able to: 

  • Reflect upon their own experiences in school, both as students reading literature and as teachers instructing students how to read literature.
  • Understand how the stances in the envisionment-building process work cohesively and recursively in providing an opportunity to create a rich understanding of literature for all students.
  • Identify the hallmarks of an envisionment-building classroom and the support strategies teachers can utilize to foster such an environment.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, you may want to read the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto, which can be found in the anthology Literature: An Introduction To Reading and Writing, 5th edition, Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, 1998, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-010076-5.

Additional online resources related to the author include:

You may also want to read Chapter 2, “Building Envisionments,” as well as Chapter 4, “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building,” and Chapter 5, “A Practical Pedagogy” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature. (Envisioning Literature by Dr. Judith Langer, from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

For other resources, look under Additional Reading.

 

Homework Assignment

Journal: Reflect upon your own classroom and instructional practices. What elements of your classroom community are already supporting the envisionment-building process? What else can you do to create an envisionment-building literary community?

Reading: In preparation for Workshop 3, you may want to read the poem “The Lifeguard” by James Dickey and the short story “First Confession” by Frank O’Connor. Literature selections can be found in Literature: An Introduction To Reading and Writing, 5th edition, Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, ©1998, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-010076-5.

You may want to consult the following online resources for more information:

Poem: “The Lifeguard” by James Dickey

Short Story: “First Confession” by Frank O’Connor

Within the workshop session, you will be reading the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” which can be found in the anthology Literature: An Introduction To Reading and Writing, 5th edition, Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, © 1998, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-010076-5.

For online resources related to Langston Hughes and his poetry visit:

If you have not alreadydone so, you may also want to read Chapter 2, “Building Envisionments,” pages 9-16 in Envisioning Literature by Dr. Judith Langer. (Envisioning Literature by Dr. Judith Langer, from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.) This excerpt explains the process of building envisionments and gives an overview of the stance Being Out and Stepping In.

Extension: Classroom Connection

You may want to try these activities back in the classroom.

Activities: Build a Literary Community

Activity One: Discussion Guidelines
Begin to build your own literary community. Consider creating classroom discussion guidelines in collaboration with your students. Guide your students towards the concepts of mutual respect, the value of unique perspectives, and respect for the text. Help your students to consider what is appropriate to say in a discussion and what is not. How should students respond to one another? Try small brainstorming groups and then offer a “gallery walk.” Here, groups of students can walk around the room and post their ideas on large pieces of poster paper.

As each group rotates to the next station, they can add to the ideas already posted by the previous group. Each key topic from the Sample Discussion Guidelines can be used for creating each station, including “Attitudes,” “Behaviors: Come Prepared,” “Behaviors: Respond Appropriately,” and “Thinking.” To wrap up the activity, review ideas posted, consult with the students about what is missing or what can be combined, and then collaboratively create a master list of guidelines for classroom posting. When creating the master list, encourage students to select the most essential points to keep the final guidelines manageable. Utilize the Sample Discussion Guidelines as a teacher resource for facilitating this activity. [Click here for a PDF version]

Activity Two: Literary Hunt
Create a literary hunt for the purpose of giving students an opportunity to get to know one another and their literary interests. Create pre-assigned heterogeneous groups of four students each. Ask students to pair up with someone in their group and interview one another, using the Literary Hunt Activity Sheet.[Click here for a PDF version.] Provide students with time to interview one another. Before the students begin, explain to them that they will be asked to introduce their partner to their group, so they should listen closely.

As an extension to this activity, the teacher may ask groups to focus on how they will share what they have learned about their group members. Members could consider the following: What experiences do members of the group have in common? What differences helped you to understand one another? What important things did you learn? As a culminating activity, ask students to reflect on their experiences in their classroom journals. Students might consider what they learned from the experience, what surprised them, and maybe something they learned about themselves from participating in the activities. Overall, these activities will allow students to learn about one another, beginning the foundation for mutual respect in the classroom literary community.

Activity Three: Think Aloud
A think aloud is an activity where the reader verbalizes their internal thoughts during the envisionment-building process. From the moment the reader approaches the text, they share their thoughts, questions, and hunches out loud. The teacher may want to model the process with a short poem or a small compact passage of fiction. Refer to the Activity Sheet: Think Aloud Teacher Resource [click here for a PDF version] and the Sample Think Aloud Response to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” [click here for a PDF version.] to help you model the process.

After modeling the process, select an additional passage for modeling with student input. You may want to hand out copies of the Activity Sheet: Student Think Aloud [click here for a PDF version] for this purpose. In this activity, the teacher should ask students to jot down their thoughts and questions as the teacher pauses between sentences during a read aloud. It is ideal for the students to have a copy of the passage in front of them.

Encourage students to pose questions, connect personal experiences, and reflect on what the text initially means to them. Tell students that the think aloud process invites reader interruptions, giving them an opportunity to interact with the text. After the second think aloud model, share student responses and questions so that everyone can see how others react to the literature. Next, ask students to work in pairs. Again, select a think aloud passage for the students. Ask them to take turns reading a few lines and verbalizing their thoughts. Students should be encouraged to share the reading and verbalizing responsibilities.

As you observe the many pairs, you may need to coach the students by posing thought-provoking questions to move their thinking along. These activities will give students an opportunity to become aware of what and how they and others think and how they have options for further enriching their ideas.

Think Aloud Resources:

Sample Discussion Guidelines: Building a Literary Community

Teacher Resource

Here are some suggested guidelines to consider as you begin to build your own literary community with your students. Paramount to creating a viable classroom literary community is the opportunity for students to take ownership of the classroom environment they help to create. Consider the following ideas as you create discussion guidelines in concert with your students:

Attitudes

  • All contributions are valuable and deserving of respectful attention.
  • There is no such thing as a “bad idea.” But some ideas do not hold up. Help one another to explain, reflect, and evaluate ideas to determine what works and what needs to be revised.
  • There are many interpretations of literature and hearing others’ views helps us develop our own understandings.
  • Questions are essential in the process of understanding literature.
  • You may express opinions about a piece of literature as long as you can also explain your reasons for your opinions.
  • Understandings of literature are constantly open to change, revision, and debate.
  • It is O.K. to not like a piece of literature, as long as you have reasons why.
  • It is O.K. to not understand something, but you should also remain open to possible understandings in the future, built through discussion and further reading.

Behaviors

  • Come Prepared
    • Read and think about the piece
    • Bring questions
    • Bring your book and any assigned writing
  • Respond Appropriately
    • Address your responses to classmates by using eye contact and not necessarily to the teacher.
    • Do not put down another person’s idea.
    • Ask questions when you don’t understand someone’s viewpoint and when you are curious about something.
    • Disagree politely, providing examples to back up your own opinion.
    • Continue to raise questions about the text, related texts, experiences, and possible interpretations.
    • Refer to significant passages that confused you, inspired you, or just struck you.
    • Discuss the author’s craft and what about it worked or did not and why.

Thinking

  • Respect each individual’s idea by listening, responding appropriately, and by thinking about what they have to say.
  • Every time you think about the literature, discuss it, and interact with it. Expect that your interpretation is going to change or evolve.
  • There is no “right” or “single” interpretation of a work of literature. But this does not mean “anything goes.”
  • Questions are just as important as answers and ideas. You can learn from your questions. Good questions provoke discussion and exploration and can lead to sharpened understanding.
  • Examine what it might be like to “walk in a character’s shoes.”
  • Use examples from your own life experiences, in order to connect to the reading, as well as to explain your perspective.
  • Think about what you can learn from the reading or what the reading has taught you about your own life. Share these ideas.
  • Refer to passages that you find significant.
  • Think about if the text inspired you? Confused you? Did you like the style of the passage?
  • Consider how the style of the writing affected your reading and your interpretation of it.
  • Continue to raise new questions.

Activity Sheet: Literary Hunt

Activity One:
Directions: The goal of this activity is to get to know your classmates and their literature experiences. By interviewing one classmate in your assigned group, you will learn something new about yourself and someone else. Use the list of questions below to get started. You will be asked to share what you learned with the other members of your group and with the whole class, so listen carefully!

1. What is your all-time favorite book, short story, article, or poem and why? What made this work so memorable for you?

2. Who is your favorite character from a work of fiction and why? Why do you remember this character? If you cannot think of a character from literature, consider a character from a movie or television program.

3. What type of reading do you most enjoy and why?

4. Where do you do most of your “pleasure” reading outside of school? Describe the place you like to read and why you enjoy it so much.

5. If you could walk in the shoes of any fictional character, who would it be and why?

6. What is your least favorite book? What caused you to feel this way about the book?

Activity Two:
Directions: After your group is finished interviewing one another, introduce the person you interviewed to the rest of the group. Everyone must listen closely, as you will be expected to report your group’s findings to the rest of the class.

Activity Three:
Directions: After everyone in the group has had an opportunity to introduce their partner, focus on how you will share what you have learned about each group member to the whole class. Consider the following:

  • What experiences do members of the group have in common?
  • What differences helped you to understand one another?
  • What important things did you learn about one another? About yourself?

Activity Four:
Reflect upon your experiences today in your classroom journals. Consider what you learned from the experience, what surprised you, and maybe something you learned about yourself from participating in the activities.

Activity Sheet: Think Aloud Teacher Resource

A Think Aloud is an activity where readers verbalize their internal thoughts while building an understanding of what they are reading. This process of figuring out what the text means begins from the very moment readers pick up a book and glance at its title. Readers’ thoughts might include questions, connections to personal experiences and past reading experiences, judgments of the author’s writing, as well as thoughts about their lives. Consider the following leading questions and statements as you prepare to model a Think Aloud for your students:

When you first approach the text:

  • What does the title mean?
  • This reminds me of__
  • I’ve heard of this__
  • The title__
  • This author is known for__

Throughout your reading:

  • I predict that this will be about__
  • I predict that the character will__
  • I am surprised by__because__
  • I am confused by__
  • Why didn’t the character__
  • I imagine the character to be like__
  • I’ve had experiences similar to__ I have read something similar to this before
  • This type of literature usually__
  • What happened__ . When__ . I didn’t get it.
  • This is different from what I expected
  • I originally thought__ , but now I think__ because__
  • I particularly like the phrase/ word/ image __
  • I did not understand__
  • This reminds me of __
  • This literature makes me wonder if I made the right decision when__
  • It must be easy/difficult/interesting to be that character, because__
  • I would/not want to be that character’s friend because__
  • I imagine the town/setting/place/house/etc. to be like__. I think this because__
  • Why did the story turn in that direction or why did the author choose to shape it that way?
  • The word choices of the author are__

After Reading

  • My overall opinion/reaction to the story/passage is__
  • Some points I still did not understand are__
  • Some questions/concerns I would like to discuss include__
  • Some connections with my own experiences (reading and life experiences) are__
  • The author built a believable story because__
  • From this literature, I have learned that__
  • This piece makes the following statement about society or culture:

Activity Sheet: Think Aloud

Explanation:
A think aloud is a stream-of-consciousness activity where readers offer their first thoughts and impressions as they encounter a text. Using the think aloud approach, readers verbalize their internal thoughts as they begin to make meaning out of a text.

Process:
Start by considering the leading statements and questions below, before you begin your own think aloud. Then, read aloud segments or lines (if it is poetry). As you read through the text, verbalize your thoughts. After a think aloud, discuss initial impressions and receive feedback from the classroom community.

Leading Statements/Questions:

  • The title makes me think of__and the following comes to mind__
  • Based on the title, I predict that__
  • The author is familiar/unfamiliar. I expect__or don’t know what to expect
  • I have had similar/dissimilar experiences to the ones portrayed in the text and I can relate.
  • I predict__because__
  • Based on the genre of the work, I predict that__
  • This reminds me of__
  • The shape of the text on the page represents or makes me think of__
  • Some words that stand out: because__
  • When I read this passage I imagine the scene to look like__and the characters to look like__
  • I am confused by__because__
  • I wonder if__
  • Why__?
  • I’m not sure what this word means: __
  • This doesn’t make sense to me because__
  • I think the story is about__
  • What might happen next is…

Additional Reading

An article by Judith Langer, “A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature.” Here, Dr. Langer offers guidelines for instruction and a framework for teaching strategies that support an envisionment-building classroom.

Dr. Judith Langer’s article “Discussion Exploration: Literature and the Horizon of Possibilities.” This article explores how the teacher can frame discussion and move along students’ critical thinking and exploration of a horizon of possibilities in envisionment building.

A comprehensive summary of Dr. Judith Langer’s research and the envisionment building process entitled “Thinking and Doing Literature.”

An article by Betty Close, a participant in Judith Langer’s study. Here Close reflects upon her experiences in the classroom, how envisionment building impacted her own teaching and students’ learning experiences.

Additional reports and articles about envisionment building.

A guidelines booklet on “Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well.” This practical guide offers six effective features of successful instruction.

The article “How English is Taught and Learned in Four Exemplary Middle and High School Classrooms,” by Steven Ostrowski. The researcher examined several classrooms, noting how instructional practices in the classroom assist students in higher levels of achievement.

Doralyn R. Roberts and Judith Langer’s report “Supporting the Process of Literary Understanding: Analysis of a Classroom Discussion.” Roberts and Langer analyze a classroom literature discussion where students are immersed in their own text interpretations.

Workshop