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Conversations in Literature

Stepping In

In a discussion of James Dickey's "The Lifeguard" and Frank O'Connor's "First Confession," the group talks about their impressions, intuitions, and hunches that help them gather information as they first enter a text. They also talk through sticking points when the information they encounter in the text fragments their envisionments, and demonstrate how they work collectively to rebuild them. Throughout, Dr. Langer clarifies and explains content and suggests ways to apply techniques in the classroom.


Imagine yourself entering a party. The first thing you do is scan the room, size things up, take a mental note of who you know, who is unfamiliar to you, the atmosphere, the noise level, what people are wearing, who is talking with whom, and where you might first enter the party, either by helping yourself to a refreshment or by saying “hello” to someone you have not seen in some time. Because it is a party, you are aware that people are going to be more relaxed than in a formal business setting, and the expectation is to enjoy yourself, socialize, and sample appetizers.

This very same intuitive mental process occurs for readers each time they pick up a text, whether it is a poem, a short story, or a novel. When readers are stepping into a text, they attempt to acquaint themselves with it by gathering information, making hunches, and predicting what will happen next. This process happens not only as readers begin a text, but also when readers encounter new information that confounds them or when they discover a new realization that alters their original envisionment. Here, readers are thrown outside the text, and need to reshape their envisionment. When readers step into the text, it is also a time for them to attempt to gather information about story elements, while at the same time connecting that information to what they already know and to their own life experiences. For instance, if a piece is set during the Great Depression, the reader can immediately call up knowledge about that era and other experiences related to the topic and then connect the information to the literature, asking themselves what to expect from the characters and the challenges they face during that time period. Here, readers build a sketch or beginning point, as the envisionment they have developed is very thin.

Some of the questions that readers mentally ask themselves when stepping into the text might include:

  • What is the title and what does it suggest? Can I make any predictions based on the title?
  • Who is the author and what do I already know about his/her writing? What can I expect from this author?
  • What does the book jacket suggest about the story? What predictions can I make about the story based on the illustrations or the teaser on the cover?
  • Who are the characters and what are they like? What can I expect from them in the future?
  • What time period does this take place? What do I already know about this era that can inform my understanding?
  • Where does this story or poem take place and how might this impact the piece?
  • What is the shape of this piece and what does this tell me about the text?
  • What genre is this text and how does that impact what I can expect to encounter in the piece?
  • How is this story similar to something I have already experienced?

It is helpful for teachers to become aware of the stances as a way to support the processes readers go through as they make meaning of what they read. Understanding what good readers do as they step into a text allows teachers to strategically design instruction, so that students successfully experience the process of building their own envisionment. As student readers become more savvy, this will be a natural step in their own reading discovery process.

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

Key Points

  • Being Out and Stepping In occurs when readers are entering the literary experience, beginning to create their envisionment. This process begins from the moment the reader encounters the text.
  • All readers approach a text or Step Into a text by gathering clues and predicting what the piece will be about.
  • Readers may go back to Being Out and Stepping In if their envisionment has been proven wrong, based on new information or if it does not make sense. Then readers may need to rebuild that initial hunch and begin the process again.
  • Readers’ personal background knowledge and life experiences impact how they step into a text.
  • The tentative first steps readers take as they enter a text and the hunches they have about where they are going directly mirror the first steps writers often take to process an experience or idea.
  • The first impressions readers gather in this stance often stay with them throughout the reading experience. The impressions become an early road map that they constantly refine, expand, reject, or reconfirm as they continue reading and reflecting on the experience.
  • Readers need to have permission to try out initial ideas, refine some, and rethink others as they move forward within a text. They need to know that they are not just looking for an “accepted” interpretation, that posing questions are part of the process, and that answers to those questions can be multiple.
  • The classroom literary community plays a significant role for readers as they attempt to step into a text. For readers who have difficulties stepping into a text because of unfamiliar subject matter or because it is different from what they know, the community can help them make sense of the text. Many times, a question serves as a catalyst for the reader to enter the text.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, participants will be able to:

  • Identify the process readers go through as they approach, enter, and access a text for the first time.
  • Understand the process readers go through when they are thrown out of the text, either because they are confounded by new information or because new information radically changes their original envisionment.
  • Utilize and understand strategies for helping students approach, enter, and access texts.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, 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 already done so, you may also want to read Chapter 2, “Building Envisionments,” pages 9-16 in Envisioning Literature by Dr. Judith Langer. This excerpt explains the process of building envisionments and gives an overview of the stance Being Out and Stepping In.

For other resources, look under Additional Reading.


Homework Assignment

Journal: List three ways that you as a teacher can help students enter a text for the first time.

Reading: In preparation for Workshop 4, you may want to read the poem “Lost Sister,” by Cathy Song and the short story “All Gone,” by Stephen Dixon. 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.

Some online resources related to the featured texts include:

Poem: “Lost Sister” by Cathy Song

Short Story: “All Gone” by Stephen Dixon

Within the workshop session, you will be reading the poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem can also be found in the anthology mentioned above. Some online texts and resources related to the poem and author include:

If you have not already, you may also want to read Chapter 2, “Building Envisionments,” pages 9-17, in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature. This excerpt examines the process of envisionment building and defines the stance Being In and Moving Through an Envisionment.


Extension: Classroom Connection

You may want to try this activity back in the classroom.


  • In the video program, you saw the modeling of a think aloud, where readers verbalize their internal thoughts as they approach a text and begin the envisionment-building process. Consider conducting a think aloud with your own students. Start by modeling the process for the students, and then allow them to try it on their own in small discussion groups. See Activity Three from Workshop 2’s Classroom Connection for more information. Use the Activity Sheet: Think Aloud Teacher Resource [click here for a PDF version], the Sample Think Aloud Response to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” [click here for a PDF version], and the Activity Sheet: Student Think Aloud [click here for a PDF version] from Workshop 2 to assist you in this activity.
  • After the think aloud experience, ask the students to make a list of items to think about when approaching a piece of literature for the first time and for the beginning of a reading experience. What kinds of questions can they ask themselves before they begin to read a text and as they read? Post this list of ideas where all students can refer to it easily.

Additional Reading

An article by Dr. 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.

A clear explanation of the entire envisionment process, with actual classroom examples of the types of responses students offer as they stand in various stances.

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

Additional reports and articles about envisionment building.