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

Introducing the Envisionment-Building Classroom

In this program, Dr. Langer describes the hallmarks of an envisionment–building classroom — a place where students, working at the highest levels of their ability, can experience literature and make meaning for themselves. Her comments are illustrated by classroom examples.

About This Video Clip

“The envisionment-building classroom looks and feels like a community of learners…[where students are] able to look to each other for information, for readings, for takes on the piece that they themselves might not have had.”
Judith Langer, Director
National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA)
State University of New York at Albany

Welcome to Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8! Produced by Maryland Public Television with funding provided by Annenberg Media, this nine-part video library is designed to help literature and language arts teachers in grades six to eight enhance the literary experiences of their students. This series overview introduces Dr. Judith Langer’s theory of literary envisionment and envisionment-building classrooms and invites us into real classrooms of real teachers to see how this theory plays out in practice with real students.

Like all good pedagogical theories, Dr. Langer’s theory of envisionment-building classrooms is philosophically concrete, yet allows for a widely diverse range of classroom practices. Grounded in key understandings about human beings as learners and as makers of meaning, the basic tenets of envisionment theory could productively underpin literature instruction in any classroom, at any grade level.

Dr. Langer identifies four central characteristics of the envisionment-building classroom:

  • Students are treated as life-long envisionment builders. Both teachers and students assume that students have been making sense all their lives. They have been hearing stories and creating stories. They have been building envisionments — worlds of understandings including images, questions, disagreements, anticipations, arguments, and hunches that fill the mind during every reading, writing, speaking, or listening experience — and they know how to create understandings. They know how to respond to pieces that they have heard, or read, or seen. And their ideas are at the center of the envisionment-building classroom.
  • Questions are at the center of the literary experience. These are real questions about things that people really want explained or want to know more about. While some of these questions may come from the teacher, many of them come from the students themselves as they expand their understandings of the literature. Teachers and students in envisionment-building classrooms know that making sense in literature involves asking questions.
  • Students are expected to develop and expand their understandings. Teachers and students assume that students come to class with understandings and interpretations based on the readings they did individually, but that these will not be final. Rather, these interpretations will be the beginning of provocative discussion that helps everybody develop richer and more complex understandings.
  • Students and teachers assume that multiple perspectives are useful. Envisionment-building classrooms encourage different points of view because multiple perspectives enhance interpretation. They lead to the development of more complex understandings of the text than any one individual is likely to reach alone. In the envisionment-building classroom, respectful conversation is a tool for exploring and testing these multiple points of view. It is understood that it is not always possible to reach a complete consensus about a literary work, although the group will probably agree on a number of shared points. This is quite different from the literature classroom in which a push for consensus is the norm, and one “best” interpretation is valued above all others.

Dr. Langer developed her understandings of envisionment-building and how it might play out in literature classrooms through years of research during which she and her colleagues looked at how good readers — including adults — grappled with, and made sense of, literary texts. In addition the researchers went into the classrooms of teachers around the United States — in urban schools, in suburban schools, and in rural schools — and tried to identify common characteristics of effective instruction. What they learned is distilled into the four tenets of envisionment-building theory listed above.

For resources that can help you use this clip for teacher professional development, preservice education, administrative and English/language arts content meetings, parent conferences, and back-to-school events, visit our Support Materials page. There you will find PDF files of our library guide, classroom lesson plan, student activity sheets, and other Teacher Tools.

Featured Texts

Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper
The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

The classrooms shown in this clip — and throughout this video library — use a number of different young adult titles. Those listed above are the books used in the classrooms focused on single titles. Refer to the portions of the guide featuring specific classrooms for detailed information about each title.

Often the students in these classes are asked to make their own reading selections. They may be given complete free choice as they often are in Ms. Rief’s class, or they may be asked to choose from a selected list based on theme, reading level, or availability. When choosing or recommending books for students, all the teachers profiled here seek titles that will engage students and challenge them in some way to think about their own lives and about the world they live in.

Classroom Snapshots

Schools: Eight different schools
Locations: Various across the United States
No. of Students in Schools: Between 125 and almost 2,000
Teachers: Various
Grades: 6th to 8th
Subject: Language Arts
No. of Students in Classrooms: Between 15 and 32

Schools: The schools in this video library are in geographically diverse locations across the United States. Some, like Joe Bernhart’s Houston classroom or Dorothy Franklin’s Chicago school, are in urban settings. Some are rural, such as Tanya Schnabl’s school in upstate New York and Barry Hoonan’s school on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. Others are in suburban locations. A wide variety of classrooms and teachers were chosen to help teachers everywhere see how envisionment-building might apply in their own locations.

Number of Students in Schools: The schools featured in the video library run from the small and intimate (125 students at the Odyssey School on Bainbridge Island) to schools accommodating more than 1,500 students (DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in Chicago with 1,600 and Howard A. Doolin Middle School with 1,980).

Teachers: The teachers reflect the diversity of their profession. Both male and female, they come from a range of racial and cultural backgrounds. Some are just beginning their careers. Others have 15 to 20 years experience (one has nearly 30) with students. All of them believe that every student is capable of learning and that it is their job to help learning happen.

Grades and Subject: All the teachers in this library teach language arts in grades 6-8.

Students: While some of the students portrayed in these classrooms come from middle-class economic backgrounds, a number qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; some children of migrant families at Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces, New Mexico live in shelters or other temporary housing. Students in these classes come with a wide range of reading levels (several teachers have students who read between first grade and college levels in the same classroom). As is perhaps typical of the nation as a whole, most of the schools work with students from diverse ethnic, cultural, and even language backgrounds. The K-6 population of DeWitt Clinton Elementary School in Chicago is primarily first-generation immigrants (Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Russian, or Bosnian) who speak more than 17 different languages. Fifty percent of the students test below grade level in their core subjects. At Stephen Decatur Middle School in Maryland, 30% of the students are minorities drawn from a nearby retirement community, a tourist destination, and a rural town.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Envisionment-Building in the Literature Classroom

This lesson plan is also available as a PDF file. See Materials Needed, below, for links to student activity sheets related to the lesson.

Teacher: Various

Grade Levels: Sixth through eighth

Topic: Reading and appreciating literature

Materials Needed:

  • Literature books for students; either a class set or selected titles from which students can choose
  • Sticky note pads for each student
  • Writer’s notebooks or other areas for written responses
  • Student Activity Sheets
    Read, Notice, and Wonder: A Guide to Literary Response (generic directions for encouraging student responses to literary texts)
  • Other materials as appropriate for specific titles (i.e. handouts for specific extension activities, copies of topically related poems or other short works, art materials, etc.)

Background Information:
This is a generic envisionment-building lesson that can be adapted to and used with any literary text. Its design reflects the key tenets of envisionment-building: 1) students are life-long envisionment builders whose ideas are at the center of the classroom; 2) questions are essential to envisionment-building; 3) students come to class after reading equipped with understandings about the literature. It is assumed that they will develop those understandings during class discussions; and 4) multiple interpretations of literary texts are to be expected and are helpful, both to the individual and to the class as a whole.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • read and enjoy literature.
  • use writer’s notebooks (or other forms of personal writing) to record their responses to their reading.
  • use sticky notes (or mark the text, if allowed) to indicate passages of interest, or areas about which they have questions.
  • participate in thoughtful discussions of the literature (in small groups and as an entire class) where they listen to and interact with one another about the interpretations they are developing.
  • develop fuller understandings of the literature through reflective writing, discussion, and other support activities.
  • use language to develop as a classroom community of thinkers and learners, respectful of views other than their own.
  • connect issues raised by the literature with their own lives.
  • create original products that demonstrate their understandings of the literature.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Regular written responses in writer’s notebooks; the Teacher Tool, Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments offers useful strategies
  • Regular use of sticky notes for comments, questions, and identification of specific passages
  • Various extension and support activities as appropriate (see other programs for specific suggestions)
  • A final product designed to help the students and the teacher evaluate the students’ understandings of the literature

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Student questioning
  • Class and small group discussions
  • Writing as a tool for making meaning
  • Teacher facilitation, guidance, and feedback
  • Use of drama and/or artistic activities to develop and broaden understandings

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Envisionment-building classes work well when the physical space is flexible and furniture can be rearranged to accommodate changing activities. Teachers directing whole class discussion might favor circular arrangements so students can talk with one another easily. Desk clusters of four or five serve small group discussions well. Linear rows of desks create an environment where easy conversation among peers is more difficult and where, as a result, a teacher has to overcome physical restrictions to keep student questions and ideas at the center of the literary experience.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:

  • Reading independently and in groups
  • Listening to oral reading
  • Writing responses to, and/or questions about the literature
  • Group discussion of the literature and the human issues it presents
  • Possible dramatic, poetic, and/or artistic presentation of ideas
  • Vocabulary development within the context of developing literary understandings

Follow-Up Activities or Culminating Activities:
Teachers typically wish to give students some sort of closure after extended engagement with a literary text. In addition, they may need a tool for formal evaluation at this time. Final projects, written formal papers, and oral reports are all possible means of addressing these needs. See the support materials for the various programs in this series to observe the choices these teachers made for their students.

Students may be assessed on a daily basis through:

  • preparation and participation, and
  • writer’s notebook entries.

The following activities might receive holistic or scaled evaluation (see Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles for a detailed explanation of holistic and scaled evaluation).

  • Responses to specific passages
  • Quality and quantity of writer’s notebook entries
  • Visual, poetic, or dramatic representations of passage or scene
  • Vocabulary activities
  • Formal paper in response to a literary work

Professional Reflection

Take a step back from your classroom and examine the video clip in relation to your own instructional practices. Use the questions below to spark discussion about instructional practices in department meetings, team meetings, or as a writing prompt in your own professional journal.


  • What questions do you have about envisionment-building and how it is implemented in the classroom?
  • What roles do you see the teachers in this video clip assuming?
  • How do these classrooms portray Langer’s four tenets of envisionment-building (students are life-long envisionment-builders, questions are central to the literary experience, students use class to build on the understandings and interpretations they arrived with, and the assumption that multiple interpretations are valuable)? Give specific examples.
  • What elements of the envisionment-building classroom occur in your own practice? What changes to your instruction would you like to make to bring it closer to this model?

Teacher Tools

Whether you are a classroom or preservice teacher, teacher educator, content leader, department chair, or administrator, the materials below can assist you in implementing the practices presented in the video clip.

Assessment and Evaluation: Some Useful Principles
The terms assessment and evaluation are often used as synonyms. Distinguishing between them can be helpful as you plan instruction. Assessment means looking at what students can do in order to determine what they need to learn to do next. That is, assessment, whether of individual students or an entire group, is done in order to inform instruction. Typically assessment is holistic, often recorded simply as “credit” or “no credit.”

Evaluation occurs after a concept or skill has been taught and practiced and is typically scaled, indicating the level of achievement or degree of competence a student has attained.

Developing Envisionments With Students
This brief article offers suggestions for supporting students’ developing envisionments of literary texts.

Using Personal Writing To Extend Literary Envisionments
This brief discussion outlines several ways students can use personal writing to develop their understandings of a literary text.

Using a Writer’s Notebook To Enhance Literary Envisionment
Teachers often find it useful to have students keep an ongoing record of their responses to literature over a period of time. These records can form the basis for a discussion about a text, or about a student’s processes of making meaning. They enable students, teachers, parents, and administrators to observe a student’s developing powers as a literary reader. Because they offer teachers a window into student processes, they suggest opportunities for supportive intervention as appropriate. Some teachers ask students to provide special notebooks for such records. However, individual sheets of notebook paper stapled together at regular intervals and filed in the classroom for safekeeping work just as well and are less cumbersome to manage.

Developing Envisionments With Students
As you begin to plan literature experiences for your students, consider offering text pairings, so that students have a rich palette of text background and reading experiences to draw upon in their literary conversations. Each of the following programs offers suggestions for additional texts that complement those around which the lessons are centered.

Additional Resources

Articles related to classroom discussion and student collaboration from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement:

Middle School Instructional Resources: