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Making Meaning in Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 6-8

Introducing Our Literary Community

Meet the eight teachers and their schools featured in the video programs. Learn the guiding principles through which they form their classes into engaged literary communities. Dr. Langer weaves the framework, talking about the ways effective readers interact with text and the ways teachers can foster this kind of learner.


“There is power in the written word. There is power in learners finding their own voices.”
Tanya Schnabl
6th Grade Teacher, Sherburne/Earlville Middle School
Sherburne, New York

Imagine driving down the highway, faced with flashing emergency vehicle lights and slowing traffic. Immediately, you begin to develop a hunch about what is happening around you. The lights from the police cars and ambulances are clues of an accident scene ahead. Your prior experiences help you understand why the traffic is slowing down, as motorists take time to survey the accident. Emergency vehicles bustle towards the wreckage. You might recall a car accident that you experienced in the past. You are sizing up the situation. You are predicting how long it will take you to reach your destination, based on the pace of the traffic. You consider alternate routes for travel.

This process of creating an understanding is not so different from what effective readers do when they interact with literature.

Dr. Judith Langer spent over a decade examining how readers interact with texts, how they make meaning out of what they read, and the processes effective readers go through to create complex, rich understandings of literature. Her carefully researched observations are described in a process she refers to as building envisionments. In building envisionments, readers formulate a dynamic set of thoughts about a text, including their impressions, questions, judgments, predictions, and connections to their own lives. This recursive process occurs from the moment readers pick up a text and continues beyond the reading of the literature. Readers continue to think about the text. They discuss the literature, wrestle with it, and continually grow their interpretations of it.

This first workshop program in a series of nine introduces the hallmarks of the envisionment-building process. Dr. Langer explains ways that teachers can support and encourage this process to help students become better readers and thinkers. Eight middle school language arts classroom teachers also reflect upon their own teaching of literature. These classroom teachers grapple with the authentic, everyday challenges of middle school language arts instruction. They examine demands in education, needs of their students, and their beliefs in the power of literature to shape critically literate members of society.

For a complete guide to the workshop session activities, download and print our Support Materials.

Key Points

  • Eight middle school language arts teachers are introduced in the video. These teachers will appear throughout the workshop series.
  • Dr. Judith Langer defines an envisionment as a dynamic set of thoughts you have about a text including your impressions, questions, judgments, and predictions. Envisionments constantly grow and evolve throughout your reading and interaction with a text.
  • Even though all students build envisionments in their daily lives, some of them have trouble applying it to the reading of literature. But there are ways to encourage this process in each student-ways to help them become better readers and better thinkers.
  • Teachers in a classroom that support this process encourage students to offer their opinions and raise questions.
  • There are four hallmarks of an envisionment-building classroom:
    • Students are treated as life-long envisionment builders. Teachers assume students can build envisionments, that they have done it throughout their lives, and can apply this to the reading of literature.
    • Questions are at the center of the literary experience. Students are encouraged to raise their own questions about the text or their own understandings during class discussions.
    • Students and teachers assume that multiple perspectives are useful. These perspectives are going to enhance interpretations and help build more complex understandings.
    • Class time is used to:
      • develop student understandings.
      • extend student understandings and interpretations based on the readings they did at home.
      • utilize students’ initial understandings to start provocative discussions in class and build richer interpretations.
  • Middle school students bring many challenges and strengths to the literature classroom.
  • Processes that support envisionment building provide opportunities for students to develop as life-long critical thinkers and problem solvers, literate members of society, and individuals who can gain a sense of vision for what literature might mean for life and humanity.

Learning Objectives

After viewing this program, you will be able to:

  • Explain the envisionment-building process and the hallmarks of a classroom that supports this process.
  • Identify what elements of their own classroom instruction and environment support the envisionment-building process.

Background Reading

In preparation for this workshop, read “Literary Thought and Literate Mind” from Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

You may also be interested in the panelists’ professional biographies.

A compendium of resources and articles about Dr. Langer’s research and the envisionment-building process can be accessed from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement. Use the search engine on the site and type in “envisionment building.”

Explore the Envisionment Building resources to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.

Homework Assignment

Respond to the following in your workshop journal:

Barry Hoonan states: “I think literature is learned in a community that embraces stories, embraces writing… You start with the community. And you start with humor and you start with relationships and you start by reading to kids.”

How can teachers begin to create this type of community for students? How do you know when you have the support in place for kids to successfully participate in this kind of literate community? What do you think the cornerstones are of a literate classroom community?

In preparation for Workshop 2, read “Building Envisionments,” “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building,” and “A Practical Pedagogy” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, Columbia University. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-8077-3464-0.

Consider reading “A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature,”which summarizes some of Dr. Langer’s research on envisionment building.

Finally, read the poem “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes, which can be found in the anthology by Roberts, Edgar E. and Jacobs, Henry E. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing, 5th edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Copyright 1998. ISBN 0-13-010076-5.

For additional resources, refer to Workshop 2’s Additional Reading section.

Extension: Classroom Connection

Student Activities
Try these activities with your students.

Student Survey
Take time to get to know your students as members of the classroom community. Survey your students for their interests, experiences, background knowledge, family heritage and traditions, and reading habits. Use the online Student Survey as a guide. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.) Use this information to enlighten your understanding of the multiple perspectives they bring to the classroom and how you can capitalize on those assets to enhance students’ understandings of the author’s or other readers’ perspectives.

As an alternative to this survey, ask students to create a collage that represents their personal life experiences, interests, reading habits, and anything that is significant in their lives. Ask students to write a companion paragraph explaining key elements of the collage. Invite students to share these collages in small groups. Then, discuss ways in which their experiences help shape their understandings of what they read and how these might compare with others. Here, both overlap and difference are important to discuss.

Good Questions
One way to ensure dynamic literary dialogue in your classroom is to ask students to generate discussion with their own questions. Students need opportunities to think about how to craft thought-provoking questions in relation to literature they are currently reading.

Assign a short story for your students to read either in class or at home. Selections like Shirley Jackson’s “Charles,” Toni Cade Bambara’s “Raymond’s Run,” or Langston Hughes’s “Thank You M’am” are appropriate short stories that will engage your students. Then, in collaboration with your students, brainstorm a list of characteristics of thought-provoking questions. Ask students to consider what makes a good question. Narrow the list down to two or three key qualities. As a homework assignment, ask students to use these qualities to generate three questions for the next day’s whole-class literature discussion about the short story.

When students return to class the next day with their questions, take time to discuss and evaluate the questions they created. As a way of doing so, ask students to write out each question on a separate strip of paper or on an index card. Shuffle the cards and distribute a set of questions to groups of four to five students each. Ask students to evaluate the quality of the questions in terms of their ability to stimulate thinking and discussion about the text. If questions need revising, ask students to do so in the groups. Students may rewrite the questions on the same strips of paper or index cards as the original questions are written. Circulate from group to group, helping students with their revisions.

When students are ready, begin the whole-class discussion by inviting different groups to pose questions from the index cards or strips of paper. This encourages participation from all students and it invites them to take ownership of the class discussion.

After the literature discussion, invite students to share what they learned from the question writing experience. Ask them what they think they gained from the literature discussion that they would not have if they didn’t pose their own questions.

Coat of Arms: All About Me
Cut out shields or use the student activity sheet Coat of Arms. (See the Appendix in the Support Materials.) Ask students to draw, write information, or cut out pictures from magazines to create a coat of arms that represents who they are as a person. Invite students to orally present their coat of arms in small groups, so that students in your classroom community get to know one another. As you circulate throughout the classroom when students share their Coat of Arms, help students to recognize similarities and differences among themselves in each group. Then have the students discuss what these differing representations might mean for how they might interpret a story or poem. This will help you and the students in the class understand the different life experiences and multiple perspectives that exist in the literary community.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner
Start a classroom observation journal. Each time your students participate in a literature discussion, take time to reflect upon the discussion. You may take time after school or during lesson planning for journaling. Think about classroom discussions with your own students. How would you characterize them? What elements of your classroom discussions support envisionment building? Do students offer multiple perspectives? Do they explain to each other why they arrived at the interpretations they did? Do they return to the text and discuss what they think is the author’s vantage point? What is your role in the discussions? Are students raising thought-provoking questions relevant to the literature at-hand? How can you offer additional support to the students as they work towards becoming active participants in a literary community?

Additional Reading

The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA)
Directed by Dr. Judith Langer and Dr. Arthur Applebee, CELA is the only federally funded center committed to literacy research. All research is published on this site, including past studies, as well as reports about studies in process. By using the search link on the site, users can type in the words “envisionment building” and find a listing of articles and reports related to Dr. Langer’s research. In addition to this, the quarterly professional newsletter is available online, which features discoveries and trends in the field of English and language arts.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
NCTE’s Web site offers up-to-date information about professional conferences around the country. In addition to this, the site offers online chat forums, a catalog of current publications, and links related to English and language arts teaching.

This education reform-oriented site features new stories in the field, links of interest, online newsletters, and many resources related to each specific discipline.

Texts mentioned by teachers in this workshop program:

Short Story:
“Passing” by Langston Hughes

Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers
Slam by Walter Dean Myers
Freak the Mighty by Philbrick Rodman
Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper
The Giver by Lois Lowry

“The Dreamer” by Lee Bennett Hopkins