6 literary inquiry practices to bring to your ELA class

History, science and math students are trained to think like historians, mathematicians and scientists when they tackle questions and problems in class.

Researcher Emily Rainey says it’s time English language arts (ELA) students learn to use the same disciplinary tools and practices as literary scholars when they work with a literary text.

“Although English language arts (ELA) is a central academic domain in K-12 schooling, the application of disciplinary literacy theory to ELA is relatively under-developed, leaving policymakers, teachers, and teacher educators without clear ways of understanding and applying the theory to their work for the benefit of young people,” says the author in a recent study published in Reading Research Quarterly.

Rainey identified 6 common literary practices that scholars use to construct the “literary puzzles” at the center of their problem-based work with literature.

She identified the practices through a series of interviews with 10 literature professors and instructors at a public research university in the midwestern US.  Each was asked to discuss the purposes of reading literature and the methods for reading it, and to reflect on their process for analyzing a brief text provided to them or that they selected on their own. Each participant also was asked to take notes when thoughts and questions occurred to them about the text.


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Here are the 6 disciplinary literary practices that Rainey recommends ELA teachers incorporate into the classroom:

1. Look for patterns

The first strategy scholars tap in reading a new text is to notice patterns in imagery, use of language, etc. Central to the work of the discipline is the construction of literary problems or puzzles, the researcher reports. Literary puzzles either start with the text and move out or can start from a critical conversation and move back.

As a reader, you should notice patterns in the text that can help you solve literary puzzles, whether you already have a literary question in mind or are constructing one during the process of reading.

Besides looking for patterns within a text, you can also look for patterns across texts to learn what’s typical and atypical for a particular author.

2.  Identify strangeness, surprise and confusion

Once scholars had noticed patterns in the text, they were on the lookout for anything strange or unexpected such as a change in language use, character action or organization. These observations also can help develop or pursue a worthwhile literary puzzle.

As a reader, you should notice anything peculiar, incoherent, twisted or confusing in one or more of the author’s texts. Sometimes a contrast among 2 or more concepts, words or features introduces an unexpected element, such as in the final two lines of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “No rack can torture me”: “Captivity is Consciousness– / So’s Liberty.”

3. Articulate an Interpretive question or puzzle

Once scholars have gathered enough impressions and observations about a text, they are ready to develop a rigorous question that may be continually revised and refined as they become more familiar with the text.

As your own question takes shape, reevaluate details you’ve noticed by placing them in the context of the larger ecosystem of the text, e.g. how does this function as part of the whole?

Your question or puzzle should drive further interactions with the text and ideally be of potential interest to the whole literary scholarship community.

4. Reread, rethink

A literary text has many layers. As you reread the text and attend to its layers you will continue to discover patterns and moments of surprise. These will allow you to sharpen your questions and interpretive thoughts.

Keep all possible interpretations in play, even if they contradict your first-draft literary puzzle. Hold back on committing to an argument about the text. Be patient. Try to see how the text is inviting certain interpretive possibilities and notice what the author is withholding or hinting at. Don’t hesitate to revise your question as needed.

5. Put it all in context

When was the work created? What were the major historical events of that period? What do we know about the author’s life?

Secondary sources of information are very important in interpreting a text. Besides placing the work in its historical and social context, it’s also useful to place the work in a literary context. Who else was writing at that time? What were the most remarkable works during that period? Are there multiple versions of the text? What is the academic scholarship around this work?

6. Make a text-based claim

Offer readers an original way to think about the text. Interpretive claims present a new lens to a literary puzzle or question. Claims should be more than mere personal connections and more than a summary. The claim should construct value or meaning from the mystery of the literary work.

Scholars told the researcher that it’s important to encourage students to construct literary knowledge that is new, surprising, original, risky or otherwise productive. They also emphasized that the work of literary scholarship is fundamentally a social pursuit involving participating in a “larger conversation”.

“Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts: Exploring the Social and Problem-Based Nature of Literary Reading and Reasoning,” by Emily Rainey, Reading Research Quarterly, 2016, Volume 52, Number 1, pp. 53-71.

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