Response-based approach to literature teaching

iStock_000008693718XSmallIn the March issue of Language Arts, Judith A. Langer reports on the results of her research into response-based instruction. Langer, who is co-director of the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning, has been studying ways to support students’ understanding of literature in elementary and middle grades. Although teachers are experimenting with a variety of response-centered approaches including whole language and literature-based instruction, Langer reports that many are uncertain about their role and the place of instruction in these programs. She believes that adequate guidelines or strategies have not been provided for teachers who are working to incorporate literature into their classrooms.

Through observation of successful programs, she has identified strategies that teachers can use to support the development of students’ thinking in response-based instruction.

A response-based approach to teaching literature involves critical thought that is different from the kinds of thinking students do in other academic subjects, where the focus is primarily on the acquisition of information. Reading of literature, Langer believes, should involve the consideration of many possibilities. The exploration of these possibilities requires a significantly different type of questioning by the teacher. Questions should invite multiple answers rather than one right answer.

Langer’s research indicates, however, that literature is seldom taught in this way. Lessons most often are structured to lead to one predetermined interpretation or right answer. In such classes the reader builds toward this interpretation through a reworking of the plot line. In history classes, literature is often used to mine information rather than as an opportunity to “live through” an experience and “feel” the conditions of that time and place.

This kind of approach in which trade books are used like basal readers, occurs in many literature-based primary classes as well. Detailed questions retrace the story line instead of using students’ shared questions and developing interpretations as the primary focus of the lesson. Literature testing in state assessments and achievement tests reinforce this by treating literature as “content” with factual right answers.

In a thought-provoking, response-based literature class, on the other hand, an environment is created in which students are encouraged to consider understandings from multiple perspectives, sharpen their own interpretations, and learn about literary style and analysis through their own insights and responses.

Guidelines for instruction

1. Use class time to discuss students’ understandings, not to teach them what they’ve left out.

2. Focus on students’ understanding through writing as well as through discussion. To validate their attempts to understand, always begin with their initial impressions.

3. Instruction must help students move beyond initial impressions by building on their ideas, guiding them to listen to one other, to discuss and think. Teachers need to be listeners, responders and helpers and not merely information providers.

4. Encourage speculation and hunches. Ask questions that tap students’ knowledge. Pick up on what they say instead of following your own agenda or the sequence of the story.

5. Remember that questioning, probing and leaving room for other possibilities are at the heart of critical thinking in literature.

6. Encourage mature literary discussions by eliciting responses, asking for clarification, inviting participation and guiding students in sustaining the discussion.

7. Guide students to focus their concerns, shape the point they wish to make, link their ideas with what they’ve already discussed, read or experienced, and think about their issues in more complex ways.

Teaching strategies

Langer describes strategies that teachers have used successfully. In general, successful teachers conceived of their lessons (covering one or many days) as including three major sections: inviting initial understandings, developing interpretations, and taking a critical stance. These replaced traditional lesson segments such as vocabulary review or plot summary. At the beginning, teachers make the reading more understandable to students by creating a personal, historical, cultural or conceptual context for it. After students have begun reading, teachers ask students what they think. They encourage wondering and sharing of these ideas without evaluation. They help students to develop their understanding by asking them to explain their impressions, to reflect on how these change as they continue reading, and to use conflicting views to further explore their ideas. Then, by examining related issues from the text and other literature or life experiences, they examine alternative perspectives and use these to challenge and enrich their own responses. Through discussion and writing, students consider other interpretations and analyze, explain and defend their own. Finally, they generalize, thinking about the human condition and evaluating the moral, message or theme of the reading. At the end of the study of a particular text key issues are summarized and any changes in ideas are noted.

Langer and her associates at the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning are attempting to develop practical, constructive strategies in support of teachers whose goal is to help students develop personal interpretations of literature and explore, compare, refine and defend these interpretations. In Langer’s opinion, such classrooms enable all students, including low achievers, to engage in thoughtful discussions and to develop richer, deeper understandings and enjoyment of literature.

“A Response-Based Approach to Reading Literature”, Language Arts, Volume 71, Number 3, March 1994, pp. 203-211.

Published in ERN, May/June 1994, Volume 7, Number 3.

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