Learning through reading literature is fundamental to critical thinking and understanding.
This lesson will explain some of the key benefits of reading and responding to literary texts.
The Reading Situation
Most children are interested in a good story, whether it is read or told by a parent or teacher, or even viewed on television or film. Small children enjoy imagining experiences and events outside of their own small world.
In fact, most adults enjoy this aspect of fiction, too. We all need a bit of escape from the ordinary on occasion.
Unfortunately, the act of reading itself can sometimes be so difficult for some students, both young and old, that the pleasure of fiction is hard to find. And, ironically, the very place where most of us learned to read–the classroom–can contribute negatively to the situation.
Even if reading itself is not an issue, students often find that having to respond to books takes away the joy of the story. When we, as teachers, give them questions to answer, background information to learn, or quotes to memorize, the intention is to add to their understanding and enjoyment. But students do sometimes tell us that they just want to ”have fun with the story” and not ”pick it apart”. And, of course, there is the dreaded and ever-present book report. Except for the few book lovers in the class, most students simply go to the library and grab the first book that looks easy.
Books Read as a Class
And then there are the books we assign to be read and studied by everyone in the class. One problem faced here is that it is difficult to find a text that will appeal to everyone.
Another issue is the different pace of reading for each individual student. And, no matter how open we try to be with varying interpretations, students may still feel that they need to find the right meaning of the text.
Some Possible Improvements
So is there still value in reading and responding to literary texts for adolescents and teens? Of course there is! We just have to present the text in ways that let the students have some control over their experience of the text. Here are a few ideas:
- Call the assigned response to an individually chosen text something other than a book report. Terms like personal reaction paper, reaction essay, or summary and opinion report might work better. Older students especially will be more open to how you want the assignment handled if they don’t instantly assume they’ve done the same thing before. And they will get more insight about the text if you focus the assignment in a specific direction.
For example, perhaps you can ask them to look at ways in which the story connects to their own life in some way.
- You might give them an essay on which they can model a more thoughtful and in-depth reaction to the text. Having such a model takes away some of their fear of doing it ”the right way”, and hence the temptation to fall back on empty statements like ”This is a wonderful book and the author is very talented.” It is safe to say that every English teacher on the planet would be happy to never see this type of response again!
- Depending on the behavior of your class in general, response activities in pairs or groups can be productive. Students love to give their opinions about serious and/or controversial issues. Group or class discussion can bring out aspects of the story that others, including the instructor, had not thought of.
Why Responding to Literature is Important
We have already agreed that getting students to recognize the value of reading and responding to fiction can be difficult. But, the key point here is that there is value. Novels and other forms of fiction can introduce students to other cultures, other countries, and other time periods.
Encountering stories that feature young people in situations and cultures different from their own can have far-reaching impact on the future adults who will be running our global geo-political world.Responding thoughtfully to texts can also help develop the critical thinking process in students. Having to organize and focus their ideas to present a coherent argument uses a student’s thinking in a way that is similar to adult problem solving. And once a student knows he or she is capable of this analytic thinking, these same skills can be used in other aspects of that student’s life.
Reading, and other engagement with fictional media, can add greatly to the preparation we give our students for adult life. Learning to think analytically, present an argument, and discuss ideas among peers are all valuable life skills.
In addition, the knowledge and understanding of other times, places, and cultures have become crucial for the global citizenship of tomorrow.