An Approach to Teaching Literature

Literature continues to be a significant part of English language arts classrooms! Guest blogger Brandy shares her understanding of an approach to teaching literature presented in Bridging English.
But literature breathes and murmurs, cajoles and lambasts, laments and rejoices only when the reader makes it do so. – Sheridan Blau


This chapter of our text focused primarily on answering the tricky questions of how to use literature in a classroom, what we (both students and teachers) can learn from literature, and why literature remains a central component in classroom curricula. As future English teachers, we have an established, cultivated passion for English literature and language, something that our students may lack. In order to communicate, inspire, and shape this same appreciation in future generations, we need a solid understanding of the foundations of teaching with literature.


Enter, Explore, and Extend

photo by Brandy
The bulk of this chapter is devoted to a three-phase teaching approach to literature. It is similar to the pre-reading, reading, and post-reading structure, but encompasses a further breakdown into a reading literature process. I will briefly talk about each phase of both processes, but this methodology definitely deserves closer examination!


In this phase, students are introduced to the text. Prewriting and other introductory activities such as free writing, KWL charts, and anticipatory sets are most useful here. Additionally, this is where any necessary scaffolding or frontloading should be done to prepare the student to further engage with the text.
It is in this stage that students are actively working with and exploring the text and where the four additional stages of reading literature are found (I will discuss those later). This phase is also where most of the classroom activities will take place and will generally be the longest of the process, though not necessarily the most important.
Following student interaction with the text, the Extend phase is where meaning beyond the text is examined. Students should be considering the broader implications of a text and their own social, political, and global understanding of their world.
The Explore phase of this cycle is further divided into four phases: Reader Response, Interpretive Community, Formal Analysis, and Critical Synthesis. The text suggests several strategies for each of these components. I will highlight the ones that I found the most interesting, and please share your own favorites in the comment section below!
photo by Brandy
Reader Response
Reader Response capitalizes on the reader’s personal and emotional reactions to the text. It asks that students reflect on what they are reading and to make connections with their own experiences. This stage should remove the divide between students and literature.
I particularly liked the following strategies: Imagine This, Character Continuum, Focal Judgments, Character Maps, and Jump Starts. These struck me as innovative ways to help students dive deeper into the text.  
Interpretive Community
This stage involves the larger classroom as a whole. It traffics students from solitary engagement with the text to sharing their thoughts and opinion with a group. The purpose of this phase is to hone interpretations and assertions into “final draft” speaking. Interpretive Community also allows students to facilitate the transmission of information; sharing ideas with others will foster further investigation into the themes and purpose of a text.
Jump-In Reading was my favorite strategy from this section. I think a collection of statements that are most “alive” for each reader would be an effective way to fully involve each individual.
Formal Analysis
This stage mirrors classic literature analysis. There is emphasis here on literary theory presented at a communicable level. Equipping students with the correct concept terminology to discuss their understanding of the text is essential. Elements of literature, including plot, character, setting, theme, symbolism, and point of view, are central for formal analysis. It is meant to act as supplementary to Reader Response, revealing the way literature works to produce responses and effects on the reader.
Students Write and Teachers Read are my preferred strategies for this phase.
Critical Synthesis
Where Formal Analysis focuses on the different literary terms and the ways to talk about literature, Critical Synthesis focuses on the different literary theories and the ways to interpret literature.
It is important to note as well that neither of these processes (Enter, Explore, Extend and the four-stages to reading literature) are absolute; each phase is recursive and can occur along a continuum of understanding.
Personally, that is something that I find very comforting and a critical point to make to students and to recognize as teachers. Understanding of and facility with literature will come to each student eventually, it may just be a matter of strategy (this almost makes it sound like orchestrating an attack on a text).
What do YOU Think?
Instead of delving into the myriad of theories, I’d like to end this post by asking readers what their preferred literary theories are (do not forget the why!) and discussing whether or not critical theory has a place in a secondary (or middle school) English classroom.
My View
I think that it does, despite my own contentions with learning literary theory. It adds a layer of complexity to literature that enables continuous discovery each time a reader looks at it. The quote included in the text by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. speaks to this as well: “Literary theory functioned in my life as a prism, which I could turn to refract different spectral patterns of language use in a text, as one does daylight. Turn the prison this way, and one pattern emerges; turn it that way and another pattern configures” (p. 154).