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Gaining Literary Experience

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: March 2000
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Literature in junior and senior high school has, too often, been reduced to reading a set number of books. Left on their own, many students simply recall basic plot points and, therefore, only see the surface of a selection. With guidance, however, they can develop analytical skills that will make time spent reading literature a life-enriching experience.

In seventh and eighth grade assign selections in which main characters are close in age to the reader whenever possible. Stories with animals are generally enjoyed at this age as well. Incorporate drama (plays), short stories, and novels and include comedy and romance (classics like Romeo and Juliet, not modern romance novels), but avoid satire and tragedy until students are more experienced with analysis. Story study guides such as Cliff Notes can be used as your answer key as you direct the student’s thinking.

Begin by helping the student make a connection between his own experiences and that of fictional characters. Discuss the following:

  1. The reasons behind a character’s actions. This is also referred to as the character’s motivation. Students generally want to stop after describing what has occurred. Make sure they get into the "why" of things. Point out any descriptions that allow a reader to make the necessary inferences. This is also an opportunity to discuss the next point—
  2. How does the character feel? The reader does not have to like, or agree with, a character in order to understand how he feels and why. He does, however, need to be able to answer this question in order to get to the next:
  3. What about the character (his motivations or feelings) can you (the reader) identify with? It does not matter if a selection takes place in a different culture or time period, the struggles characters face are generally common to all men. In books (and movies) written with a teenage market in mind, themes often deal with the desire for acceptance and coping with peer pressure.
  4. By the end of the story, how has a character changed, and why? This is usually difficult for students to discover without help. While they may be able to point to dialogue or description that indicates a change, they have more difficulty understanding, and proving, why. During a discussion, the teacher must eventually reveal the "right" answer if the student hasn’t been able to figure it out through directed questions. Then he can absorb the experience and apply it to future readings.
  5. What is the theme of the story? That is, what is the author’s point—his comment about life. This can usually be summed up in a sentence or two and may often be found stated in the beginning and/or the end of a selection. A selection for teens may be "saying" that it’s less important to be popular than to act with kindness and honesty.

Discussions should increase in depth as a student is able to grasp the points above. Look at the following: (Refer to Critical Conditioning for explanations of the various literary terms.)

What comment is the author making about his society? Look at the society in which the author lived, not the setting of the selection. Whether a story takes place in ancient Rome or a distant galaxy far in the future, an author is first talking to the people of his day. A modern writer cannot communicate with ancient Romans, but he can use the lives of ancient Romans to communicate ideas to his contemporaries.

Now evaluate the selection as a vehicle for the author’s purpose, keeping in mind the time in which it was written and the target audience (that is, the context discussed in the previous question). Comment on the choice of genre (tale, short story, play, novel, essay, etc.) and the use of literary devices. What is the mood of the selection and how did he convey that mood? For example, was it through use of descriptions, irony, parody, symbolism, figurative language, etc.? How did these things help (or hinder) the author's purpose?

Apply the knowledge gained from the literature:

How has it helped you (the reader) understand yourself?

Your society?

The society in which the selection was written?

What insights can you apply to current social or political issues?

This broader application should be continually encouraged. A student will then be prepared to look at literature, whether read or watched (plays, movies, television), and recognize its wider impact. He can experience adventures and "what-ifs" that will help him mature in his outlook on life. But he will also develop the ability to choose to avoid selections that he now realizes may have a negative effect. And he will develop the tools to support his opinion in order to influence others.

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