What are we reading for? A helpful list for students…

When we teach literature, what is it for? Critical reading, analysis, exploration and appreciation of the writer’s craft… In my heart I know that literature is broad and beautiful but, very often, particularly when preparing exam classes, I get too focused on the product. That is, the essay: a series of nice, tidy paragraphs which will answer a question set in timed conditions.

This obsession with the product can sometimes get in our way – we stop looking for the literary, and focus too much on finding something to fit neatly into a structured paragraph. How many times have we heard students ask, “how can I make a point about that?”

I’m not sure there is a great solution to this problem: as long as our exam system functions the way it does, we will always have students looking to boil things down to what will or will not fit into ‘a paragraph’. However, I do believe that by asking the right questions, we can turn them back to the text in a broader, more literary way. Below you will find a simple list of questions which I have collated over the years to help students to ‘interrogate’ a text. They can be used as a starting point when looking at a text for the first time, or as a prompt when trying to find further meaning as part of revision or a stretch and challenge activity. This is not an exhaustive list, and I wouldn’t suggest trying to use all of them at the same time! The key is to see this as a resource to go to when you need students to find another ‘way in’ when they are struggling to explore a text independently – I always go back to this in my classroom, particularly when students are thinking too much about the product and not enough about the text.

Narrative (how the story is being told)

  1. What is the narrative perspective?
  2. WHO is speaking/seeing/remembering?
  3. What can we deduce about the speaker (if there is one)?
  4. Can we link the speaker (if there is one) to the author?
  5. Is the narrative voice reliable?
  6. Is the narrative voice displaying any strong emotions or opinions?
  7. Is the narrative voice the same throughout the text? Does any change affect how we read events, characters or atmosphere?

Reader/Audience (both modern and contemporary with the text):

  1. Who is the intended reader/audience?
  2. How would the reader/audience feel during and after this text?
  3. Is this text supposed to entertain/shock/challenge/anger/teach/inform/intrigue the reader/audience?
  4. As a reader, how do you respond to the text?
  5. Does the reader/audience need to know any contextual information for all or parts of this text to make sense?
  6. How was this text experienced originally? e.g. published novel, serialised in a newspaper, outdoor theatre performance… Would that experience have affected the way people felt about or responded to the text?

Characters (these are literary constructs, not real people!):

  1. Are they telling the story directly (narrating)?
  2. Are they being observed by someone else? Or by an omniscient narrator?
  3. Do they create interest? Mystery? Conflict? Tension? Humour?
  4. Do they act as a contrast to other characters or devices?
  5. Are they described vividly? (appearance, sound, mood, thoughts, speech, movement etc.) Or are they someone who is more mysterious and open to broader interpretation? Is that important?
  6. How is the reader/audience supposed to feel about them?
  7. Does this person play a symbolic role in the text? (e.g. Mr Birling might be said to represent Capitalism)
  8. Are they the same throughout the text, or do they experience changes? (e.g. ageing and maturity, attitude to life, trauma)
  9. Are they a character which is based on any kind of genre archetype (e.g. Gothic convention of the pale, virginal woman)

Language:

  1. Are there any significant uses of sound? Repetition? Alliteration? Rhyme? Plosives?
  2. Are there any significant lexical features (use of words)? Does the text have a specific semantic field?
  3. Is there any technical language or language specific to a time, place, society/group or religion?
  4. Do the word choices of characters reveal anything about their history or emotions?
  5. Is there any imagery used? Does it conjure any specific mood or atmosphere? (i.e. conflict, love, violence, madness, nature)
  6. Is there any evidence of the same images being used elsewhere in the text to create a motif or recurring idea?
  7. How do images impact on the experience of the reader/audience?
  8. Has the author chosen a particularly poignant or shocking image for the reader/audience? Why?

Structure:

  1. Does the text start or end with a dramatic event/revelation/image etc?
  2. Does the text start and end in the same place/same idea/same language? (cyclical structure)
  3. Is the text told in chronological order? Or are there flashbacks? Letters? Diary entries? Recollections?
  4. Is the text told from the same perspective throughout?
  5. Does the narrative voice develop (i.e. grow up/have some form of transformation) during the text?
  6. Are there any notable character journeys or arcs?
  7. Are there any moments of high tension? (draw a tension graph for the text to see patterns)
  8. In poetry; is there a rhyme scheme which is relevant to your interpretation? Does the structure of the poem (length, stanzas etc.) have any impact on meaning?
  9. Are there any moments of shift in the text where the focus, intensity, pace etc. changes?
  10. Does the text follow a standard structure for a particular form or genre? (e.g. a ballad or a Petrarchan sonnet)

Context:

  1. When is the text set?
  2. Is there any significant event, movement, philosophy etc. which might have impacted the text?
  3. Does the text specifically refer to real events? Is it a truthful account of real events, or does it simply use real events as a background to a fictional story? What effect does this have on the reader?
  4. Who is the author? Did they have any strong beliefs or experiences which might have influenced the text?
  5. Did the author write any other texts? How do these compare to this text?
  6. Which other significant writers and texts might have influenced this text?
  7. How does this text sit among other literature of its type?
  8. Has this text influenced other writers?
  9. Does this text do anything new in its genre/era/for this writer?
  10. How was this text received when it was first published?
  11. Has there been any notable reception of the text over time?
  12. Has the text had any significant influence on wider literature, art or culture? (e.g. there is a huge body of film and stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, as well as representatiuons of the text in art, dance and music)
  13. Is there any language or reference to things which are not in use today? Does this change our understanding of the text?
  14. Are there any prevailing attitudes in the play which are different to modern ideas? (e.g. attitudes to homosexuality, women, marriage)

Evaluation:

  1. Are there any clear overall messages or lessons to be drawn from the text?
  2. Does the author make any explicit address to the reader/audience?
  3. Why has the author written this text? (there might be first-hand accounts)
  4. Did the author write this text as a response to an event in their own life?
  5. Is the author making a point about human nature?
  6. Has the author written anything subsequent to the text which offers us any insight? (e.g. Steinbeck’s letters)

Challenging Questions:

  1. Was the author a man or a woman? Does this alter the way we see the presentation of gender in the text?
  2. Does the author voice characters frojm outside their own social group or life experience? (e.g. do they give voice to a disabled character without being, themselves, disabled?) Does this alter how we read or question representation in the text?
  3. Do you trust the narrative voice? Are they trying to manipulate the way you see things?
  4. How close is the author to the narrative voice of the text? Can we see the voice as a true reflection of the author’s opinions?

I would love to add to this list if anyone has other suggestions! Please message me on Twitter or pop into the comments below!

2 thoughts on “What are we reading for? A helpful list for students…

  1. Wonderful – thank you for these banks of invaluable questions, they are key to getting our kids lost in the woods for a bit. The way we teach ‘to the essay’ is akin to taking kids into a beautiful wood and telling them they have to stick to the path. The point is they will eventually come back to the path (it’s the way back home) but if only we let them wander for a while and trust that they will come back.

    Polly Poon ________________________________

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