READI for Literature

(Modified from Guiding Principles by Carol D. Lee. See link for full document below.)

One can think of the process of literary interpretation as akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, requiring the reader to draw on his or her prior knowledge to piece together details from the literary text to infer patterns to which the reader attributes significance or meaning. The reader draws on multiple sources of prior knowledge in this meaning-making process: literary genres, character types, themes often archetypal, and rhetorical moves on which literary authors often draw. In teaching literary interpretation to novice and especially struggling readers, we need to examine the sources of knowledge that the author likely assumes the reader brings and to determine what the students we are teaching already know and what they need to know in order to engage meaningfully with the text in question. We aim to teach both knowledge and dispositions, to socialize inquiry, persistence and grit to engage in the demands of complex literary reasoning; and to construct interpretations that are both personally meaningful to our students as human beings and that can be justified through reasoning that draws on connections warranted from the text, extrapolations to the everyday world, and to other texts. The warrants (e.g. the principles on which we draw to explain why others should accept our evidence) can come from the kinds of commitments that students as members (burgeoning or otherwise) of communities of readers value.

The READI approach to literary reading supports students in using generic strategies (e.g., monitoring whether you understand what you are reading, asking questions, making predictions) to wrestle with the features of text that are critical to constructing interpretations of literary texts. To engage in literary interpretation, readers need to monitor attention to particular features of the text (e.g., rhetorical devices, character types) because they may have interpretive significance; they need to move beyond summarizing plot, asking particular kinds of questions (why did the author give the character that name?) and looking for details that signal particular themes or kinds of literary text structures (e.g., coming of age story, or a story of magical realism, or a hero’s quest). Accordingly, the READI learning goals for reading literary texts target dispositions and beliefs about why we read literature, what knowledge we gain from it, and what knowledge we bring to its interpretation. That is, we aim for students to see texts as open to multiple interpretations, requiring multiple readings to interpret, and conveying messages relevant to understanding our everyday lives. This goal is central to developing the disposition to read literary texts in ways that will support achieving the other five READI learning goals for literature. These include close reading for features of text that may be important for non-literal meanings; looking for patterns in word choice, plot organization, and character types across the text and in relation to other texts; construct arguments that make warranted claims using evidence from the text to logically support generalizations about interpretative messages and authors’ choices about use of language (e.g., structure, word choices, rhetorical devices) to convey these interpretive claims; establish and use criteria for judging interpretive claims.

There are four core practices of the instructional design of the READI approach to supporting students’ engagement in literary interpretation. These were based on prior research by Hillocks (Hillocks and Ludlow 1984, Smith and Hillocks 1988) and the Cultural Modeling Framework by Lee (1995, 2007). The purpose of each is briefly summarized with more extensive information available by clinking on the link for each.

  1. Gateway Activities help students generate criteria by which to make judgments about characters and themes.
  2. Cultural Data Sets support students themselves in generating strategies for noticing and interpreting problems of symbolism, irony, satire, and unreliable narration.
  3. Building Prior Knowledge so that students have some familiarity with the historical context of the setting or period in which the literary work was produced.
  4. Argumentation requires attention to how authors use text structure and language choices to convey meanings beyond the literal.

The competencies undergirding each of these core practices take time to develop. Students will not learn to internalize strategies with one or two cultural data sets; or to delve fully into criteria for making judgments with one gateway activity; or to write the kinds of sophisticated arguments we value with one or two opportunities to write and little opportunity to revise. They will need multiple opportunities to engage in these practices across a wide range of texts.

These principles and practices are further elaborated on in the document Guiding Principles: READI Literature Interventions.

Further reading

Appleman, D. (2000). Critical encounters in high school English: teaching literary theory to adolescents. NY, Teachers College Press.

Shuman, R. B. (1995). “Carol D. Lee, Signifying as a scaffold for literary interpretation: The pedagogical implications of an African American discourse genre.” African American Review 29(4): 693-695.

Wolf, D. P. (1995). Reading Reconsidered: Literature and literacy in high school. New York, College Entrance Examination Board.