Teaching Writing About Literature
Posted: Jan 13, 2015
Writing about literature can be scary, especially when students are not equipped to fully understand the text and then write about it. Before any writing can be do, students first have to understand the text. That does not mean writing cannot take place prior to reading, and in fact, writing about elements in the text prior to reading may facilitate a better understanding. To prepare students to do such writing, teachers need to structure their classes in such a way that is conducive to maximizing learning.
The first step is to understand writing meaningfully about literature can be difficult for young students because what is meant by meaningful is not always abundantly clear to them. One possibility that causes such confusion is that students may think what is deemed meaningful changes with the type of writing. But, for all types of writing, meaningful writing retains similar elements. Students need to know that writing meaningfully about literature includes their personal reactions and thoughts, but that it has to be supported by evidence, through their own analyses of the text or using scholarly analyses. Developing students to understand that writing meaningfully does include their own thoughts is difficult because students are hesitant to trust their own opinions as many teachers want students to arrive at the same conclusions about text they have. When students arrive at their own conclusions, teachers tell them they are wrong, leading students to distrust their own thoughts. To have students begin trusting themselves, teachers need to lead classes that are more students focused than teacher focused.
Having whole class discussions can be useful because it can help clarify something in the text that might be confusing, but small group discussions has been found to be more effective. Johannessen, Kahn, and Walter cite "that a growing body of research reveals that discussion-based instruction, in the context of high academic demands, significantly enhances literary achievement" (14). Students learn more when they interact, and small group discussion allows for students to interact and guide each other to a better understanding of the text. The small group discussion is also beneficial in helping students build confidence in their own thoughts as fellow students are more accepting of other conclusions and ideas on the text.
From there, teachers need to design gateway activities, which are useful for both writing and reading. Designing activities that taps into students’
Once students have a grasp on the text, they are able to write more meaningfully on literature. To help strengthen a student’s ability to write meaningfully on literature, guided journal writing has proven to be an effective tool. Wong, Kuperis, Jamieson, Keller, and Cull-Hewitt led a study examining the "effects on guided journal writing…on the understanding of themes and main characters in…The Great Gatsby" (181). The researchers found that "writing activities in the form of guided-response journals increased students’ understanding of themes and main characters in the complex novel The Great Gatsby" (187). Students who were in the guided journal groups felt the "writing deepened their thinking about the stories…, led them to generate more ideas," and it "enhanced retention" (186). Those three aspects are necessary for students to begin writing meaningfully about literature. Students cannot write meaningfully if they are unable to have deeper thoughts on the text or if they cannot retain any detail of the text. I think writing on a regular basis does help students, and with the guided journals, it helps focus the students’ thoughts. Open journal writing is a good exercise for discovering different voices and exploring different types of writing, but if a teacher wants her/his students to have a better, deeper understanding of a text, guided journal writing has proven to be effective.
Writing meaningfully about literature is useless unless students master certain writing habits. One practice students need to master early on is writing logically. Students need to learn to organize their thoughts in a logical manner because when writing does not flow logically, it can become confusing. When ideas are jumbled and do not flow logically, it appears as if the student does not have a full grasp on the literature. The training wheel of writing is the five-paragraph form. While it does have its downfalls, such as promoting shallow writing, it does provide students with structure. Students, though, need to be taught that the five-paragraph form is not the end all of writing, and that it is just the beginning in order to learn logical writing.
As students learn to write logically, they also need to learn that any writing has meaningful substance. To teach students to provide meaningful substance, they have to learn the Toulmin model. Johannessen, Kahn, and Walter write "[r]esearch involving instruction using the Toulmin model of argument suggests its efficacy for writing instruction and improving writing" (16). The Toulmin model, again, provides students with a structure to base their writing, and structure provides students with a base to work off of. Students learn quickly how to make claims about the text, but only sometimes provide evidence to support their claims, and often fail to explain how the evidence supports the claim. As Johannessen, Kahn, and Walter write, students do "assume the evidence ‘speaks for itself’" (48). Learning to always relate the claim and evidence is necessary in order for students to continue writing meaningfully. One way to help students understand and encourage such habit is to use "Chalk Talk" (Johanessen et al.). This exercise allows students to see how claims and evidence can be interpreted in different ways, and therefore, they have to show how the evidence supports the claim. Combining the Toulmin model with "Chalk Talk," students will learn to write meaningfully about literature because they will be equipped to explain and defend their ideas.
But, writing meaningfully about literature is more than providing claims, evidence, and linking it all together. It is also using the correct grammar and vocabulary. Different forms of writing require different vocabulary, but all require appropriate grammar. When students use vocabulary that is inflated, the writing loses meaning. Teaching students to write clearly with proper grammar will be beneficial for them as they grow as writers. A gateway activity to demonstrate the importance of proper grammar and appropriate vocabulary is to have students read paragraphs that were rewritten using inflated vocabulary and incorrect grammar, and giving the students the correct version the paragraph. Students will learn that it is much easier for a reader to understand the writer’s intent if the grammar is correct and the vocabulary is appropriate.
I think the hardest part of teaching students to write meaningfully about literature is developing writing assignments that require students to answer on their own without the help of the internet or from older students. One way to avoid such a pitfall is to base writing assignments off of class discussions. The class discussions, both small group and the entire class, can be highly effective in guarding against responses found on the internet or from older students. The class discussions will vary from class to class, and building questions around the discussion will make the writing assignment unique enough so that searching for answers on the internet will prove useless. Additionally, building upon previous work the class has done provides students with confidence in their abilities to complete the assignment. Students are hesitant to do their own work when they feel they do not have knowledge and abilities to complete the assignment. Writing assignments derived from the class discussion and work gives the students the knowledge and abilities to complete the writing on their own.
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