The default approach to so much English teaching is to present students with a text and then say some version of, “What do you think of this?” If you’re fortunate enough to teach in a selective setting with advantaged students, then this must be a very rewarding way to go about things. The students make their thoughtful suggestions, respectfully challenge each other, and hone their interpretation though the lively cut and thrust of classroom debate.
I’ve never taught in such an environment. Sadly though, this didn’t stop me taking a pretty similar approach with my students. Neither did it prevent me from fooling myself that what I was doing was effective. Here’s what would happen: we’d read a text and I’d ask for opinions. A minority of students would suggest ideas. We’d discuss some of these ideas and sometimes I’d suggest other ideas. Then, eventually, we’d do some writing. Those students who’d suggested their own interpretations would often write well about their ideas and I’d think, see: it works. The fact that lots of other students wrote badly about their classmates’ interpretations was easy to dismiss. After all, what can you do with kids like that? Even in ‘top sets’ this approach only appears to work because the students sharing their opinions are more likely to have something useful or interesting to say. There, if teachers refuse to give their interpretation of a text then at least students have the chance to learn what their peers have said.
I think this default is bound up with the widely held belief that English is a ‘skills-based subject’. English teachers, as experts, have automatised the process of pattern matching between the thousands of different literary texts they’ve read. When we read a new text, we don’t notice the near instantaneous process of comparing it to everything else we’ve ever read. We just experience the sensation of ‘making an interpretation’. Because this is what we think happens in our own heads, we believe that if only we can teach students the skill of interpreting, they’ll be fine. This, however, is a classic case of expertise induced blindness. By failing to recognise that our expertise is a product of pattern matching we neglect to teach students what they actually need to learn in our to interpret texts a bit more like us.
In my book, Making Meaning in English, I referred to this judicious application of knowledge as ‘analogising’:
The more we know – and, in particular, the more we know about language and literature – the better able we are to recognise that this piece of knowledge fits just there, or that the word, image or structural device over which we’re currently poised reminds of something we’ve seen elsewhere. This knowledge is not always literary. When Julia is first introduced Orwell’s 1984, we’re told, “Winston disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her … He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young pretty ones.” On reading this a student who happened to be an aficionado of the 60s rock band, The Doors said this reminded her of the line from ‘People Are Strange,’ “Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted.” This is precisely how we use analogies to make meaning.
The literary critic and professor of English, I.A. Richards once said, “All thinking from the lowest to the highest – whatever else it may be – is sorting.” Meaning in English is built up by analogies with all we have read and experienced. The broader our literary knowledge, the more attuned we are to intertextual references, the conversations between texts. The more our students know of literary texts and their history and traditions, the greater their facility for comparing what they are studying now with everything else they have read. Developing literary knowledge helps students to hone a sense of connoisseurship with which they can move from naïve responses to the exercise of taste and the stating of educated opinions. Without it, students are limited to the most basic and banal of ideas.
If this is the case, where does that leave our efforts to teach students to interpret texts? All too often, our approach is inadvertently elitist. It privileges those students who already know a lot and leaves those who don’t desperately trying to guess what to think. For me, this is an iniquitous approach to education. Those who favour the false dichotomy will say, “What’s the alternative? Just telling students what to think?” My preferred solution is to hold the ‘just telling’ and ‘just guessing’ approaches in creative tension. Students should be explicitly taught competing interpretations and asked to choose which they prefer. Here’s how:
- Read the text. I’d be signposting some of the things I’d like students to notice by adding emphasis, significant pauses and perhaps even overt eyebrow waggling.
- Teach students one reading of the text. Show them how the interpretation is backed up by the text itself.
- Teach students a contradictory reading of the same text, again, using the text itself to support the arguments.
- Ask the class which interpretations is ‘right’.
- Explicitly teach that both are made right by being rooted in the text.
- I might next model a bad interpretation by suggesting a reading that cannot be supported by the text. John. Tomsett’s ‘field of interpretation‘ is a useful tool here.
- Ask students whether any other interpretations can be supported and explicitly encourage students to ‘break’ each other’s suggestions by reference to the text.
NB. None of this precludes discussion. At every stage of the process students should be invited to contribute to the discussion and to interject with alternative propositions.
The goal here is ‘gapless instruction’. Whenever we make assumption about what students might already know or be able to do, we creat gaps. Some students have the wherewithal to fill those gaps themselves (or with the help of their extended networks) but other will fall into the gaps and be unable to progress. Whenever we try to teach a skill without breaking it into component knowledge we are almost certainly making it more difficult for the least advantaged students to succeed.
Cognitive Load Theory provides strong empirical support for the idea that novices (i.e. students) tend to learn more effectively when provided with explicit instruction. What I find surprising is that many English teachers will accept the precepts of CLT but still decline to teach their students specific interpretations because that would somehow be ‘less authentic’ or ‘less meaningful. I think this belief is based on a received notion of what it is to study English literature a degree level and beyond where, increasingly, students are likely to have greater expertise and so benefit from the ‘expertise reversal effect’ where an increasing weight of guided discovery approaches becomes desirable. The mistake, I think, is to assume that because English is ‘done’ in one way in universities, this process must replicated faithfully with school students. (Here’s a post about when students begin to move from novice to expert.)
By explicitly teaching contrasting interpretations – by introducing the concept of dialectic – students begin to get an insight into how knowledge is created in literary studies. All students, not just the fortunate few, are given a seat at the table, given the rules of the game and invited to take part in Oakeshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’. Over time, they should begin to see, especially if prompted, that there are a finite number of ways literary tests tend to be interpreted: hierarchy, injustice, morality, responsibility, love, grief etc. These archetypal interpretations can – and should – also be explicitly taught. Then, when students encounter a new text, you can ask them which of these interpretations best fits. From there you should teach students are specific critical lenses: feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis etc. Over time, it becomes both fair and reasonable to fade out explicit instruction and get students to recall the ideas you’ve previously taught and apply them to new texts. With patience, students will be genuinely able to make independent interpretations and, as a bonus, be better prepared for further study should this wish to continue with the subject.
Richards, I.A. (1936) The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press.p. 30.