Teaching Literature

american literature

british literature

multicultural/women's/world literature

lesson plans/course syllabi



young adult literature

literary genres/mythology



critical lenses

story response/writing



professional development


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Goals for teaching literature: What does it mean to teach literature?


Understanding students’ individual differences: Who are our kids?


Planning and Organizing Literature Instruction: How Do I Decide What to Teach?


Using Drama to Foster Interpretation: How Can I Help Students Read Better?


Leading Classroom Discussions of Literature: How Do I Get Them to Talk about Literature?


Writing about literature: How do I get them to write about literature?


Using narratives in the classroom: What’s the use of story?


Teaching text and task-specific strategies: How does the shape of a text change the shape of my teaching?


Teaching the Classics: Do I Have To Teach the Canon, And If So, How Do I Do It?


Multiple Perspectives to Engage Students with Literature: What are Different Ways of Seeing?


Teaching Media Literacy: What else is a text and how do I teach it?


Assessing and Evaluating Students’ Learning: How do I know what they’ve learned?


Text Selection, Censorship, Creating an Ethical Classroom Environment. and Teacher Professionalism: How do I Stay in Control, Out of Trouble, and Continue to Develop as A Teacher?



1.  Formulate objectives for learning literature and criteria for evaluating learning.  Define what you value in students’ interpretations of literature—what you want your students to achieve in learning to interpret literature.  Then, formulate some specific objectives associated with what you want students to learn to do in interpreting literature, for example, the student will learn to define specific norms operating in the social world of the text to explain characters’ actions. 

Then, for each of these objectives, specify one or more criteria for evaluating the extent to which students have achieved these objectives, for example, the student specifies one or more norms operating in the social world of the text and uses those norms to explain the characters actions by citing reasons for those actions based on those norms.

Here are some criteria for evaluating levels of literary understanding developed by Chris M. Workshop (2000) for use in evaluating film interpretation:

Low level
- May not follow the entire narrative thread, but naively focus on fragments or episodes as the principal focus/ purpose of the work.
- Makes little distinction between representation and reality.
- Sees (one or a small selection of) characters in two-dimensional terms.
- Is very marginally aware of some aspects of the author's art. (E.g., Special effects, sound)
- May refer to other works in simple comparison.
- Makes predictions based on simple plot conventions.

Middle Level

- Understands the story, its development & syntax.
- Identifies with character(s), their psychology, motives, actions, as heroic figures.
- Understands (some) separate components of the authoring arts, & may make occasional connections among them
- Can state & support personal preferences informally.
- Can make judgments based on knowledge of genre and/or the body of work of an actor or an individual artist.
- Predicts outcomes based on insights/patterns of plot and character.

High Level

- Sees the story as one component of the author's, actors’ & other artists' work.
- Expands comprehension by connecting story to themes, universal mythological patterns & other works.
- Understands the complexity of performance & psychology of characterization.
- Comprehends how performances complement other components of the work.
- Expands comprehension by connecting characters and performances to models in other works.
- Identifies with/points out the concrete & conceptual work of the media author(s). Editing, script, lighting, sound, camera placement/ movement, composition, ideology.
- Expands comprehension by perceiving the interaction of the various artistic components of the work & by connecting to other works by this & other authors.
- Views the work as a united and integrated whole.
- Is aware of & can articulate excellences, gaps, excesses & deficiencies.
- Cites sources to substantiate conclusions.
- Makes predictions based on multiple & integrated insights of the genre.

Using criteria in student teaching.  During her English Education program at the University of Minnesota, Sarah McArdell worked in a special program for urban students.  She has a strong interest in incorporating drama into her teaching, using.   She valued the use of drama as a tool to foster oral and written expression of ideas.   To achieve this goal, drawing on Michael Rohd’s (1998) drama development activities, “Energy Work,” “Focus Work,” “Trust Work,” “Bridge Work,” and “Improvisation,” she devised a brief six-day unit that involved the following schedule:

Day 1: “I Come From” poems: verbal & written. Introductory workshop.
Day 2:  Project introduction and group work
Day 3:  Energy and Focus Work activities; Trust Work activities
Day 4:  Bridge Work activities; Improvisation
Day 5:  Activating material
Day 6:  Reflection: written and verbal

After completing a sampling of the exercises, the students broke into four groups to further practice the exercises in their small groups and plan a facilitation session for the full group. The students also completed a variety of reflective writing tasks and collected them in a portfolio.
To evaluate the students’ work, she formulated the following criteria:

Participation in exercises:
Exemplary (4): Participates in all exercises.  Seeks opportunities to expand their skills by exploring a variety of options for participation.  Actively promotes a safe environment for the entire class.

Proficient (3): Participates in all exercises.  Is attentive to their own safety and their classmates. 

Novice (2): Participates in most of the exercises.   Is attentive to their own safety.

Emerging (1): Participates in only a few exercises.  Actively disregards their own safety and their classmates. 

Completion of evaluation sheets for each member of the group:

Exemplary (4): Provides positive & constructive feedback to all group members.  Demonstrates a precise & insightful understanding of the skills required to facilitate a theatre workshop successfully.

Proficient (3): Provides positive or constructive feedback to all group members. Demonstrates accurate knowledge of the skills required to facilitate a theatre workshop.

Novice (2): Provides feedback to all group members. Demonstrates knowledge of some of the skills required to facilitate a theatre workshop.  

Emerging (1): Provides feedback to some group members.  Provides discouraging or inaccurate feedback.  Demonstrates limited understanding of the skills required to facilitate a theatre workshop.

Group facilitation of category workshop:

Exemplary (4): Contributes to the workshop overview by synthesizing the information in the text and combining it with the experience of preparing the workshop.  Supplies clear & precise instructions for the facilitation exercise. Displays fluent understanding of the exercise’s full intent. Considers the audience and adapts the original exercise to better serve them.  Supports other group members in their facilitation efforts.
Proficient  (3): Contributes to the workshop overview by articulating information in the text and the experiences of preparing for the workshop. Supplies accurate, organized instructions for the facilitation exercise. Displays an understanding of the exercise’s primary intent. Chooses an exercise suitable for the audience.  Supports other group members in their facilitation efforts.
Novice (2): Contributes to the workshop overview by demonstrating accurate knowledge of the text. Supplies some interactions for the facilitation exercise. Displays a limited understanding of the exercise’s intent. Does not consider the audience in their choice of exercise.  Supports some group members in their facilitation efforts.
Emerging (1): Contributes to the workshop overview by providing general information from the text.  Supplies inaccurate or disorganized instructions for the facilitation exercise.  Chooses an inappropriate exercise. Supports only a few group members’ facilitation efforts.

You may also formulate your criteria by using a point system in which they award points for different levels of performance.  They then add up the points and award grades based on points accrued.  For example, in his student teaching, Dan Gough developed the following rubric for awarding points for essay writing involving application of critical lenses to The Great Gatsby.

Use of Lens (5 Pts)
(5) Essay displays clear and accurate use of at least one literary lens.
(4) Essay demonstrates the use of at least one literary lens but without the efficacy of an A paper.
(3) Essay attempts to use at least one literary lens but may do so incorrectly or confuse the usage of lenses.
(2) Essay incorrectly applies literary lenses to the argument or the text.
(1) Essay makes no attempt to use literary lenses.

Support (5 Pts)
(5) Essay makes ample and relevant use of supporting details from the text (at least twice per paragraph in 3 instances).
(4) Essay makes good use of relevant supporting details from the text (at least twice per paragraph in 2 instances).
(3) Essay makes some use of relevant supporting details.  2 or more paragraphs may only contain 1 supporting detail that is relevant to the argument.
(2) Essay makes little use of supporting details. Paragraphs all contain 1 or fewer details from the text or details may be largely irrelevant.
(1) Essay makes no use of supporting details or uses details that are completely irrelevant to the essay.

Essay Construction (5 Pts)
(5) Essay is well constructed using an introduction, conclusion and at least 3 body paragraphs.  Construction accentuates the power of the writing.
(4) Essay is adequately constructed.  Introduction and conclusion and 3 paragraphs are present.  Paragraphs may be less well formed and the overall construction may not add to the essay's effectiveness.
(3) Essay contains an introduction and conclusion but only 2 well formed paragraphs.
(2) Essay lacks elements of basic construction.  Introduction or conclusion may be missing or poorly formed or essay may only possess 1 well-constructed paragraph.
(1) Essay lacks any evidence of organization.  Introduction and conclusion may be missing or badly formed.  No evidence of paragraphs.  Lack of organization hinders readability.

Errors (5 Pts)
(5) Essay is free of grammatical and usage errors.
(4) Essay contains minimal errors (less than 2) such that the effectiveness of the essay is not jeopardized.
(3) Essay contains several errors (3-5) such that the errors begin to detract from the effectiveness of the essay
(2) Errors are numerous (5-10) and the essay's readability is noticeably compromised.
(1) Essay is largely illegible as a result of large amount of errors.

2.   Giving reader-based feedback to student writing.   Using a draft of student writing about literature, meet with the student in a writing conference or give the student oral comments on tape/digital recorder in which you provide “reader-based” feedback that provide specific descriptions of your emotional reactions, response strategies, comprehension processes, or expectations as “movies of your mind” descriptions of how you are processing their draft… “as a reader.” For example, the following is a teacher’s response to a student’s journal entry which responds to John Updike’s story, “A & P.”

Student: The descriptions are wonderful. They are also very succinct and often carry more than descriptive weight. If one has to come from a small to middle-size town these descriptions go beyond producing visualizations. They conjure up in-bred feelings and emotions—from security on one end to frustration on the other. What could be more solid in life than the Congregational Church?

Teacher: In reading your responses to the descriptions, I sense that you perceive these descriptions as evoking a sense of the small-town world. And that world, in turn, evokes a positive feeling in you. I have some of the same feeling, particularly when you mention the Congregational Church, which I always associate with New England.

The teacher described her own “reader-based” experiences in reading the student’s response. By responding in a non-threatening, conversational mode, the teacher is strengthening her relationship with the student. And, rather than simply judging students’ responses, these descriptive responses imply or invite students to make their own judgments. For example, in reading the above response, a student may infer that the teacher understand how he was experiencing “A & P.” And the teacher is verifying the validity of the student’s own response, thereby encouraging students to continue to trust their own insights.

In giving “reader-based” feedback, you shift your focus from finding deficiencies in the students’ responses to defining and communicating their own feelings and perceptions about things that bother, excite, confuse, upset, surprise them or that evoke their own similar experiences. By using the “I,” as in “In reading this, I was bothered, excited, confused, upset,” your highlight the emphasis on your own unique reactions, describing the fact that, “as a reader,” “I’m really interested in…,”  “I’m curious about…,” “I’m thinking about my own experience with…,” “I’m having difficulty understanding…,” or “I’m intrigued about the idea that… .”  You are also describing what you perceive the students to be saying or the strategies the students are employing, verifying for the student that they have successfully communicated their ideas to teachers.

After providing some reader-based feedback, note the students’ use or uptake of your feedback in terms of the degree to which the student uses your descriptions to infer issues or problems in their writing and to formulate revisions.

3. Providing dialogue-journal feedback; training peers for dialogue journal interactions.  In responding to students’ journal entries written comments, email reactions, or online chat interactions, rather than simply providing brief comments, engage in a dialogue with a student by providing their own thoughts, insights, reactions, or “reader-based” feedback, just as they would in a conversation.  In doing so, you are modeling ways of providing feedback for students to engage in their own dialogue-journal writing.  You are also modeling question-asking strategies for students to use in asking questions about texts.

Note the extent that students pick up on your dialogue-journal feedback by responding to your own feedback and/or effectively engaging in their own dialogue-journal exchanges.  Formulate some specific criteria for having students reflect on their own dialogue-journal writing exchanges.

4.  Training peers to give reader-based feedback.   One limitation of peer-conferences is that peers often are not able to provide helpful feedback or they only provide vague and/or laudatory comments.  Because you are helping students learn to specify their responses to literature, you can draw on that instruction to also help them provide specific, descriptive, “reader-based” feedback in peer conferences. 
To train students to give feedback, select one student’s draft and model your own use of reader-based feedback in front of the entire class—you can also ask students how they might respond to the draft if they were the teacher.  As you are modeling feedback strategies, make note of your use of the following aspects of conferencing:
- Let the writer begin the conference—they could discuss their concerns, questions, “what works?”/”what needs work?” or their side-shadowing comments.
- Make a positive comment about some specific aspect of the writing—beginning writers need praise.
- Discuss the paper topic itself so that the students can share their ideas that might be used in the paper.
- Determine the phase of development of specific part of the draft—some parts may need a lot more prewriting; other parts may require major revisions, while other parts are at the editing phase.
- Consider the student’s basic interest in or attitude towards the assignment or writing in general; if there’s a problem with the assignment or the context, deal with that broader problem.
- If students are having difficulty judging or predicting revisions, you may need to model that process and/or make the judgment for the student.
- Don’t overwhelm students with too much feedback; they will only be able to process only so much.
- End the conference with some clearly-agreed-upon revisions that they will make in their draft—have them list what they will do as a record of predicted revision for use in their portfolio reflections on revisions.
- Writers need to listen to the feedback without being defensive or without trying to rationalize what they did by taking in the information, using helpful comments and discarding less helpful comments.
- Writers need to share their intentions, goals, and perceptions of the social context in order to help define disparities/dissonance between intentions and text.
- Writers need to use the reader-based descriptions to assess how your text is being processes in order to judge its effectiveness and predict necessary revisions.
- Writers need to share their revision ideas with the readers and to determine what you will do after the conference is over to improve the draft.

5.  Reflect on your writing conference feedback.  Conduct a conference with the student about his or her writing. Tape-record the conference, if possible.  Then, reflect on your feedback in the conference in terms of the following:
1. What attributes of the writing context (e.g., task, audience, purpose, instruction) support or hinder the quality of the writing? Explain.
2. How engaged was the student in the conference. What percent of the time did you talk? What percent did the student talk?
3. Describe the quality of the student’s self-assessment and predicted revision.
4. Did you make your points clearly? How can you tell?
5. Did the student understand the feedback? How do you know?
6. How comfortable were you and the student during the conference? Explain?
7. What do you believe were the most successful features of the conference? Explain.
8. If you could do the conference over, what would you do differently? Why?

6.  Reflect on your written reactions to students’ writing in terms of the degree to which you employ the following feedback or evaluation strategies:

- praising specific uses of interpretive strategies versus vague statements such as “good job.”
- describing: providing “reader-based” feedback about one’s own reactions and perceptions of the students’ responses that imply judgments of those responses.
- judging: evaluating the sufficiency, level, depth, completeness, validity, and insightfulness of a student’s responses
- predicting and reviewing growth: predicting potential directions for improving students’ responses according to specific criteria and reviewing progress from previous responses
- noting changes in students responses: describing ways in which students have changed or improved in their responses over time.

7.  Formulating reasons for student difficulties in their response.  Read some students’ journal entries or essays or reflect on students’ discussion responses and formulate some possible reasons for difficulties in their responses or their reluctance to express their response, talk in discussions, or express personal perceptions.  Then, for each difficulty, define a teaching technique that you might use to address that difficulty. 

These difficulties may include:
- lack of student confidence in the validity of their own ideas or opinions—that “no one care about what I have to say.”  You can address this by providing a lot of praise to bolster students’ self-confidence.
- inability of students to use informal writing to explore alternative perspectives.  You can address this by modeling the use of informal journal writing—the use of an informal style, posing questions of oneself, entertaining contradictory perspectives, etc.
-  reluctance to express their responses in the classroom, particularly in large-group discussions.  You can address this by putting students in pairs or small groups may be less intimidating for these students, or having students complete free writing, jotting, or listing prior to discussion may give them something to fall back on in a discussion.
- inability to employ a range of different interpretive strategies or talk/write tools. You can address this by modeling the use of certain strategies or tools to help students expand on the range of different strategies or tools.

8.  Formulating reasons for your judgments of student interpretation and predicting future improvement.   In judging students response, it is important to provide specific reasons for those interpretations based on criteria of completeness, relevancy, sufficiency, quality, and insightfulness, specify ways to improve their interpretations, and how making certain improvements will enhance their interpretations, so that students know why they are being judged and ways to improve on their interpretations.  You also need to tailor your reasons according to your knowledge about individual differences in students’ abilities, knowledge, attitude, ZPD, and potential.

Using some students’ writing, specify your judgments of their writing and then give reasons for your judgments.  Then rather than telling students what changes to make, pose questions or model ways in which they could improve their interpretations and how those improvements will enhance their interpretations.

9.  Record changes in students’ interpretations over time.  Using some students’ writing over the period of several weeks or months or recollection of their discussion participation, note changes in their writing based on the following criteria:

- amount of oral and written response: as represented by the degree of participation in group discussions or the length of journal entries (none, little, some, extensive).
- attitude towards expressing response: as represented by the degree of students’ perceived enthusiasm about or interest in expressing responses (little, some, high).
- ability to use different tools: as represented in students’ use of talk, write, art-work, or drama tools: mapping, listing, free-writing, role-playing, and so on, to express their responses (ineffective, effective, highly effective),
- use of a range of different interpretive strategies: as represented by students’ ability to employ the different strategies (ineffective, effective, highly effective).
- level or depth of response: as represented by the degree to which students explore or elaborate on their responses (little, some, extensive)
- application of critical lenses: as reflected in students ability to apply critical lenses to their analysis of texts.

10.  Record changes in students’ free-reading/voluntary reading.  If you are using an individualized or free-reading program, you may also determine changes in students’ amount of free-reading/voluntary reading, as well as their attitude towards reading and development of reading interests in a range of different genres, evaluation you can provide students in conferences with them during free-reading time.

Keep a record of students’ changes based on the following criteria:

- Amount of voluntary reading: as represented by the number of books or pages recorded in an individualized reading program (little, some, extensive).

- Attitude towards voluntary reading: as represented by students’ willingness to and expressed enthusiasm about actively seeking out books (unenthusiastic, positive, highly enthusiastic)

- Degree of defined reading interests: as represented by students’ ability to define the nature of their reading interests and their willingness to seek out books consistent with those interests (vague, somewhat defined, and clearly defined)

11. Develop a literature test or exam.  Develop a literature test or exam that you might use in your student teaching as part of one of your literature units.  Define the purpose for your test or exam by identifying the interpretive strategies of application of critical lenses you want students to be able to demonstrate. Then, formulate a test/exam prompt in which you specify the topic related to the interpretive strategies of application of critical lenses you want students to employ and the criteria you will be using to evaluate their writing.  You may also want to include some prewriting to help students develop material for their essay.

12. Develop a portfolio assignment for use in your unit or student teaching.  Develop a portfolio assignment for use in your unit or student teaching in which students select certain writing from their work in a unit or during your entire student teaching.  Ask students to devise a table of contents, select from a range of different kinds of writing (journal entries, essays, creative writing, etc.), formulate reasons for selecting certain writing, and have them reflect on what they learned in the unit or in your course.  Given the issue of the authenticity of student portfolio reflection, frame your prompts related to reflection in a manner that encourages them to provide specific kinds of reflections as opposed to vague statements about their learning.
As an alternative, have them create an e-portfolio in which they use features of Web to create hypertext links between different texts as a means of reflecting on the relationships between these texts.
Provide students with a rubric for how you will be evaluating their portfolio in terms of the inclusion of a range of different kinds of writing, the presentation and organization of the portfolio, and the quality and depth of the reflection in the portfolio.

13. Analyze a standardized literature achievement test.  Find a standardized literature achievement test, such as the literature subtext of the Iowa Tests of Educational Achievement, or a standardized reading tests such as those used to determine students’ “reading ability,” as well as whether schools are demonstrating improvement under the No Child Let Behind Act.  Complete some of the items yourself, examine these items in terms of the validity of these items as measures of “knowledge of literature,” “literary understanding,” or “reading ability.” Note the influence of prior knowledge about the item passages or texts by seeing if you can answer the items without reading the passages or texts.  Then, reflect on the social context in which you’re taking the test related to a sense of purpose or audience inherent in a test-taking context.  Check to see if you answered the items correctly and issues related to what determined if these items are correct.

14. Analyze the relationships between your state standards and state-wide assessments.  Go to your state or district Website for your state literature standards and reflect on the kinds of learning valued in those standards.  For example, The Virginia Standards of Learning (2003)
http://www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Instruction/English/englishCF.html for 8th grade English/reading specifies the following standards:

The student will read and analyze a variety of narrative and poetic forms.
a) Explain the use of symbols and figurative language.
b) Describe inferred main ideas or themes, using evidence from the text as support.
c) Describe how authors use characters, conflict, point of view, and tone to create meaning.
d) Compare and contrast the use of the poetic elements of word choice, dialogue, form, rhyme, rhythm, and voice.
e) Compare and contrast authors’ styles.

All students should
- analyze an author’s craft and style
- compare and contrast the characteristics of literary forms including novel, short story, biography, essay, speech, poetry, understand characterization as the way that an author presents a character and reveals character traits

These standards involve primarily adopting a formalist approach that focus on teaching analysis of literary form. Analysis of the verbs employed in standards for students at the secondary level—identify, recognize, know, understand, etc., or represent relatively low-level thinking skills in contrast to higher-order thinking skills such as the ability to synthesize information and ideas, formulate and apply one’s own ideas, pose questions, connect experience to learning, criticize, judge, or evaluate.

Then, examine the kinds of assessments that are designed to determine that students are meeting these standards (in some states, there may be no specific assessments or tests).  Reflect on how these assessments or tests influence the literature curriculum, teaching, and learning in your state.  For example, the Virginia 8th grade standards focus is reflected in an assessment are based largely on multiple-choice items; for a sample test, go the EOC English Reading test: http://www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Assessment/Release2004/index.html

Discuss the influence of these assessments on curriculum and teaching in the school in which you are doing your student teaching: what is your attitude towards “teaching to the test.”

15. Conduct a mock literature assessment.  Conduct a mock literature assessment using peer groups of 6 or 7 students:

- Each group devises a writing assignment for another group. Groups need to consider the purpose, audience, text, strategies involved, time limit, and wording of the directions. Each group then develops a set of criteria for analyzing the essays using holistic or primary trait ratings.
- Groups exchange directions and, either in class, or as homework, write the essays. Groups then return their essays with names removed.
- Groups rate the essays using their criteria, attempting to achieve some agreement.
- Groups then share their ratings, discussing the validity of those ratings and the difficulties or limitations of conducting assessments.

16. Conduct a survey of students’ reading interests.  As part of understanding the literature curriculum for the school in which you will be doing your student teaching, create an informal survey of students’ voluntary reading interests or amount of outside reading, their interest in the books that are required reading, and their attitude towards reading.  Employing a reading or learning log can be an effective way to record and assess the quantity of students’ reading experiences.  This can be as simple as requiring students to keep a list of the books they read throughout a term, or as complex as requiring journal entries or notes on each book from a list or a set of required genres.  Nancie Atwell’s (1998) student Reading Record asks students to record the title of each book, the genre, the author, the date finished or abandoned, and a rating from 1-10 on the quality of the book (p. 499).   Laurie McCloskey, a high school English teacher in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, surveyed 278 tenth-grade students.  She found that while 93 percent believed that reading was important, only 61 percent indicated that they liked to read.  Over half of the students indicated that they would read more if they had more time or if they could find interesting material. When asked to list enjoyable books read for a class, 19 percent of the students had no response. Most students indicated that they obtained books from stores or home; only 4 percent indicated the school library.  Such survey results could be used to consider changes in required texts or to justify the establishment of individualized reading programs.  For example, if students express little or no interest in the required books, teachers may then have some reason for revising required book lists.  Or, if teachers discover that students, as a whole, are doing little or no outside reading, then teachers may want to develop an individualized reading program.  The results of the McCloskey survey suggest the need for providing students with more enjoyable material, particularly in the school library.

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