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Help Teens Connect to Fiction

Discussion strategies to foster meaningful conversations about literature
Books on a bookshelf

Literacy and ELA standards often call to mind skills like fluency, phonemic awareness, or vocabulary knowledge — but literature has the potential to be so much more than a vehicle for practical instruction. 

While the research around empathy and the social emotional consequences of reading fiction is mixed, the work of Ph.D. student and researcher MG Prezioso points toward the feelings of excitement and curiosity that are often sparked when children connect emotionally with a story. 

“There’s an element of enchantment or absorption that happens because you’re so immersed and invested in a story and so there’s a gateway that’s opened to deeper content and concepts,” she says. These concepts include questions of justice and morality presented in ethical dilemmas faced by characters or the potential to develop an understanding of abstract ideas like love, friendship, or jealousy. “I’m invested in having kids read fiction because it points us towards and enables this nuanced, textured understanding of the world we live in.”

Move Beyond the Text

But, Prezioso notes, when she looks at standards for English Language Arts curriculum, many of them ask students to engage in “fact-finding,” or tracking down a particular moment in the text. 

While not necessarily bad teaching, questions that only require students to refer back to the text miss out on a valuable opportunity for students to map the abstract and ethical dilemmas embedded in the text onto their lived experience. What’s more, students need to be asked questions that encourage interpretation and deeper understanding by asking them to combine elements of a story — character, language, drama — to inform their understanding. 

“I’m invested in having kids read fiction because it points us towards and enables this nuanced, textured understanding of the world we live in.”

MG Prezioso, Ph.D. student and researcher

For example, one popular curriculum that accompanies Shakespeare’s Hamlet only asks students to analyze the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy and determine why Hamlet says we choose life. It then asks students how this outlook differs from Hamlet’s earlier point of view before moving on. Prezioso, however, feels there is a wealth of discussions teachers could have with the class.

“Essentially, you’re just asking if Hamlet is afraid of death and how that fear is different. Why not ask students why are we as humans so afraid of death? Is fear of death a good enough reason for living? What do we fear about death in the modern age?”

Structure Meaningful Literary Discussions

Discussing fiction in a powerful and meaningful way, then, requires students to make connections with the text and the real world. To help teachers spark conversations that do this, Prezioso recommends they:

  • Know and use the themes at work in a text. Books should have a place on your syllabus for a reason, not simply because they’re classic works of literature. For example, read Othello to talk about jealousy or The Hunger Games to talk about power.
    • Ask yourself why you like a particular book and what excites you about it.
  • At the same time, think about what’s relevant for kids. While some works commonly read in middle and high school may always be exciting for young people, others may require a bit more work to mobilize student engagement and excitement.
    • Pair books with something in pop culture. Read 1984, for example, and then discuss recent elections.
    • Find and use modern retellings of older stories.
    • Think about representation and the range of perspectives you’re including. Remember, kids need to see themselves in the books they’re reading no matter how old they are.
  • Many teachers already use the questions in curriculum as jumping off point. Be sure to ask follow-up questions that connect the story to the present. This helps students see the value and importance of literature in their own lives. A few ways to frame these questions include: 
    • How does the character think about this? How do we think about it today?
    • What would you do in the character’s place? Why?
    • Why do we, as human beings, do this or think this way? Can that be changed?
  • Call attention to the language in the text to encourage close reading. While it can be helpful to engage students by talking about the text broadly, it’s also important to call attention to specific word choices or literary devices. Leave time to talk about how those smaller details add to our understanding of a theme or bring something else out.
  • Sometimes, kids just need to see that you’re excited about a story. Teacher energy and excitement, especially for struggling readers, can make or break the effort they put into thinking about and understanding a book. Remember to read things you also enjoy and ask the questions that you as a reader might be interested in answering.
  • Remember that reading is something to be savored! It shouldn’t become rote or restrictive. Try:      
    • Creating a cozy reading corner.
    • Dedicating time for a read aloud — even with older students. It could be a fun book to read aloud to the whole class or a chance for kids to share excerpts they’ve come across on their own.

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