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Want Students to Read Deeply? Ask Them These Two Kinds of Questions

It's not like teenagers aren't willing to hold forth—at length—on dark, complex issues. So why do high school literature students so often respond to what they read in class with a sunny, cliched summary instead of a deeper analysis?

The problem might be how we're asking the questions.

In a study released this morning in the Journal of the Learning Sciences, students who received writing prompts in everyday language were less likely to summarize their text and more likely to analyze it in more nuanced ways.

"When it comes to reading literature, this is something we hope kids will do every day to enrich themselves and enjoy themselves," said Sarah Levine, the author of the study and an assistant professor of literacy, language, and English education at Stanford University. "And when we ask them to speak only in the academic language of the discipline—words like 'theme' or conventions like talking about 'the reader' instead of 'I'—may do more to narrow than to expand their understanding and experience of the literature."

In her work with English literature classes, Levine found the reading lists often included complex tragedies, but students who were asked to analyze the works tended towards literal plot summaries or morals. "I've seen that with a [group] that was reading 'Romeo and Juliet,' and they said it meant we should 'cherish every moment,'—which is true, but ... they were only focusing on the positive cliches," she said. 

In the study, she asked students at one urban and two suburban Midwestern high schools to analyze the themes in an excerpt of the 1996 novel, The Prisoner's Dilemma, which explores a dysfunctional family. The students were assigned to groups and given one of three writing prompts:

  • A straightforward comparison prompt: "Some of my interpretations of themes in this story are..."
  • A prompt that asked the student to view the story as a world in itself: "Reading this story suggests that the world can be a place where ..." 
  • A prompt that asked students to analyze based on a particular tone, picking either: "By the end, this story seems to have a mostly positive outlook on life because it suggests that ..." or "By the end, this story seems to have a mostly negative outlook on life, because it suggests ..."

Students asked to write about more than the straightforward comparison were significantly less likely to write about literal action in the plot, and significantly more likely to interpret what was going on.

Moreover, nearly all of the students given the prompts that explicitly allowed them to interpret the story positively or negatively gave substantive and often negative analyses. 

"It's not like 50 percent of the kids who had the positive and negative options chose the positive option—90 percent of the kids chose the negative option," Levine said. "Kids have been schooled that when they read a story, their job is to find the one 'main idea,' the moral lesson. When they are given permission to not do that, they take it."

In related studies, Levine found struggling readers in urban schools showed significant improvement in moving from literal to interpretive readings when they received similar writing prompts based on students' feelings. 

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