Less analysis, more craft

Getting kids engaged in reading has a few clear ingredients:

  • Access to lots of great books
  • Time to read those books in a comfortable place
  • Opportunities to think about those books alone and with others

And here’s where we come in directly…

  • Encouragement and guidance from a better reader

And getting kids engaged in reading takes them a long way. But I also want to push students forward in their reading. Some students will read twenty easy fantasy books in a school year if it was up to them. Michael will read ten books about Derek Jeter and call it a year. Katie will read every Jenny Han book she can get her hands on. This is all great.

There’s a problem I notice when we make the change from encouraging engagement to improving skills. When it comes to engagement, we can see the kids reading. We can see them finish books. They come ask for a new one. The problem is that when we move to lessons about teacher-selected texts, just asking kids to read it is often not enough. We want to see their thinking. Do they get it?

Too often, the way that we ask kids to show their thinking kills the reading experience. It promotes fake reading. English teachers place too much emphasis on literary analysis.

Focusing on the author’s craft creates better results for me.

Here are two ways we can do this:

Have students identify and discuss the author’s craft: Give students two excerpts by the same author. Have them pick out the diction, syntax, and specific writing moves that this writer does across the two texts. When students notice that, just like their favorite athletes, musicians, or YouTubers, there are specific elements of this writer’s work that are identifiable over and over again, it creates an “a-ha” moment for the readers. The doing here, is some annotations on the page, with possibly a list of the writing moves spotted across the two texts.

Have students emulate an author’s craft: After we get students noticing the specifics of a text, we can get students engaged by having them copy the author’s style in their own writing. I think this works well because it give students a tangible look at what good writers do and it gives students quick feedback on their work. Too often, good writing is a nebulous thing that students feel that they can’t actually understand, but just have to be born able to do. Additionally, too often quick feedback doesn’t happen with reading and writing. When students emulate an author’s style, they can immediately put their work next to the writer’s work, and see how they relate and differ. Does it look and sound similar? Yes — ok, I’m doing well. OR No — ok, where can I improve?

Literary analysis is a sacred cow of English instruction. That’s because most of us are English majors. Most of our students are not.* I want to keep that in mind.

What works your reading classroom that isn’t literary analysis? Share in the comments.

*Thanks to my mentor Bill Sowder for first leading me to this conclusion.

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