Developing Literary Response Skills

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

It's often helpful to use a variety of classroom and study approaches to developing reading comprehension and literary response skills. We'll learn about these techniques and discuss examples of writing exercises that increase students' understanding of literary texts.

Types of Activities that Promote Literary Response and Analysis

Some examples of effective literary response exercises include graphic organizers such as story maps, plot diagrams, and Venn diagrams. These help students understand plot and other literary devices in a visual format. Venn diagrams are good tools for comparing and contrasting characters or other items within a text or studying similar themes or elements in different texts or genres. Reader response exercises and lists are other techniques that can be focused on any literary element. All of these activities can be done with the whole class, as an individual, or in groups.

Story Maps

Story maps are one way students can organize information from a narrative into separate but interrelated categories. They typically involve a central bubble or space for the title and author of a work with other enclosed spaces around it, connected to the center space by a simple line. Story maps can be customized to the students' grade level, ability, or any particular literary focus. For example, a map designed to help students focus on simple plot progression might include spaces for the beginning, middle, and end portions of a story. A more comprehensive map would include categories such as setting, main characters, minor characters, problems or conflicts, resolution (not necessarily a solution, but a related consequence or outcome of the problem), and events. This helps students understand the 'big picture' of the narrative. Other options for story map content are important themes, symbols, personal responses, important quotes, or new vocabulary words. Depending on the focus of the lesson, entire story maps can be made that include only one or two of these elements to allow more room for detail or to show how these elements are related to one another.

Plot Diagrams

Another type of graphic organizer is a plot diagram. An example of this is Freytag's Pyramid, which shows the five essential parts of a plot. It is shaped like a pyramid or mountain with flat portions on either side and shows the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement, or ending. Once each of the plot parts has been explained in class, students can make their own diagrams for the text that is being studied in class or for one of their choice. Plot diagrams help students visualize plot progression in short fiction, novellas, novels, narrative or epic poems, and plays.

Drawing of Freytag

Compare and Contrast: Venn Diagrams and Lists

One graphic organizer that helps students compare and contrast characters or other literary devices is a Venn diagram. Although typically composed of two interlocking circles used to display two elements, it can contain more than this for an advanced analysis. For example, each circle can contain the name of a character and words that describe that character. Traits that characters have in common should be placed in the portion of the diagram where the circles overlap; traits that are different should be placed in the larger portion of the circle.

Venn diagrams can also be used to study similar themes or elements in different texts or genres. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are very different texts. However, a Venn diagram of the three could show that they all involve wearing a heavy and powerful burden around the neck: the One Ring, the Slytherin locket horcrux, and the albatross. Another Venn diagram could show what these items have in common and how they differ, thematically and symbolically.

Sample of a Literary Venn Diagram

Another way students can compare and contrast characters or other elements in one or more texts is to make a list of the traits associated with the character or element. Two or more lists can be placed side by side, and traits that the lists have in common can be circled or highlighted.

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