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An Integrated, Response-Based Approach to Teaching English in Grades 6-10

By
by Don Gutteridge

h1.Introduction

Children learn “skills” – cognitive and affective – by participating in activities that are linguistically rich and by carrying out entire processes prompted by them. They do not read, write, speak and listen in compartmentalized procedures designed to evoke miniscule, measurable “outcomes”. When children read a novel, say, they bring to bear a number of integrated skills that constitute interpretation and response. What they interpret and respond to is the story – its actions, characters and themes – without breaking it up into its parts. Story-reading is a natural process, imbedded in the mind from the earliest lap-reading experiences. Any attempt to break it into – and “teach” – its various parts will thwart, not enhance, reading. The way to approach the formal teaching of a novel (which here stands for literature in general), then, is to develop a natural and holistic and integrated a pedagogy as can be managed with one teacher and thirty students. The Study-Guide approach is structured to do just that, and in such a way as to allow the novel to be taught to mixed-ability classes where everyone can participate in the learning.

First Reading The first step is to have students attempt their own first reading without the aid of instruction (other than a general introduction perhaps to the author and the context in which the novel is set). This ensures that the natural aesthetic pleasure associated with reading fiction is honoured.

At several pivotal moments in the novel, the student is given an open-ended journal-prompt to evoke a personal response (to a specific crisis or moral dilemma in the work). In this way the teacher can evaluate (in the most general sense) each student’s range and depth of personal response to key aspects of the novel. Because these prompts are open-ended, students of all abilities can participate fully.

Second Reading The next phase is for the teacher to lead the students through a second reading of the book with the aid of a series of specially designed discussion questions. These questions are to guide students through a progressive interpretation of the novel through oral, class-wide or small-group discussion. They are not to be used for writing activities (they come later). The questions focus on the story-as-a-whole (not discrete, measurable parts) where plot, character and evolving themes are studied together as they are when we read normally.

In talking and listening (to other students) speaking and listening skills are naturally enhanced (and effective teachers learn a great deal about students’ competencies by listening to them during these Socratic discussions). The questions are arranged to appear natural, that is they are the sort of inner questions any sophisticated reader would ask himself or herself while reading silently. However, built into these natural questions is a whole range of cognitive requirements; such as, inference from details (at several levels), generalization, prediction based on evidence, rank-ordering, deductive application, illustration, etc.

In addition, comprehension questions are invariably followed by brief probes (to elicit discussion of moral, ethical and social issues raised by the story and its characters) and by periodic journal-prompts to elicit personal and individual response. During the discussion of the first half of the novel, the questions are mainly inductive and during the last half are mainly deductive (where what is learned initially is then applied to later events).

Reading has traditionally been used to promote and develop writing skills. When the novel has been read twice as above, the teacher will already have five or six journal-entries to evaluate and comment upon. In addition, a variety of writing assignments can follow in a range of formats (narrative, expressive and expository) to allow students of varying abilities to find a level of comfort. As well as giving teacher compositions to evaluate, because the assignments ask to students to revisit the novel again, insight can be gained into the depth and range of response and understanding of the work.

To sum up: the study-guide approach is an integrated (skills learned in whole, natural processes), response-based methodology designed to facilitate a wide range of learnings in a classroom where children of many abilities can work collaboratively and be evaluated as required by the school system.

h1.Integrated and Outcomes-based Learning
Outcomes-based learning is itself not an erroneous concept. All legitimate education strives to teach and then assess the results of the teaching. Unfortunately outcomes-based education has been associated – as it is in Ontario through its “expectations” focus – with the teaching and testing of discrete, measurable skills.

But in learning to read (and to read literature) the learning takes place while the student is in pursuit of the meaning of the text. The discrete elements of a story – plot (anticipation of events, cause and effect, prediction), characterization (making inferences about motive and causality), setting (the role that setting plays in the plot and characterization), and theme (the specific ideas that evolve through the story and its characters’ behaviour), as well as more advanced concepts like symbolism – are learned during the process of responding to the textual questions.

These concepts can be assessed while students respond orally to and write about the questions in the study-guide (including journal responses). But these responses are complex, not simplistic reactions to miniscule, discrete elements. A character’s nature (inferred from textual detail) will offer predictions about the plot, so that a student responding to this kind of integrated question will demonstrate, through his “answer” (oral or written) an understanding of both characterization and plot. His or her response will have been “measured” and an assessment made of the depth of understanding.

In addition to the more obvious learnings about stories and story-values, in answering the questions in the study-guide, students will also be learning (and may, by inference, be assessed on) such deep cognitive skills as: simple and complex inferencing, providing apt illustration of ideas and events, deductive and inductive reasoning, rank ordering, etc. In talking and writing about the novel in integrated ways (while pursuing meaning) students will automatically provide the teacher with the means to assess their learning “outcomes”. In this sense, the integrated, study-guide approach is outcomes-based teaching and learning, without recourse to standardized testing and long lists of fragmented “outcomes” or “expectations.”

New Approaches to the Novel:The Study-Guide Approach in Practice
Don Gutteridge has written and edited study guides for 33 great novels for young people under the title New Approaches to the Novel. You can order these study guides from The Althouse Press – Books in Education. The full list can be reached directly at New Approaches to the Novel.

For further information or assistance, please contact: Katherine Butson, Manager and Editorial Assistant, THE ALTHOUSE PRESS Faculty of Education, The University of Western Ontario, 1137 Western Road, London, Ontario, Canada N6G 1G7 Tel: 519 661 2096 / Fax: 519 661 3833 Web Page: THE ALTHOUSE PRESS

Don Gutteridge was born in 1937 in Sarnia, Ontario and was raised in the nearby village of Point Edward. He was educated at The University of Western Ontario, where he graduated in 1960 with a degree in Honours English. He taught high school and elementary school for seven years, and in 1968 joined the Faculty of Education at UWO. He is currently Professor Emeritus. He is author of more than 30 books, including poetry, fiction, and both practical and scholarly works in education. His books on education include Brave Season: Reading and the Language Arts in Grades Seven to Ten, Incredible Journeys: New Approaches to t he Novel in Grades 7 to 10: A Handbook for Teachers, and The Dimension of Delight: A Study of Children’s Verse Writing, Ages 11-13. He is general editor of the popular series, New Approaches to the Novel.


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