Teaching Literature Interpretation in High School

Teaching Literature Interpretation, this is the second of a 4-part series of posts taken from a popular workshop I’ve offered over the years to homeschoolers.

Teaching Literature Interpretation

 Teaching Literature Interpretation

If you would like to have the full text of the workshop (this series of posts will share about 1/3 of the information in the workshop), you can download a .pdf of the whole thing from our ebookstore. Click here to purchase.

In case you missed Part 1, click here to read Teaching Literature – Helping Students Form Relationships with Books.

How can we encourage our kids to read classic literature, help them actually get something worthwhile out of it, but also be honest enough to validate the frustrations they feel, and help them move beyond that frustration to something like satisfaction with the experience?

Okay, let’s look at ourselves for a moment. How do we introduce reading to our kids?

We read-aloud to them when they’re little, right?

Some of the most delightful memories we have of our kids’ early years of homeschooling center on reading aloud to them.

Then we teach the kids to read for themselves. Some kids take to it like a duck to water. Some kids take to reading more like a CAT to water! Sounding out words, memorizing sight words….bit by bit we make it possible for the child to read a book alone.

From that point on, we focus a lot of attention on READING COMPREHENSION, right?

Vocabulary must be learned so that they will understand the book.

We teach literary devices like symbols or personification or metaphor so that they will understand the book.

We have them answer questions to make sure they are following the plot so that they will understand the book.

We have them draw pictures when they are young and write papers when they are older describing characters and their relationships with one another so that they will understand the book.

And these are all good things – don’t get me wrong. Comprehending what you read is absolutely vital to success as a student, and even to success in life as an adult.

But there is a lot more to reading than comprehension and analysis. In fact, reading experts (whoever they are!!) generally recognize comprehension as only the FIRST level of a reader’s grasp of a book.

Teaching Literature Interpretation Continues with:

So what else is there beyond understanding the vocabulary, the plot, the characters and devices in a book?

Reading for Interpretation is another layer, a deeper level of interaction with a book. When we read for interpretation, we are trying to understand the book IN LIGHT OF a particular belief.

For example, when my son and his friends recently read Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible together (btw, a readers theater gathering is a GREAT way to help teens connect with a play….) their initial comprehension of the story gave them a look at historical characters in Salem, MA in 1692 who were a part of the infamous witch trials.

They met John and Elizabeth Proctor who were destroyed by the mass hysteria in Salem. They witnessed the manipulative behavior of Abigail Williams, the young woman who brought accusation against so many in her town. The comprehended the facts of the story – innocent people were put to death for refusing to admit to crimes they had not committed. Fear took control of a whole community.

But if we read The Crucible with Arthur Miller’s own notes about his play, and with a little bit of historical information about when and why he wrote it, we come at the story and characters with a new level of interpretation. The play was written in 1952 during what is now referred to as “The Red Scare” as Senator Joseph McCarthy accused one public figure after another of being a communist.

Miller believed that the United States was in the throes of a growing mass hysteria not unlike the town of Salem 250 years before. If we read The Crucible in light of the belief that The Red Scare was a dangerous time, a time when innocent people were likely to be ruined, to lose their lives even, simply because fear was taking control of a whole community, then a new level of interaction with the book can take place.

I asked my son (he just finished his sophomore year in high school, by the way) to write a short reaction paper after reading and discussing The Crucible.

He wrote about the current climate of fear in his world, the post-9/11 United States where every person who appears to be from the Middle East is suspect in an airport. His interpretation of the story – thinking of it in light of the belief that “A society ruled by fear is a danger to itself” – allowed him to form a relationship with the book because he understood more than simply what happened in Salem, MA in 1692.

What are your thoughts about study helps like Cliffs Notes or Sparknotes? Do you feel like your kid is cheating?


Up Next:  Part 3 – Teaching Inferential Reading in High School

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Teaching Literature Interpretation in High School

Sabrina Justison

20+ year homeschool mom and curriculum developer for 7SistersHomeschool.com. Fred's wife. Writing, drama, music, blogs, kids, shoes, coffee, & books in varying orders on various days. He is God, He is good & He loves me.

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