It is no coincidence that the hardest texts for students to understand are also the ones rich with style. Typically, it is the style that, to the students, prevents comprehension. They get so caught up in the metaphor in the opening paragraph that they aren’t truly paying attention to the details and content of the remaining of the passage. Or maybe the students see a word being repeated and get so fixated on that one word and why it is repeated that they are unable to stand back and take in the passage as a whole.
This is somewhat of a blessing. Students confused by style also indicates that they recognize style and are curious about it. But, as teachers, we need to find ways to tap into these observations and translate them into reading strategies.
As a result, when it comes to teaching students how to read closely, sometimes the best strategy is isolation. Instead of an anticipation guide to introduce a work, isolate some of those stylistic elements for students to study. Literally, pull out the notable elements of style and ask the students to react to them.
One example I have had success with in the past is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There are several notable (albeit “challenging”) components to this text: the imagery, the word choice, and the repetition. To prepare for class, I begin by identifying major images in the text and locating actual pictures of those images. I have embedded several key images from the text on this webpage to highlight what my students will examine. Then, I type up specific words that have strong connotations with them, words that Jonathan Edwards used to evoke fear in his congregation. I also extract words that are repeated for a dramatic effect. In this piece, “nothing” is repeated three times, so, for the activity, I make sure I type “nothing” three times. Then, I cut out each word and image and sort them.
The students play a type of word association game. The students are shown an image or a word and have to record their gut reaction to it almost instantaneously. They might react by thinking of a synonym to the word/image or recording an emotion associated with it. Sometimes students respond with how they feel when they see the word/image, especially when they have seen “nothing” three times in a row. Then, I ask them to look at the reactions they recorded thinking about linking factors. At this point, without even have read the piece, students are able to make fairly accurate predictions about the content, speaker, audience, purpose, and tone. This activity helps students analyze the text and conduct a close reading of it—without even having the full text in front of them. Then, when I give them the text, they are able to discuss the extent to which their predictions were true or false. They are reading each word carefully to better understand how these words/images are used in the text. This strategy of isolating the challenging stylistic elements encourages the students to think more critically about a piece, while making it easier and more manageable for them to do. They are able to get through the portions that “block” their understanding because they have already overcome that hurdle.
Next time you have a challenging text, bypass an anticipation guide and extract the words and images that complicate the meaning. Taking these aspects in isolation will help your students better know the material, while helping them practice their close reading skills.