A three-stage approach helps students to fathom literary texts
Sometimes, students need help to understand what revision of literary texts really involves. One definition of revision is "study of work done in order to prepare for an exam", but this has limited usefulness. What exactly is the work done? And how do you define when it is "done"?
I prefer this alternative definition: "reconsidering and altering in the light of further evidence". To achieve this with my older students, I treat revision of literature as progressive, falling into three stages: while studying a text; post-text; and pre-exam.
1. First look
In this stage, students make notes on their reading before class, and on the discussion during class. During the study of a text, I periodically ask them to sift through these notes (for example, at the end of a chapter or act) and write down the most significant things they have learned or observed and what they still need to understand or find out.
This is an opportunity for students to take ownership of the revision process, moving from merely taking notes to the higher analytical skill of making personal sense of their learning. It also enables me to see what they have individually learned and whether they have taken on board the issues I want them to understand or consider. The results of this approach can be disconcerting and surprising. You may need to dedicate a class to sharing, deconstructing and reconsidering some of the points articulated, but it's better to do this now than to leave students to wade through incoherent notes before the exam.
2. Returning to the text
The minutiae of studying literature can lead students to lose appreciation of how the parts make up the whole. A revision class at the end of a block of study offers an opportunity for the class to reconsider and alter their views communally. Instead of individual "final" essays on one topic, written and marked in isolation, five or six small-group presentations on different aspects of the text can help them to evaluate the text more dynamically. Get the groups to choose from a list of topics or create one themselves. Sample questions could include "How differently is authority demonstrated in The Crucible?" and "What moments in Heart of Darkness help us to define the narrator?" Further evidencegathering and articulation of ideas is more useful than exam-writing practice at this point, and group work boosts individual understanding.
3. Exam preparation
Solitary revision of texts before an exam is often discouraging, but when shared as a class it is much more stimulating. I take each text in turn, divide it into sections for pairs of students and ask them to present their work chronologically during a single session. In this way, the text is brought alive as one coherent whole. The students' brief is: to narrate their section vividly but concisely; to give it a heading and define some significant aspects; to identify one telling quote; and to pose one high-level question to which they may or may not have an answer - for example, "Does Jim in The Glass Menagerie kiss Laura for his own pleasure or for hers?" This approach gives you the chance to see where students are in their understanding and to contribute to this for the final time.
Elizabeth Stephan teaches at Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire, England. She is the author of IB English A: literature study and revision guide and has taught in Japan, Europe and the US
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