ERIC Identifier: ED469929
Publication Date: 2002-03-00
Author: Brynildssen, Shawna
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN., Family Learning Association
Character Education through Children's Literature. ERIC Digest.
The issue of character education has recently received much attention at both
the state and federal level. Legislators, teachers, and parents are all
grappling with how best to instill in America's youth not merely information but
also the character traits known to promote success and happiness in life, and
which will best enable young people to maximize their use of their education and
knowledge. One approach that shows particular promise is that of using
children's literature as a pedagogical device.
Some educators believe that literature can be a very powerful tool. According
to Weaver (1994), "Literary characters have almost the same potential for
influencing the reader as the real people with whom a reader might share a
reading experience" (pp. 33-34). Given this, the implications for literature's
role in character education are great. This digest will examine some of the
pertinent issues surrounding this important method of instruction.
WHICH TRAITS TO TEACH
There is some slight variation among
researchers as to which specific traits constitute an ideal character education
program. For example, the Character Counts! Coalition offers six "pillars" of
good character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and
citizenship. Phi Delta Kappa's 2000-2001 Study of Core Values listed learning,
honesty, cooperation, service to others, freedom, responsibility, and civility
as the core values on which most people agree. And Lickona (1991) offers a
slightly more comprehensive list, which includes responsibility, respect,
tolerance, prudence, self-discipline, helpfulness, compassion, cooperation,
courage, honesty, fairness, and democratic values.
The answer to the question of "which traits?" may be that there is no
universal answer. The "right" mix of qualities may vary, depending on the school
and the community. According to Leming (1996), many character education
advocates suggest that educators involve their local communities in identifying
and defining the virtues to be woven into their educational goals. Otten (2002)
agrees: "The conversation about what character qualities should be fostered in
the school environment needs to be held with all stakeholders" (p. 63).
WHICH LITERATURE TO USE
Choosing which books to use can be
an even more daunting task than choosing which traits to teach. The options are
bountiful and include fiction and non-fiction, contemporary writings and
classics. According to Otten (2002), it is best to expose students to a wide
variety of literature. The Heartwood Institute, a provider of character
education curricula and resources, recommends incorporating classics, folk
literature, legends, and contemporary stories-all drawn from various cultures.
This type of diversity allows students to discover similarities in values across
geography, culture, and time.
Effective character education goes
well beyond simply processing and storing information. Merely having students
read about exemplary characters making good choices will do little, if anything,
to change either thinking or behavior. Lickona (1993) says that character
education must be designed to "encompass the cognitive, affective, and
behavioral aspects of morality." That is, it must help students "understand the
core values, adopt or commit to them, and then act upon them in their own lives" (pp. 5-6).
The first two stages of this comprehensive approach, then, are reflection and
response. Educators can use a range of activities- including discussion, debate,
research, role-playing, and essay writing or journal keeping to prompt and
nurture students in these stages.
* Discussion. Leal (1999) places particular emphasis on the role of
discussion, noting that, "Students' acquisition of knowledge is not limited to
the personal construction of meaning, but is in fact extended, modified, and
restructured as a result of the social construction of meaning" (p. 2). She
cites Bleich (1978), who claimed, "It is not possible to 'have' an
interpretation of a work of literature in isolation from a community."
Leal goes on to offer a strategy for engaging students in reflection and
discussion. Developed during a 1997 study of Newbery Medal recipients, her
approach calls for students to individually keep running records of the
character traits they find in a work of literature. (Note: the specific traits
students track are pre-identified and defined by teacher and student
collaboration). After reading and recording, students rank the traits they found
by the number of times they appear. A small-group or whole-class discussion then
follows, in which students compare their findings. In a study of middle-grade
classrooms using this technique, Leal found that "...students became quite
engaged not only in discussing character traits demonstrated by the book
characters, but also went on to discuss these character traits in their own
lives" (p. 4).
* Debate. According to the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs-a national resource
for character education, directed by Thomas Lickona-structured classroom
controversy offers a promising approach to developing moral reflection. As
outlined by Johnson and Johnson (1995), this approach calls for teams of
students to advocate for opposing positions on an issue, then switch sides and
advocate for the positions they initially opposed. When used in conjunction with
literature, this method allows students to debate the often-complex issues found
in their reading: Was this character justified in doing what he or she did? Are
there circumstances under which the character would have been justified in
acting differently? And so forth.
* Research. Searching for further information-both online and in the
library-can help students gain a more profound familiarity with a given
character trait. They may be able to find examples of other characters
exhibiting the trait in different circumstances and different ways, thereby
broadening their scope of understanding. They may also be able to bring new
information back to the class, thereby generating new conversational threads and
bringing to light unexamined ideas.
* Role-playing. Students can delve more deeply into the natures and
motivations of the literary characters they are studying by role-playing
imaginary interactions. This method can be especially useful when examining
qualities related to resolving conflict and living peaceably. "Role-playing a
character's conflict and resolution can be effective 'practice' for times when
students actually become involved in personal conflict" (Otten, 2002, p. 82).
* Journal Keeping or Essay Writing. These activities allow students to
reflect on their learning and apply it to their own lives. After the class
studies a character trait, as illustrated in a book or story, the students write
their personal responses in their journals (or in an essay), prompted by a
series of teacher-directed, open-ended questions. For example, the teacher might
ask, "What do you think you would have done if you had been in that person's
position?" or "Can you think of a better way he or she might have handled the
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
The third tenet of Likona's approach
to character education involves helping children act on the values they have
learned and adopted. This step takes students out of the classroom and into the
real world-helping them practice positive character traits not only in school
but in all areas of their lives. This aspect of character education demands
school-wide involvement. As Lickona (1993) points out, "if schools wish to
maximize their moral clout, make a lasting difference in students' character,
and engage and develop all three parts of character...they need a comprehensive,
holistic approach" (p. 6). He goes on to explain that such an approach "tells
schools to look at themselves through a moral lens and consider how virtually
everything that goes on there affects the values and character of students" (p.
To be most effective, character education should extend even beyond the
school walls. Students should be given the opportunity to practice their
positive character traits by performing community service. This type of service
learning reinforces beliefs and values and encourages moral development (Conrad
& Hedin, 1991). Students' families are another key factor to consider in
developing a holistic approach. Otten (2002) notes that because children learn
as much at home as they do at school, it is vital to involve parents in teaching
character. One way to do this is through take-home sheets that explain what
children are learning and offers ways for parents to reinforce the new
Bleich, D. (1978). Subjective criticism.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Conrad, D. & Hedin, D. (1991). School-based community service: What we
know from research and theory. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 743-749. [EJ 426 971]
Johnson, D. & Johnson, R. (1995). Creative controversy: Intellectual
challenge in the classroom (3rd ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Leming, J. S. (1996). Teaching values in social studies education-Past
practices and current trends. In B. G. Massialas and R. F. Allen. (Eds.).
Crucial Issues in teaching social studies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing
Leal, D. (1999). Engaging students' minds and hearts: Authentic student
assessment of character traits in literature. Journal of Adolescent & Adult
Literacy, 43(3), 240-248. [EJ 596 871]
Lickona, T. (1991). Educating for character: How our schools can teach
respect and responsibility. New York: Bantam Books. [ED 337 451]
Lickona, T. (1993). The return of character education. Educational
Leadership, 51(3), 6-11. [EJ 472 598]
Otten, E. H. (2002). Developing character through literature. Bloomington,
IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication and The Family
Weaver, C. (1994). Reading process and practices: From
Socio-psycholinguistics to Whole Language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. [ED 367