ERIC Identifier: ED334595
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Langer, Judith
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
A New Look at Literature Instruction. ERIC Digest.
The teaching of literature is not well understood in American schools.
It is often considered a way to indoctrinate students into the cultural
knowledge, good taste, and high culture of our society, but its role in
the development of the sharp and critical mind is largely ignored. And
so, when budgets are cut, literature is high on the list of expendables,
and when critical thinking is in, English teachers are asked to do as everyone
else, teach critical reading for particular right answers.
In secondary schools there has been no major change in conceptualizing
literature instruction in the past 25 years (except for what individual
teachers have been doing). While there has been extensive change in English
classes, the concern has been primarily with writing. And despite the fact
that more than 80% of the writing that goes on in English classes is about
literature, there has been little recent research on the teaching of literature.
English and language arts teachers have come to feel schizoid in their
classes, using process-oriented approaches to writing, and very traditional
approaches to the teaching of literature.
No research in literature has attempted to help it keep pace with what
we've learned about writing theory--or learning theory. In particular,
there has been virtually no study of how students come to understand literature
parallel to the study of the writing process.
Across the years, scholars have made distinctions between literary and
scientific thought--suggesting that together they form the multiple sources
of reason we can draw upon when constructing meaning. For instance, Suzanne
Langer speaks of subjective and objective realities, Louise Rosenblatt
speaks of aesthetic and efferent readings, and Jerome Bruner speaks of
narrative and paradigmatic thought. However, none of these has been systematically
Related works suggests that literary thinking is a natural and necessary
part of the well-developed intellect. A series of studies show that doctors,
physicians, and lawyers use both modes of thought to solve problems. A
recent study at Xerox Parc demonstrated that machine repairers use storytelling
to solve their problems.
Yet nonetheless the literary way of thinking has been largely unexplored.
We know a lot about scientific, but not about literary (or subjective,
or aesthetic understanding). And the teaching of literature has become
"rudderless"--without a strong theory of what it's about.
For the past few years, Judith Langer has been developing an underlying
theory for the teaching of literature. To do this, she has been studying
the nature of literary understanding, and identifying the ways in which
the understanding of literature differs from understanding other coursework.
She has been using this information as a way to rethink instruction.
Her studies show that during reading, there are a series of relationships
the reader takes toward the text--each adding a somewhat different dimension
to the reader's growing understanding of the piece.
The four major stances in the process of understanding are:
BEING OUT AND STEPPING INTO AN ENVISIONMENT
In this stance, readers attempt to make initial contacts with the genre,
content, structure, and language of the text by using prior knowledge,
experiences, and surface features of the text to "identify" essential elements
in order to begin to construct an envisionment.
BEING IN AND MOVING THROUGH AN ENVISIONMENT
In this stance, readers are immersed in their understandings, using
their previously-constructed envisionments, prior knowledge and the text
itself to further their creation of meaning. For the reader, meaning-making
moves along with the text. In this stance, for example, the reader may
be caught up in a story or may be carried along by the argument of a non-literary
STEPPING BACK AND RETHINKING WHAT ONE KNOWS
In this stance, readers use their envisionments to reflect on their
own previous knowledge or understandings. While prior knowledge informs
their envisionments in the other stances, in this case readers use their
envisionments to rethink what they already know.
STEPPING OUT AND OBJECTIFYING THE EXPERIENCE
In this stance, readers distance themselves from their envisionments,
reflecting on and reacting to the content, to the text, or to the reading
These stances are not linear, can occur and recur at any point in the
reading, and help us understand where to provide support in helping students
move through the process.
While readers work through these stances in reading both literary and
non-literary works, their orientation toward meaning--what they're after--differs
substantially. Langer describes readers' orientations toward literary and
nonliterary readings in the following ways:
REACHING TOWARD A HORIZON OF POSSIBILITIES
During the reading of literature, the sense of the whole changes and
develops as the envisionment unfolds--it exists as a constantly moving
HORIZON OF POSSIBILITIES. These possibilities emerge out of the envisionment
itself, focusing on the human situation with all its uncertainties and
ambiguities--bringing to bear all the reader knows about people, situations,
relationships, and feelings. The reading of literature is guided by inquisitiveness,
by the opening of possibilities. Readers take each idea they read and try
to understand it in terms of their sense of the whole, rather than as a
stepping stone along the way. They clarify ideas as they read and relate
them to the growing and changing horizon--that horizon modifies the parts
and the parts modify the horizon. They do this by searching feelings, intentions,
motivations, implications, assumptions, values, and attitudes.
MAINTAINING A POINT OF REFERENCE
In non-literary contexts, on the other hand, the sense of a the whole
provides a steady REFERENCE POINT. As the envisionment unfolds, the new
details may clarify the nature of the whole, but they rarely change it.
The reader relies on the constancy or sense of the whole in order to monitor
initial understandings (or misunderstandings) of the details. Thus, although
readers of both literary and non-literary texts continually maintain a
sense of the whole, the nature of this whole is somewhat different. Their
understanding of literary texts seems to be constrained by their notions
of human (or imaginary) possibility, while their understanding of non-literary
texts seems to be constrained by their perceptions of the topic.
The reading of literature, then, involves a great deal of critical thought--particularly
characterized by the exploration of possibilities. But it is different
from the kinds of thinking that students engage in when they read science
or social studies pieces, where the pattern is to use the content they
read to gain facts.
These notions, both the stances and orientations toward meaning, provide
useful guidelines for teachers to use in support of students' processes
of "coming to understand."
For further information, see ED 315 755, Langer, Judith (1989), THE
PROCESS OF UNDERSTANDING LITERATURE, Report Series 2.1. May be purchased
from Center for the Learning & Teaching of Literature, 1400 Washington
Avenue, University at Albany, Albany, NY 12222, price $5.00.
Hynds, Susan. "Bringing Life to Literature and Literature to Life: Social
Constructs and Contexts of Four Adolescent Readers." Research in the Teaching
of English 23 (1) February 1989, 30-61. [EJ 385 125]
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Langer, Judith. "The Process of Understanding: Reading for Literary
and Information Purposes." Research in the Teaching of English 24 (3) October
1990, 229-60. [EJ 414 747]
Langer, Judith. Literary Understanding and Literature Instruction, Report
Series 2.11. Albany: Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature,
1991. [CS 212 918]
Purcell-Gates, Victoria. "On the Outside Looking In." Research in the
Teaching of English, forthcoming issue.