The literature classroom through a cognitive lens

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One of the more interesting presentations I attended at the NATE Conference in June was delivered by Jessica Mason and Marcello Giovanelli titled ‘Encouraging Personal Response: the literature classroom through a cognitive lens’. Through a reflective process, teachers were asked to consider the purpose of class readers and what they should be used for. We explored one idea of a reading continuum, with authentic, individual and unmediated at one extreme and manufactured or imposed at the other. We also thought about the extent to which we, as teachers of English, pre-figure student understanding.

The technical terms of cognitive theory were effectively explained with schema theory and how teachers often introduce an idea that marginalises other ideas. Simply put, this presentation challenged the common teacher privileged ‘reading’ of a text and explored ways of encouraging a more genuine student centred reading or understanding of a text.

Myself, I wondered about the number of times I have explained the context of a text as if I am the authority of that world and society and then led students towards an interpretation that is more mine (or a textbook, or a marker’s comments) than theirs. By sharing two case studies, Mason and Giovanelli made clear the benefits of allowing students to reflect on their own understanding and develop their own authentic reading of a text.

One example (Case Study 2) followed these steps using Italo Calvino’s The man who shouted Theresa.

  1. read the story
  2. initial response
  3. reflection on the process of reading and personal response
  4. build in contextual detail and metalanguage

Questions and activities might include

  • who might be narrating this story? What do we know about him?
  • who are the other characters in the story? Why might they be there?
  • what is the narrator’s attitude to the events that he tells?
  • what is this story about?
  • what do you think is the author’s message?
  • why are you thinking this is a ghost story? sci fi?
  • tease out elements of intertextuality
  • draw what the fictional world looks like

The students shared a range of readings which demonstrated how they had made meaning by drawing on their existing knowledge and experience. This meant that

this allowed for an authentic experience for them to engage with the text in their own terms, and to encourage them to reflect on their interpretations meta-textually, meta-linguistically and meta-contextually as part of the process to more fully develop their readings. For the teacher, it provided an opportunity to use a cognitive linguistic model to help her think what students were bringing to the reading process, and how and why they might be making connections, investing emotions, and constructing rich fictional worlds.

When the teacher revealed biographical and contextual details to the students,

they were able to see how readers might easily assimilate this contextual information into a reading that foregrounded the Second World War and critiqued fascism; that is they demonstrated an understanding of the nature of allegory. Consequently, they were able to debate the merits of literary readings that privileged the context of production over that of reception, and think about the validity of their own responses that had not been constrained by being pre-figured.

I had the opportunity to try and stimulate my senior class in their flagging appreciation for poet Deb Westbury. In my absence, students had expressed a dislike for her work, so we physically explored various shells and created word and emotion banks before we ‘read’ her poem shells. This seemed to evoke a deeper response, though not necessarily more positive.

Then I introduced The Scribe’s Daughter. They read it. I read it aloud. Discussion about their initial response was full of questions and ideas: rich and rewarding conversation. Then I  produced a copy of the newspaper article that prompted the poem and we were able to recognise the thinking behind the process of composing. When the inevitable dissection, analysis and annotation began, students were more engaged in wondering aloud about word choice and the images created.

Despite the class having contextual knowledge about Westbury as a poet, this final poem in our study was more effectively ‘read’ and understood which reminds me to think carefully about pre-figuring texts.

Check out Mason and Giovanelli’s  Presentation

Read Mason and Giovanelli’s article ‘Well I don’t Feel that’:  Schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom 

*image taken from


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