If you find yourself, like me, excited about using a class reader with your pupils, you always run the risk of over-analyzing, over-interpreting and over-exploiting the source material. You are eager to maximize the students’ responses and insights without turning the whole endeavor into a set of chores that will ruin the joys of reading. If so, you might want to consider using what I like to call quote-based response tasks: short quotations typically featuring everyday observations or comments, to which students are asked to respond.
We are familiar with the traditional setting, in which key quotations from a novel may be presented to discuss central themes and character development. In an attempt to encourage and sustain personal interaction with the text, however, we need to scan the material with a different mindset and provide a different kind of task to accompany the quotes we end up choosing. We need to set aside the grand themes for a change and pick out the seemingly trivial comments, if only for this one activity. It is the everyday observations that are easy to respond to on a personal level, as if you were suddenly engaging in a conversation with the narrator of the novel.
In a typical classroom setting, the students could be presented with such quotes and asked to share their responses. The teacher provides a few questions in order to give some guidance. They discuss their responses in pairs or small groups and then after a set time has elapsed, they move on to the next quote. If the teacher wishes, they may also have to explain the context of the quote, but essentially this activity is not aimed at testing whether students have read the novel, but at encouraging personal output in response to the quote.
At its core, this method is indebted to the tradition of reader response theory and its quest to shift the paradigm from asking What does the author wish to express? to How does the text make you feel? It is at the same time chiefly in the vein of a student-centered approach, encouraging students to actively explore the material with some guidance provided by the teacher. Quote-based response tasks focus on eliciting student output at a personal level with the source material providing a brief stimulus.
While this aim of concentrating on minutiae may appear to neglect the bigger picture of a novel as a whole, there are two reasons why this need not be the case. First, quote-based response tasks are supplementary, thus providing additional, rather than exclusive, interaction with the material. Secondly, if chosen well, the quotes provide an insight into the mind of a character in the text, and the accompanying task causes the students to consider themselves in relation to that character. Consequently, they reflect on one particular viewpoint or experience within the storyworld.
There are many benefits to using quote-based response tasks. Students interact both with each other and the novel. There is little inhibition, seeing as there are no right or wrong answers; hence the responses are mostly spontaneous and stress-free. This generates a positive attitude towards the novel as a source of enjoyable interaction and reading in the EFL classroom as a whole.
If you are looking to create your own such tasks, you should have a pencil nearby when reading the next young adult novel, ready to mark passages that can easily prompt student responses. Finding appropriate questions comes easy once you have developed an eye for the kind of quote you are looking for. The following suggestions should provide sufficient guidance.
Are you familiar, for instance, with Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”? There are some serious issues in that novel (and don’t get me wrong, they are certainly worth analyzing), but it is the short, personal comments made by protagonist Charlie which make it special and which can truly be harnessed if you wish to get your students to respond with enthusiasm. Consider the following quote: “The movie itself was very interesting, but I didn’t think it was very good because I didn’t really feel different when it was over.” (Chbosky 133) This statement can easily lead to some vigorous debate in the classroom or, alternately, a written statement such as a blog comment.
“I was in my bed trying to figure out why sometimes you can wake up and go back to sleep and other times you can’t.” (167) – What can keep people from falling asleep at night? How easy or hard is it for you and people you know to get a good night’s sleep?
“Because that’s what friends are for.“ (173) – What are friends for? Make a list! What kinds of things can you not expect a friend to do… or expect a friend not to do?
“We both hoped he gave her a ‘soft’ version of the truth. […] Maybe it’s better to know the whole truth. I honestly don’t know.” (192) – How important is telling the truth? Why might it sometimes be better to give someone a “soft” version? Name a specific new example!
To provide examples from another, more recent young adult novel, let me turn to “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Its protagonist, who is 15 at the onset of the novel, ponders both the big and small wonders of life. Here are some of his musings presented as quote-based response tasks:
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.” (29) – What kind of people do you find easy/hard to get? What makes it simple/difficult to understand others?
“What ever happened to reading a book because you liked it?” (173) – How much should people analyze books? Can analyzing a book make you like it more? Do you enjoy reading books for school?
“Senior year. And then life. Maybe that’s the way it worked. High school was just a prologue to the real novel. Everybody got to write you – but when you graduated, you got to write yourself.” (335) – In what ways are our lives “written” by other people? In what ways might Ari be right/wrong in his assessment?
Hopefully these examples give you a good sense of the kind of activity I believe you and especially your students will benefit from in the classroom. I also hope you have a fun time scanning your next read while on the lookout from passages that will lead to your next quote-based response tasks!
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Simon and Schuster. London, 2009.
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon and Schuster. London, 2014.
Christian Auinger works as an external lecturer at the English Department of the University of Vienna, specializing in teaching literature. He also teaches English, Psychology and Philosophy at an Austrian high school.