How Do You Encourage Student Engagement With Challenging Texts in Literature Classes?


    How Do You Encourage Student Engagement With Challenging Texts in Literature Classes?

    Literature professors are tasked with the unique challenge of guiding students through complex texts, and we've tapped into the wisdom of a Professor Emerita of World Literature to learn one such strategy: deconstructing texts to unpack their meaning. Alongside this expert approach, we've gathered additional answers, including the use of interactive annotation tools, to present a range of strategies that encourage student engagement. Discover the innovative methods educators employ to transform daunting texts into accessible treasures of knowledge.

    • Deconstruct Texts to Unpack Meaning
    • Incorporate Multimedia Resources
    • Facilitate Collaborative Group Discussions
    • Motivate with Gamification Elements
    • Provoke Critical Thinking with Socratic Questions
    • Engage with Interactive Annotation Tools

    Deconstruct Texts to Unpack Meaning

    To me, it's all about finding ways to bring literature to life so that students can connect with it and understand the relevance it has to their own lives. In a group setting, this often means conducting brainstorming sessions where we deconstruct terms that we might take for granted or at face value, so we can unpack the layers of meaning.

    For instance, one of my favorite strategies to use for 'Waiting for Godot' is to break the class into groups, each assigned one word of the title, where each composes a group deconstruction of that word on consecutive sections of the board. What we start to see is that each word by itself can take on numerous meanings, but in relation to each other, their meanings become interdependent and determine multiple paths. This, then, gets us into the larger question of what it all means, what it feels like to wait for something that might never come, to be dependent on that never-coming entity. Which gets us talking about powerlessness and autonomy and interdependence, and the very human paradoxes Beckett throws us into and the contexts in which we experience those things. We were wrestling with this text when the world shut down in 2020, and all of a sudden a play that seemed impossible to understand made visceral sense.

    In an independent context, each student in my classes keeps a reading journal that I never look at (I don't want them to feel me peering over their shoulder as they read), but that forms the basis of all of their projects. In one-on-one sessions throughout the semester, we use these journals—the questions they're raising as they read, the confusions they're having, the issues the material is challenging them to grapple with—as the starting point for conversations that get us deeply into the 'meat' of these texts. We then look for patterns in the ideas they're raising and I help them to craft projects where they can pursue these ideas in a medium that naturally aligns with their own interests.

    In these projects, I encourage them to really use the questions they're raising about the literature to draw in a targeted audience who live in the midst of these questions. So, for instance, there was one wonderful project on Kafka's novel, 'The Trial,' from a student headed into a corporate job: a memo to imagined co-workers that served as a cautionary tale about finding a healthy work-life balance!

    Beth Benedix
    Beth BenedixProfessor Emerita of World Literature, Religious Studies and Community Engagement

    Incorporate Multimedia Resources

    When students are presented with challenging texts, incorporating multimedia resources can significantly enhance understanding and engagement. For example, a relevant video or audio clip can illuminate the historical context or thematic elements of a text, making the material more relatable and accessible. Music, art, and film related to the literature can spark interest and foster a deeper connection to the reading material.

    These resources act as a bridge between the student’s world and the complex ideas within literary works. Teachers should consider integrating multimedia resources to make literature classes more dynamic and inviting.

    Facilitate Collaborative Group Discussions

    Group discussions are a powerful tool for engaging students with challenging texts. By designing collaborative analysis activities, students can share their insights and build upon one another’s understanding. In such a setting, each student can contribute unique perspectives, potentially clarifying difficult passages for their peers.

    This collaborative environment also allows students to express their ideas and questions openly, fostering a community of learning where the text becomes a shared challenge. Educators are encouraged to facilitate group discussions that give every student a voice in unraveling the intricacies of complex literature.

    Motivate with Gamification Elements

    Gamification can serve as an effective strategy to motivate students to engage with challenging literature. By incorporating elements of play, such as points, levels, or badges, into the learning process, students may feel a sense of accomplishment as they progress through the text. Rewards for achieving specific goals can incentivize students to tackle difficult passages and work towards comprehension.

    This strategy turns the reading process into a more exciting and competitive experience. Teachers are urged to explore the potential of gamification to make literary analysis a rewarding journey for their students.

    Provoke Critical Thinking with Socratic Questions

    The use of Socratic questioning in a literature class can provoke students to think critically about challenging texts. By asking open-ended questions that require more than simple recall, teachers encourage students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the material being discussed. This method helps students to delve deeper into the text, examining the author’s purpose, themes, and narrative structure in a way that fosters independent thought.

    Socratic questioning transforms a passive reading experience into an active exploration of literature. Educators should consider employing this strategy to stimulate higher-order thinking during their lessons on complex texts.

    Engage with Interactive Annotation Tools

    Technology offers a range of interactive tools for annotating texts, which can greatly aid in student engagement and comprehension of challenging literature. Using digital platforms, students can highlight, comment, and question parts of the text in real-time, which makes the process of understanding literature a more engaging and interactive experience. Interactive annotations can facilitate discussions among students and between students and teachers, creating a community around the text being studied.

    This method also allows educators to monitor students’ progress and provide immediate feedback. Teachers should harness the power of technology to transform text analysis into a collaborative, interactive, and deliberative process.