In looking for an approach to teaching literature in high school, teachers largely fall back on the methods that they had experienced as students. These practices often involve a teacher assigning a complex work of literature and then assessing students’ reading through in-class recitations or quizzes. Teachers typically dominate the discourse and sometimes take charge of the task by reading aloud whole swathes of texts to their students. We know from our own experience as teachers, supervisors of teachers and student teachers, and researchers in the field that students are often bored with these approaches and teachers are frequently frustrated with learners’ unenthusiastic responses to the teachers’ favorite works of literature. There has to be a better way. This book offers approaches to engage students in productive procedures for reading complex texts and provides sample activities to allow learners to practice those procedures.
Thomas M. McCann is a professor of English at Northern Illinois University, where he contributes to the teacher licensure program. His books include Transforming Talk into Text (Teachers College Press), Raise Your Voices: Inquiry, Discussion, and Literacy Learning, Learning to Enjoy Literature (Rowman & Littlefield), and Teaching on Solid Ground, with John Knapp (Guilford Press).
John V. Knapp is emeritus Professor of English at Northern Illinois University, and, continuing since 2007, the editor of the literary journal, Style. Knapp is the author and/or editor of several other books, including Learning to Enjoy Literature (2021), Striking at the Joints: Contemporary Psychology and Literary Criticism (1995); Learning from Scant Beginnings: English Professor Expertise (2008), and Critical Insights: Family (2013).
In Teaching Literature in High School: Principles into Purposeful Practice, McCann and Knapp provide new and experienced teachers a practical and engaging alternative to the assign and assess method of instruction that can limit a teacher’s practice and diminish a student’s love of reading. The ready-to-use activities with scaffolded skill sequences and examples of student work offer teachers a template to design coherent and relevant curriculum that will motivate students to grow as readers. This book offers a guaranteed and viable way to empower students to discover, refine, and employ the strategies that experts use to make meaning of literature. Above all, teachers will value the authors’ principled approach to instruction which will make the experience of English class a delight.
With their Teaching Literature in High School, McCann and Knapp astutely observe that students need preparation for frequent encounters with challenging texts in order to develop higher-level thinking skills and to experience works of literature with confidence. Many elements of the book, and Chapter Four in particular, will benefit college faculty who assign complex texts and recognize the need to prepare students to unpack dense works of literature. As the authors argue, practice with noticing key text features and reflecting on their implications prompts metacognition, promoting inquiry into how a narrative structure, for example, shapes a reader’s own understanding of the text. I judge the book to be an indispensable resource for high school and college faculty who are reconsidering their pedagogical approach to make learning more enjoyable and meaningful.
Equally valuable to preservice teachers and practicing teachers, Teaching Literature in High School: Principles into Purposeful Practice answers why so many students hate to read and often don’t seem to understand what they read. Arguing that success in an English classroom depends on the rich interaction between teacher, students, and text, McCann and Knapp propose that students benefit from the discovery and explicit acknowledgement of the rules of reading employed by mature readers and teachers. If students are given the chance to generate and practice procedures about how-to-read, they can successfully understand and respond in deeper ways to texts drawn from popular culture, young adult literature, and the classics. Suggested specific activities grounded in a practiced theoretical frame centered on genuine inquiry and authentic discussion makes this book essential reading.