What’s the use of chapter questions?

August 25, 2008

In order to test whether students have read their novel (or play), English teachers have traditionally given them chapter (or Act) questions. However, these can be both dull and futile: dull because there’s nothing like having to answer a multitude of questions to kill your interest in a novel; and futile because they are an invitation for students to copy each other’s work just to ensure that the questions have been completed. What’s the alternative then? Here are six ideas:

  1. Literary lies: The teacher produces a summary of the story that contains ten errors (ranging from obvious to subtle). The students are then required to identify and ‘correct’ these errors.
  2. Twenty questions: Starting with the teacher, a number of people in the class take turns being ‘IT’. This person sits at the front of the room and must think of a character, object or place from the story. Individually or in teams, students have the opportunity to ask yes-or-no questions. If they receive a ‘yes’ they continue asking questions until they can guess the character or object, or until they receive a ‘no’ in response to a question. The first person or team to guess the character or object wins. If twenty questions have been asked and no-one has determined the correct answer, the person acting as ‘IT’ reveals the answer and a new person becomes ‘IT’. Prizes can be awarded, if wished. Alternatively, adapt a current game show on television as a classroom activity.
  3. Who? What? Where? When?: The students are given an A4 sheet of paper that contains unfinished line drawings of various scenes from the novel (or play). These drawings should not be too specific or detailed. Students are then required to identify who (which characters) are in the scene, what’s happening, where this is occurring (setting) and when. Finally, the scenes have to be arranged in chronological order and colour, dialogue, additional drawing can be added to the scenes. Students can create their own and swap with other groups.
  4. Photostory: Using digital cameras, students work in groups to create a series of photographs which summarise the major scenes of the novel (or play). These can then be uploaded to Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3 (available as a free download), and appropriate captions, audio narration and music added.
  5. Hot seat roleplay: One person sits at the front of the room in a chair. That person is to take on the role of a designated character from the story and answer questions from the audience in role. This also works well with a panel of students playing different characters.
  6. Mapping: Have students create detailed, annotated maps based on the events and characters in the story. These can drawn digitally.

This is just a small taste of a much wider range of possible activities. The main points of difference between these suggestions and the traditional chapter questions include:

  • They encourage active engagement with the text.
  • They encourage discussion and close reading.
  • They are likely to be more enjoyable.

So, throw away those chapter questions and try something more creative and ultimately worthwhile.

Myths about Critical Literacy

August 2, 2008

Over the past few years, there has been much written about Critical Literacy – most of it, unfortunately, misleading and even mischievous. Here is the first of a number of myths that I’ll write about in this blog.

Myth One: Critical literacy is sludge, using mumbo jumbo jargon.

No doubt over-enthusiasm for the power of critical approaches to texts has resulted in some ill-advised practices, including the over-loading of students with technical language. And, in some cases, this has resulted in some torturous language in some student produced writing. Most English teachers (including those who practise Critical Literacy) would agree that these isolated instances of poor language use quoted in the media do not deserve top marks.

However, syllabuses can hardly be blamed for that. Take the much maligned Queensland Senior English syllabus for example. According to the objectives on page 7, readers will find only four terms that students need to know: constructedness; discourse; representation; and position. This is a very small set to be learnt over a two year course. Any other terms introduced by teachers are an imposition being placed on students by teachers and in most cases, the concept captured by these terms can be handled adequately by everyday synonyms, e.g.: ‘what’s been left out?’ for gaps and silences; ‘what does this remind you of?’ for intertexuality. Neither critical literacy or syllabuses can be held to account for any apparent ‘sludge’ or ‘mumbo jumbo’ in use in schools. Thoughtful, on-going professional development is the real answer here – and a bit of common sense on the part of some teachers.

Finally, unlike every other area of knowledge, if the conservatives have their way, subject English could be denied a technical language for sharing knowledge about its discipline in a rigorous manner that will promote deep understanding. Where are the similar calls for Maths to remove references to ‘quadratic equations’, legal studies to abandon ‘misrepresentation’ or Physics to remove references to ‘vector operations’ to name just a few, isolated examples.

The point, of course, is that critical literacy is neither sludge nor mumbo jumbo as claimed on a monotonously regular basis. Like every area of human knowledge, it has its own set of concepts expressed in specialist ways. However, only a very small set of technical terms is required by syllabuses or by a classroom teacher implementing critical approaches in a thoughtful manner that takes account the age and maturity of students.