Teaching Literature to literal thinkers in high school is quite the challenge.
You know those kids — things are very sharply defined for them. They like the concrete…the concise…the literal. Perhaps they excel at things like science and math. They are big on academic subjects where a formula can be mastered or set of facts can be memorized, but things like creative writing or literary analysis are awkward endeavors.
Teaching Literature to Literal Thinkers in High School
For literal thinkers in high school, Literature is often a stretch because there’s way too much room for personal interpretation. They just want to figure out what the “right” answer is, put it on their homework, and move on. There simply aren’t enough “right” answers once the literature teacher has moved beyond basic comprehension questions and dug into the deeper levels of the book.
How can we help kids like these explore literature in our homeschools? Literal thinkers can rapidly grow discouraged in high school literature classes. Here are some strategies that we’ve found to be helpful.
Give them the “WHY?” —
Literal thinkers need a reason to try to think in a way that feels odd. Help them recognize that many other people in the world are wired to read things in a different way than they naturally do, and you can equip them to respect differences among individuals and attempt to meet others on their homefield. Explain that thinking in a different way about the book they’re reading will make it possible to engage in conversation with other readers who think much more figuratively and with greater inference. It’s a good people skill! And if building a good people skill is not reason enough, if necessary, make it very practical — “Entering into this conversation about the book is necessary to get full credit on your transcript for literature this year.”
Give them the “HOW?” —
Understanding why it’s a good idea to try is usually not enough. Concrete thinkers are NOT being intentionally difficult when they say, “I don’t see any of that when I read it.” They need specific strategies to help them read beyond the literal comprehension level. Take this example from Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.
Asking, “What does the taking of the pair of pearls show us about Wang-Lung’s relationship with his wife?” is likely to overwhelm a student who sees things in a concrete way.
Pearls? Show us something? Wait, the guy and his wife…WHAT??
Break the process down into bite-sized pieces. Start with literal (to build confidence). “The wife has a pair of pearls that are important to her. Where did she get them?”
Follow that with a slightly more abstract idea that you attach to the concrete. “So what do you remember life being like, what was going on around O-lan and her husband at the time she got the pearls?”
Build on the “right” answers given so far. “Yes, the revolution ended a horrible famine their family had just survived! It really looked like there was no way they would survive, but they did, and then the revolution broke out in the city, and they stole the pearls before running for the country.”
Now tie it together a bit. “So if you were the wife, those pearls would stir up memories of…what do you think? A hard time, surely, but a time when you and your husband came out alive against all odds. You would probably remember that time with a sense of real connectedness to your husband, don’t you think? A sort of ‘you and me against the world’ kind of memory, yes?”
Your literal thinkers are now poised for a connection they wouldn’t otherwise have made. “If looking at the pearls made O-lan remember that victorious time with her husband, a time when together they actually won, and now he takes her pearls away to give them as a gift to another woman he wants to take as a concubine, the pain O-lan feels would be about much more than the loss of two valuable jewels, right?” And now the big symbolic question can be asked.
“What does the taking of the pair of pearls show us about Wang-Lung’s relationship with his wife?” Now even a literal thinking student can intelligently explore the idea that this is a husband who has ceased to care about his partnership with his wife, that Wang Lung is wounding O-lan on the deepest level possible, showing her that her most valued possession — full of memory of a time when she was victorious and her husband was by her side — are worth nothing to him but their monetary value that will impress another woman he has found and desires. The taking of the pearls shows that he cares nothing for his wife, and that he does not remember all they have built together over years of marriage.
Asking leading questions is not only okay, it’s really wise when you are working with literal thinkers, especially early in their high school literature careers. Usually it is important to AVOID asking too many leading questions, because we want to encourage teens to think about things on their own and explore the conclusions they can reach rather than simply parroting back a conclusion WE have reached in the past. But if you are teaching a child who is a literal thinker, an early component of their learning will be learning to think in an abstract or symbolic way that is counter-intuitive and learning to build confidence in their ability to “play this game that has weird rules.” You are helping them train their brains to function in a way that is awkward for them naturally, and they need lots of non-threatening practice.
Don’t give them “NO” as feedback —
If they try to think in a way that feels unnatural to them anyway, and you respond by looking at them weirdly and saying, “No, that’s not what it means at all,” you have just sunk the ship before it’s even left the dock.
Instead, find ways to answer positively. “Yes, that’s a piece of it. Can we take that a step further? What if I ALSO asked you….?” Or even, “Wow, that’s different than what I was thinking myself, but I can totally see your point. I guess what I was getting at from my perspective was…fill in the blank…What do you think about that? Does that seem to make sense?”
Some literal thinkers find it easier to learn literary elements by watching movies. Click here for more information about our Cinema Studies for Literature Learning Guides.
What techniques have you found to help literal thinkers in high school succeed?
Our American Literature, British Literature, World Literature, and Great Christian Writers Literature Study Guide Bundles (each bundle $29.99 for a full year of no overkill, no busywork learning) as well as our C. S. Lewis study guides to accompany Narnia ($24.99) and The Space Trilogy ($12.99) are designed to be adaptable to various learning styles, for use with literal, concrete thinkers as well as poetic souls.
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