The cliffhanger is most often associated with television series when one season ends with some shocking event that leaves the viewer wondering what happened. It is a plot device that begs the viewer (or, in our case, the reader) to predict what is going to happen next. If you are in our generation, you will remember the season when everyone wanted to know “Who shot JR?” Many authors of extended texts also use this technique, too. Readers can detect this structure and create a sense of excitement about what might happen next as they read. As with other cognitive strategies described in this book, teachers can employ them to enhance what students mentally do as they read. When employing this classroom structure, note how prediction interacts with other cognitive strategies. Want to know how to implement cliffhangers as a classroom structure? Be sure to tune in next fall…Okay, you win, we will leak the method to you right now before the fall season begins…
(Contributed by Chad Semling)
“This is one of the more effective during-reading strategies I have used. My students not only leave a reading with a greater understanding of the content but also enjoy the process. I have used this strategy with not only reading materials but also classroom lectures and video/multimedia programs. The “Cliffhanger” not only helps the students develop their perception skills, but it also requires them to evaluate their own understanding and practice summarizing what they have read.”
Step by Step
In all actuality, this is a very simple reading strategy to implement. There are just a few simple steps to follow to make this tool work.
- Choose a point within the selected reading to stop, but be sure to include enough reading so that the students have been exposed to evidence and details that allow them to form their predictions.
- Once they have reached the predetermined stopping point, have them summarize (in their words) what has transpired to that point.
- Have the students gather evidence from the reading that will help them make a prediction about what will happen next (or at the end of the story).
- I like to have the students share their predictions (and facts supporting their thoughts) in small groups but you could have them share their thoughts with the entire class. This allows for great discussions on different points of view and understanding.
- Finally, have the students finish the reading (or next section) and then compare their predictions to what actually takes place in the reading (this makes for a great journal entry).
Depending on the length of the reading selection or other source material, you may want to have the students make several predictions at different points. This serves two purposes; first it breaks up larger material so the students do not become overwhelmed, and second it provides an opportunity for the students to make adjustments/revisions to previous predictions based on the new information they have read or heard (It is a good idea to have the students use different colors for each prediction).
The most important thing you can do as a teacher is to make sure your students feel comfortable with making predictions. You need to reassure them that there is no “wrong” prediction as long as it makes sense given the evidence they provided. It is also very important that teachers make this as enjoyable as possible for the students. Do not make this “just another worksheet” assignment. This is a great way to engage students, do not waste that opportunity.
Applications and Examples
In his own words, Chad Semling, Menomonie Middle School, Menomoni, Wisconsin shares his instructional cliffhanger strategy.
One example of this strategy in action uses Edgar Allan Poe’s “Pit and the Pendulum” as the text. I use this reading as part of a lesson dealing with the Spanish Inquisition. Due to the complex nature of the vocabulary (especially for seventh graders), it is a good idea to pre-teach the terms as much as possible. I also recommend an audio version of the reading or at least reading the selection aloud (shared reading). The following is a sample of the reading that allows the student to gather evidence to make their predictions. It should be noted that I usually have the students stop four or five different times throughout this reading due to its length.
“So far I had not opened my eyes. I felt that I lay upon my back unbound. I reached out my hand, and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes, while I strove to imagine where and what I could be. I longed, yet dared not, to employ my vision. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be NOTHING to see. At length, with a wild desperation at heart, I quickly unclosed my eyes. My worst thoughts, then, were confirmed. The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. I struggled for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. The atmosphere was intolerably close. I still lay quietly, and made effort to exercise my reason. I brought to mind the inquisitorial proceedings, and attempted from that point to deduce my real condition. The sentence had passed, and it appeared to me that a very long interval of time had since elapsed. Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead. Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence; — but where and in what state was I? The condemned to death, I knew, perished usually at the auto-da-fes, and one of these had been held on the very night of the day of my trial. Had I been remanded to my dungeon, to await the next sacrifice, which would not take place for many months? This I at once saw could not be. Victims had been in immediate demand. Moreover my dungeon, as well as all the condemned cells at Toledo, had stone floors, and light was not altogether excluded.
A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period I once more relapsed into insensibility. Upon recovering, I at once started to my feet, trembling convulsively in every fiber. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I felt nothing; yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a TOMB. Perspiration burst from every pore, and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. The agony of suspense grew at length intolerable, and I cautiously moved forward, with my arms extended, and my eyes straining from their sockets, in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. I proceeded for many paces, but still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely. It seemed evident that mine was not, at least, the most hideous of fates.
And now, as I still continued to step cautiously onward, there came thronging upon my recollection a thousand vague rumors of the horrors of Toledo. Of the dungeons there had been strange things narrated — fables I had always deemed them — but yet strange, and too ghastly to repeat, save in a whisper. Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness; or what fate perhaps even more fearful awaited me? That the result would be death, and a death of more than customary bitterness, I knew too well the character of my judges to doubt. The mode and the hour were all that occupied or distracted me.
My outstretched hands at length encountered some solid obstruction. It was a wall, seemingly of stone masonry — very smooth, slimy, and cold. I followed it up; stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me. This process, however, afforded me no means of ascertaining the dimensions of my dungeon; as I might make its circuit, and return to the point whence I set out, without being aware of the fact, so perfectly uniform seemed the wall. I therefore sought the knife, which had been in my pocket when led into the inquisitorial chamber, but it was gone; my clothes had been exchanged for a wrapper of coarse serge. I had thought of forcing the blade in some minute crevice of the masonry, so as to identify my point of departure. The difficulty, nevertheless, was but trivial, although, in the disorder of my fancy, it seemed at first insuperable. I tore a part of the hem from the robe, and placed the fragment at full length, and at right angles to the wall. In groping my way around the prison, I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the circuit. So, at least, I thought, but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon, or upon my own weakness. The ground was moist and slippery. I staggered onward for some time, when I stumbled and fell. My excessive fatigue induced me to remain prostrate, and sleep soon overtook me as I lay.”
Depending on the material, I either have the students follow a format outlined on an overhead or whiteboard. However, especially early on, it is a good idea to pass out a sheet with the instructions and guidelines (See Figure 20.1a). The “cliff” I use is to help the students visualize the prediction process at each stopping point; feel free to develop your own format.