Earlier (See cognitive student strategies 5 and 6), we explored how background and prior knowledge are critical if students are to make sense of the new material they encounter. In those strategy descriptions, we emphasized what students and teachers can do before reading a text to either build appropriate new knowledge or to activate the background and prior knowledge that will be relevant. However, background and prior knowledge play key roles in understanding texts in other ways; intertextuality, the types of connections they make and the literary experience the connections offer students.
Intertextuality. Intertextuality is a term that in modern use encompasses a variety of other, more nuanced, terms. When one text shapes or informs the direction, tone, style, or meaning of another, we have intertextuality. Allusion and parody are two forms of intertextuality when an author connects, borrows, transforms, or imports elements from another text. However, the term is not limited to what authors do with their written work in relation to other works. A reader, working with a text, may also connect patterns, themes, and characterizations from other sources read or encountered previously. Intertextuality has been called a dialogue among texts (Foster, 2003) and our use of that phrase is a form of intertextuality. In fact, making connections is rewarding; let’s connect this text with Foster’s text directly: “The basic premise of intertextuality is really pretty simple: everything’s connected. In other words, anything you write is connected to other written things” (p. 189). Whether the source is cited (as convention dictates we should in this type of writing) or the source is Shakespeare, a religious text, or a movie that your students went to see last weekend, noticing and making connections between texts enriches the experience for every reader.
Types of Connections. Here, we borrow from the work of Harvey and Goudvis (2000) whose strategies include teaching students to make connections of three types. In text-to-self connections, students are encouraged to think about the background knowledge they have about their own lives and experiences and connect that with the texts they read. Text-to-text connections are the sort of connections readers make and that we discussed in the paragraph above about intertextuality. Text-to-world connections ask readers to notice the similarities and relationships between the background knowledge they have about the world and how it works with the text before them. Harvey and Goudvis caution teachers and readers about tangential connections that do little to advance understanding of the text. Making connections is fun, of course, but the connections a reader makes today is tomorrow’s existing (prior knowledge and background knowledge) knowledge which enriches future reading with additional connections. Students who make connections between and among themselves, their world, and the texts they encounter know how to pay attention to the attributes of each that make prediction possible.
Literary experience. Teachers of literature often need students to notice the connection between the literature at hand and the literature from another time (last week, last year, two millenniums ago). It is tempting to expect students, who may have read the source text, to simply make the connection between source text and current text. Sometimes, they can’t. Our students are competent novices; they notice what we point out and tentatively make connections of their own. Making connections is a kind of risk; you likely remember raising your hand and saying something like, “This story kind of reminds me of another one I recently read.” But when pushed to say why, it became difficult. Connections take time, and the attributes of the connectors aren’t always readily apparent. The more connections a reader can recognize, even with prompting from the teacher or text itself, the more the reader will be able to make connections solo. That’s just how connections work—it’s exponential—so patience with students who don’t see what we see as experts in our disciplines is an important key to helping students take the risks associated with trying out a new connection.
Learning to Predict
- Daniels (1994) offers eight prompts for connecting a text to self, other texts, and the world. Connect reading to
- your own life
- happenings at school or in your neighborhood
- similar events at other times and places
- other people or problems
- other books or stories
- other writings on the same topic
- other writing by the same author
- things the reading just reminds you of
- Teach students to think about whether a connection is useful in constructing meaning about the text at hand or if it is just tangential or superficial. Modeling how to tell the difference is a sound instructional practice.
- Offer students the opportunity to read texts that are exportable. Smith and Wilhelm (2002) found that young men in high school like to read things they can talk about or export into a conversation. They offer the example of a student who read the Wall Street Journal with the intention of using that as a foundation for discussion with his father. Exportable text, while often easily captured and reduced to headlines, main ideas, and sound bites, offer students the chance to think of themselves as literate and to make connections as a result of the conversation. Modeling, again, is a sound technique, but be certain to tell students what you are doing and why.
- Be patient and point out connections you see as a teacher. Ask students to elaborate or build on those. Patterns detected from past encounters with text invariably translate to predictions during encounters with new texts. Did you see the movie where the stranger rides into town, but the townsfolk are in trouble? Even if you didn’t see it yet, we bet you know how it turns out.
Applications and Examples
Secondary Classroom. Eric was assigned the role of “connector” for the discussion in his literature circle group (Daniels, 1994), but he did not know what to do. The book his group had chosen to read was The Young Man and the Sea by Rodman Philbrick (2004). You have probably already guessed that the book is built along the lines of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). In Philbrick’s book, the narrator is Skiff Beaman. Skiff’s mother has died, his father has given up on much of life, his father’s boat has sunk at the dock, and the town bully makes fun of him all the time.
“Mr. Wolsey, I have no idea what connections to make for discussion tomorrow. I get that the story is about a big fish and a boat like Santiago from the old man book. But what else is there?”
“Okay, that’s a pretty good start. You noticed that this book is a lot like the book we read together in class last month. Is Skiff at all like you in any way?”
“No way,” he said, “my dad sells cars and works hard, mom works at a school and isn’t anywhere close to dead. No one at school makes fun of me, so no connection there.”
“You’re right, there’s not much to work with on that score. Let’s try something else. We read The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967) at the beginning of the year. Do you remember how Ponyboy and Johnny felt when they had to live in the abandoned church by themselves?”
“Yeah, sure, they were pretty lonely. Not only did the socs cut them out of everything or beat them up, their own friends didn’t know where they were.”
“They were pretty lonely. Hmmm.”
“Oh, I get it. Skiff must be lonely, too. I need to get this in my journal before discussion tomorrow.”
Eighth-grade students in Mrs. Jones’ class are also learning to clarify difficult passages and make connections through reading of “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe. She stops at key points to ask students for predictions and clarifies points where she can connect her knowledge of Greek mythology with that of the poem. Her lesson can be found in Figure 10.1.
[Insert Figure 10.1 about here]
Elementary Classroom. In their partner discussions during the read aloud of the Olivia books (e.g., Falconer, 2000), the students in Mr. Castagnera’s first grade class focused on what might happen to their favorite character. To help them figure out what might happen, Mr. Castagnera focused on making connections. As he said to his students, “When you can make a connection, you think like the character and then you might be able to figure out what will happen. Of course, some authors like to be tricky and they give us clues that throw us off. But that’s okay, making predictions helps us learn and remember, regardless if we’re right, right?” Heads nod as the students wait excitedly for their teacher to start reading.
On the first page, Jacob says to Mariah, “I’m good at a lot of things, too. I bet Olivia is good at art because I am good at drawing things I do good.”
Later, when it’s Mariah’s turn, she says “I saw this show on TV, she had to change all of the time because she was scared. I think Olivia is scared because she’s changing her clothes too many times. She’s probably scared that she’s going to get in trouble.”
Figure 10.1 In her own words: Karen Jones, Nashville Christian School, Nashville, Tennessee.
After reading stanzas seven and eight in which the Raven is introduced, students make predictions and we clarify connections to other texts and world knowledge.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling.
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,: I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly, grim and ancient Raven wandering from the nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the night’s Plutonian shore!:
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore ”
From “The Raven”, by Edgar Allan Poe
After some discussion, the students will probably arrive at the following clarifications on their own:
- The Raven is a metaphor for the lost Lenore.
- The Raven represents a messenger from the after-life.
However, the phrase ““perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—“ leaves the students a bit confused, so I ask them, “Why would the speaker have a bust of Pallas in his chamber?” One student will probably ask who Pallas is, but if not, I will ask students if they know who this is. After taking responses, I will then clarify to students that Pallas is a pseudonym for Athena. Students will think of one question dealing with possible connections between Pallas/Athena, the Raven, the speaker, and Lenore, and I will ask them to write it down in their journals.