Teaching Wonder: Moving Past Language Features

I am a big advocate of explicit teaching. If you want students to have a thoughtful, productive discussion, you need to teach them how. From how to disagree with someone in a constructive way to how to maintain eye contact and open body language. If you want students to use sophisticated vocabulary, you have to explicitly teach the vocabulary. While if you want students to choose their own reading books, you have to teach them how to make judgements about the suitability of a book and how to search for authors and genres they might be interested in.

Having clear learning objectives and recognising that explicit teaching is necessary for learning is central to good English teaching. However, it also contributes to the drift towards teaching the mechanical elements of reading analysis and writing as these are easier to break down into learnable ‘units’. For example, it is easy to teach what anaphora is and how a poet uses it to emphasise certain ideas and build rhythm. But it is much more difficult to come up with an objective that deals with how a poem is beautiful. An objective like ‘to learn how this poem is moving’ is pretty tricky. Similarly, there are beautiful passages in literature, which can easily be broken down into sterile linguistic components. There is a constant pull in teaching literature that moves you away from aesthetic appreciation and towards the teaching of ‘literary features’ or ‘language techniques’ or ‘themes’ in unmoving isolation.

English teachers should always put aesthetic appreciation and the emotional power of a text at the centre of its study. And just like everything that is taught well, it needs to be explicitly taught.

This became particularly apparent to me a few weeks ago when teaching a lesson about photojournalism. In my grade 11 Language and Literature class we have been working on journalism and textual bias. Having looked at ethics in journalism, biased language, objective and subjective language, media ownership, and cognitive bias, I felt it was important to explore the relationship between written and visual texts in journalism. To start with, I used this photo by Ami Vitale for National Geographic:

Last Rhino











The picture is of the last Northern White Rhino, moments before its death in March 2018. The rhino, Sudan, is being comforted by Kenyan ranger Joseph Wachira.

I displayed the picture with no explanation at the start of the class. There was an immediate reaction from the class. I then asked how the image made them feel. Most of the class contributed something. Speaking about how sad and moving the photo was. Unprompted, students started to pick out specific details, focusing on the physical closeness of the man to the rhino; the gentle hand on the head; the touching foreheads showing a tender connection; the closed eyes suggesting deep thought and sadness; the soft, earthy colours reflecting the warmth of the moment.

It was after a good ten minutes or so of discussion about our responses to the image that I introduced some more technical elements to identify and consider, like angle, lighting, line and shape, framing, focal point and positioning. Students were then able to apply these technical terms (the photographic equivalents to ‘language features’) to their initial emotional response.

The process reminded me that when studying literature, poetry especially, it can be easy to go straight into feature spotting rather than deliberately dwelling on the emotional response to the text and making sure that every student contributes to a discussion of the poem’s effect. This can be modelled by the teacher sharing their own emotional response to the image or text, and is the explicit teaching of aesthetic appreciation.

When we looked at other photographs from TIME’s top photos of 2018 students were able to speak much more fluently and openly about their initial response. The technical features of the image then become the tools through which they articulate and develop this response. I think the same can be applied to poetry.


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