Approaching Texts: Line by Line

Here’s a tricky one: Students – I know this from experience – are often a little slapdash in their approach to textual analysis. Seriously. Writing with a flamboyant flourish, they will make sweeping claims about the texts they read without focusing closely on detail – the little tucked away word, the self-effacing comma, positioned just so, that can mean so much.

So, you say in response, teach them to pay attention to detail. Good idea. However, this is easier said than done, and judicious attention to every word may not be helpful in every circumstance. In Paper 1, for example, a long, multimodal two-page media text may not lend itself well to a lingering finger on every word. A pithy poem, by contrast, probably does.

This dilemma notwithstanding, it is good practice to encourage students to slow down a little and devote full attention to every line, every word, and every punctuation mark. This more meticulous approach to reading (or rereading) helps students appreciate the relationship between the parts of a text and its overall meaning(s). And, it helps support an understanding of the way meaning develops and changes in a text, and lends itself to an appreciation of shape and structure.

A slow approach to reading works well for poems in particular, but also for other shorter text types. It can, of course, be used effectively for teaching extracts from longer texts, and it is excellent training for the IOC in particular. Please note, however, that this last claim is not tantamount to advocating a line-by-line approach to doing the IOC. That’s a separate issue.

In class, you can simply ask students to place a piece of paper over their texts, pulling the paper down to reveal a line at a time. A wifi connection is not required. Ensure you give students the opportunity to fully explore and discuss their ideas.

Alternatively, you can create little boxes, separating the lines of text, and ask students to write in their thoughts. In the example below, students were asked to do this task as homework for Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘An Advancement of Learning’. You can see what a student produced for the first five stanzas. The student’s work was then, with consent, shared with fellow students – peer-to-peer feedback, managed carefully, is very powerful. Interestingly, I thought that the student’s work was quite satisfactory. However, other students felt that much more could be said and, given the opportunity to express their views, the overall understanding of the poem became much more refined.  

Try it with your own students. It’s simple, and it’s effective.

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