National Writing Project

Book Review: Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements

By: Tanya N. Baker
Date: May 13, 2010

Summary: Jeffrey Wilhelm, director of the Boise State Writing Project, and Michael Smith bring deep knowledge about teaching and learning directly to the study of literature, focusing on the demands of teaching and connecting them to the needs, passions, and strengths of adolescent students.


If you are a high school English teacher, and you know the work of Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm, then this is the book you've been waiting for since Smith's Authorizing Readers and Wilhelm's You Gotta Be the Book .

If you are a high school English teacher and you aren't familiar with the work of these scholars, then this might be the book you never even knew you wanted.

In Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements: How to Teach What Really Matters About Character, Setting, Point of View, and Theme Smith and Wilhelm turn their considerable knowledge about teaching and learning directly to the challenge of teaching literature. Specifically they take up how to teach character, setting, point of view, and theme.

Readers may first be struck by the many useful lesson plans and student examples throughout the book. The chapters on understanding character, for example, lay out a series of lessons that allow students to build on their own experiences understanding people in the world and glean perspectives from close-to-home texts such as advertisements and movie trailers. They also provide prereading activities in which students practice and reflect on useful skills that they can bring forward to their study of literature.

However, readers who are satisfied with the lesson plans alone (and they will be satisfied on that level) will miss the two most powerful draws of the text. The first is that the book takes seriously the disciplinary demands of the study of literature. It asks readers to think not only about what successful readers of literature do, but about why people want to be successful readers of literature in the first place.

We want them to transfer the understanding they've gained from reading to the way they think through problems and their lives.

In discussing the demands of the discipline, Smith and Wilhelm go beyond why and how successful readers read to help teachers think about the space between what their students can do and what teachers would like them to do, and how to help students traverse that distance. Understanding that instructional time is never unlimited, they have made explicit decisions about what and how to teach in the study of literature:

"We've argued that character, setting, point of view, and theme are four literary elements that we would put at the top of our list of things to teach about literature—if they are taught as more than terms. If taught as procedural understandings, these elements are at the top of our lists because of the pay-off they give to students in engaging and improving their capacity to do reading in more expert ways."

Six Principles of Teaching and Learning

The second draw, and perhaps the most powerful thing about Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements, is its organization around six principles of teaching and learning.

Of the six principles (The Importance of the Why, The Importance of the How, The Importance and Difficulty of Transfer, The Importance of Sequence, The Importance of Providing Opportunities for Choice, Co-Production, and Discussion, and the Importance of Connecting Reading and Writing), the one that I think has the most transformative power for teaching in schools today is the principle of the importance and difficulty of transfer.

Smith and Wilhelm name a number of kinds of "transfer" that teachers might hope for in the teaching of literature: "We want [students] to transfer the knowledge they have gained about people and stories to their understanding of the literature they read, and to their writing. We want them to transfer what they learn from reading one text to their reading of other texts. And we want them to transfer the understanding they've gained from reading to the way they think through problems and their lives."

They then name a central problem in all teaching: "Although teachers often count on the fact that transfer occurs, the evidence suggests that it typically doesn't."

Drawing on a body of research about transfer, the authors argue that "teachers must work hard and quite consciously to cultivate transfer." Throughout each segment of the book, Smith and Wilhelm offer examples of how to support students to transfer and aggregate the learning across lessons, so that it all adds up to something.

In the last few years, much writing about teaching English has focused on teaching reading, and much of the work around teaching reading has focused on reading as a skill that is generalizable across reading situations. As one of the many English teachers of the world who came to the profession through a love of literature, and only later developed a love of teaching and learning, I'm so excited to see the study of literature back on the table along with a discussion of teaching and learning rather than in place of those things.

Indeed a fresh take, Fresh Takes on Literary Elements combines an understanding of the disciplinary demands of reading literature with a set of principles to guide teaching and learning. If you love literature and want to share that love with students while developing their abilities to enjoy literary texts themselves, Fresh Takes is a thought-provoking guide.

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