Academic journal article English Journal

Using a Youth Lens to Facilitate Literary Interpretation for "Struggling" Readers

Academic journal article English Journal

Using a Youth Lens to Facilitate Literary Interpretation for "Struggling" Readers

Article excerpt

This past school year we (a high school English teacher, a teacher educator, and two teacher candidates in English education) worked with tenth-grade students at a high school in rural, eastern Kentucky whom we might call "struggling" readers. They had not performed well on the reading section of the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) standardized test at the end of ninth grade, and as a result, the school administrators placed them in Level D English, the lowest track of four class levels, so that they could receive targeted instruction based on their low MAP scores. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many of these students told us at the beginning of the school year that they despised reading. Several more told us that they were not good readers; their stated evidence for such: "I don't understand what I read." Yet all of them, as so many "struggling" students we had met in the past, had strong interests and opinions that led us to believe that they had what it takes to be skilled, confident readers, if they would only apply those interests and opinions to texts.

We sought to create a classroom where reading was a pleasurable, thought-provoking activity for these students. Our primary evidence of success would be, we decided, not their test scores, but their improved orientation toward reading and their increased engagement in literary interpretation. Although literary interpretation can involve many different practices, we focused particularly on having readers go "beyond the particular situation, using their text understandings to reflect on their own lives, on the lives of others, or on human situations and conditions in general" (Langer 2). We wanted the students to use the fiction they were reading to reflect on their experiences and the characters' experiences in the novel, who (we hoped) would offer them alternative ways of looking at the world.

This article details our success in using youth as a construct to open up these students' interest in and skill for interpreting literature, what the editors of this themed issue refer to as a youth lens. Specifically, a youth lens challenges students and teachers to think about adolescence as a debatable construct, open to varied interpretations (Sarigianides, Lewis, and Petrone). Adolescence is represented in a host of texts that students read for high school English, from young adult literature to texts from the canon. The lens gave us a way to connect the students' class reading to an issue personal to them, namely, what it means to be an adolescent.

Our definition of adolescence going into these activities was flexible; we thought of the term as a label traditionally applied to people in their teen years, though we knew that the term is laden with assumptions about teenagers (e.g., they are ruled by hormones or not ready to make serious decisions) and applies now to younger children (e.g., the term tween implies that children as young as eleven are in adolescence). A youth lens involves questioning these assumptions and boundaries.

Setting the Context for Youth Lens Activities

Our first step in engaging these students in reading for pleasure was to fill the classroom library with high-interest reading materials, including young adult fiction, magazines, and informational texts related to the students' interests and hobbies. We set aside time each day for the students to select and read materials from the library. By early spring, many of the students had gone from reluctant and antsy to interested and focused during reading time, attending to reading for longer periods, going from an average of 10 minutes at first to an average of 30 minutes by the beginning of March. All of the students had found at least one book they enjoyed, each a work of contemporary young adult fiction, including novels such as Unwind (Shusterman) and Every Day (Levithan), which address exciting and controversial situations. We were thrilled with these results, given their earlier resistance to reading. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.