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February 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 5

Read, Discuss, Reread: Insights from the Junior Great Books Program

Strategies for interpretive discussion put outstanding literature and higher-level thinking within reach of all students.

Too often, the classroom sequence of reading then discussing literature implies that interpretive thinking happens during discussion, after the “reading” is accomplished. Convinced that readers construct meaning by rereading a text using a variety of strategies (Anderson et al. 1985), we at the Great Books Foundation created the Junior Great Books Curriculum. An expansion of the Junior Great Books program, the curriculum model uses interpretive discussion within the reading process to help students of all reading abilities to understand literature—to construct inferential and thematic meaning from their reading.
From 1989 to 1991, we piloted the Curriculum in 3rd grade classes in 13 public schools in Chicago and its suburbs. We selected schools that would provide a cross section of students, including those with limited-English proficiency, from disadvantaged backgrounds, and from racial and ethnic minorities. We wanted to show that with a consistent model of instruction, all students could improve their ability to interpret literature.

The Shared Inquiry Method

  1. The discussion focuses on interpretation. In interpretive discussion, students share opinions about what the text means. Students elaborate and test various possibilities against the text, a process essential to developing thinking (Bridges 1979). Interpretive discussion addresses the ambiguity of challenging literature and invites readers to hone their curiosity and judgment about meaning. Moreover, a discussion focused on interpretation is more likely to satisfy students' need for shared purpose than are discussions that are focused on facts or evaluation.In classroom discussions focusing on facts—the literal information in a story—students practice recall, rereading, and other literal meaning strategies, in isolation from the search for the meaning of the whole. They do not weigh ideas; if answers differ, some answers are mistakes.Discussions that focus on evaluation—students' judgments of the ideas expressed in literature—assume that students grasp the text's ideas, precisely what they most need help with. Because evaluative judgments are individual, no shared touchstone permits students to test, weigh, and build from their initial perspectives.
  2. The literature discussed is rich in meaning. The teacher and students need to see interpretive possibilities in the literature. Much literature in the classroom, including many award-winning books and children's classics, is thin and one-dimensional. Though fun to read, it cannot sustain discussion nor reward children's early attempts at interpretation. Teachers, too, need deeply engaging literature that stimulates their own thinking if they are to model reading for meaning with spirit and skill.
  3. The teacher focuses and directs the discussion. Directing interpretive discussion requires only that the teacher become curious about an interpretive question central to a text and pursue it actively. In our training courses, teachers learn the following working definition: An interpretive question is one that is specific to the text and that yields more than one good answer supportable from the text (Great Books Foundation 1992). Almost every teacher using these two criteria can identify intriguing problems of meaning at the heart of an interpretable story.From this point, the teacher's continued curiosity about the problem will help to maintain the discussion. The teacher asks further questions so that students will explore the ramifications of their answers, look at other possibilities, and weigh evidence from the text. Modeling inquiry in this way empowers the teacher intellectually in a way that factual or evaluative discussion seldom can. Leading a factual discussion, the teacher is the checker of facts, a gatekeeper for class participation. In evaluative discussion, the teacher either passively accepts students' personal values and experience, or tries to challenge and develop them, which leads to both pedagogical and ethical pitfalls.
  4. Students originate and develop opinions. We urge teachers to ask only genuinely open questions. A teacher's opinions, whether voiced openly or disguised as leading questions and selective challenges, relieve students of the need to think on their own. Research on feedback has shown that even when intended as encouraging, students respond to such feedback with fewer and simpler answers (Carlsen 1991).
To acknowledge students' efforts, teachers instead address the content of students' responses, asking them to explain their thinking and to comment on others' opinions. Students recognize such questions as encouraging and validating. Because the teacher's questions prompt students to draw evidence for their interpretations from the text and to consider alternative opinions and evidence, students develop their own opinions and build an interpretation of the whole from their own insights.

The Junior Great Books Curriculum

  1. Read once, then ask questions. After students read a text, the teacher invites them to ask whatever questions they have and to suggest possible answers. The teacher encourages students to back up a suggested answer from the text; students are not to guess.In every class observed in our pilot of the Junior Great Books Curriculum, students asked at least one interpretive question. In many classes, almost all the questions were interpretive. Students probably found interpretive questions more interesting to ask because they provided an opportunity to gather alternative readings from their classmates. Confusing incidents and unfamiliar vocabulary also inspired questions.The questioning process encourages students to value their own questions and initial hypotheses about meaning and points them toward considering the meaning of the text in a second reading.
  2. Read again, taking directed notes. Notetaking helps students to register significant parts of a text while reading through it. Third-grade students can take notes if they are given a note source, one that points to a major issue or ambiguity. For instance, when reading the Grimms' tale The Fisherman and His Wife, children were asked to note places in the story where the fisherman and his wife were not nice to each other.This note source relates to interpretive issues such as why the wife is not content with her wishes and why the fisherman continues to ask the magic fish to grant them. These issues became clear to students as they discussed their notes and voiced their sometimes very different interpretations of the tone and implications of passages or even single words. In such a discussion, students' own insights lead them to a broader awareness of which passages and words seem to matter most and how they can be understood.
  3. Examine significant words. Good literature invests words with meanings they might not carry in ordinary discourse. The Junior Great Books Curriculum asks students to consider the range of possible meanings of a significant word, phrase, or group of words and to look back into the story to see these meanings in context. For instance, the “discontent” of the fisherman's wife might involve ambition, neediness, or greed, depending on how one understands several parts of the text. After doing their own thinking, students shared and supported ideas, assisted by their teacher's open-ended questioning.
Each of these three activities nourishes a habit of active reading; however, interpretive discussion is needed at each point to develop students' curiosity and judgment, their alertness to problems of meaning, and their ability to weigh alternative readings. Brief discussions allow students to test their ideas and broaden their sense of possible meanings. Finally, extended interpretive discussion anchors the process, helping each student to unite many readings of the passages into an interpretation of the whole—the model and the goal for interpretive reading.
In addition to interpretive discussion, the Junior Great Books Curriculum incorporates two opportunities for evaluative discussion—before and after the interpretive process. A brief evaluative discussion before reading helps students consider that a basic concept in the story can be approached from different angles. For instance, before children read The Ugly Duckling, they discuss how they know who they are—by what they like or dislike, what they do well, how they look, how others treat them. These questions prepare them to see how incidents in the story convey the ugly duckling's problem of identity. After students build their own interpretations in discussion, they reflect through writing on how their interpretation of the story's meaning connects with their personal experience and values.

Assessing the Pilot Project

Assessment of the Junior Great Books Curriculum pilot turned on two questions: Did the students improve in their ability to answer interpretive questions appropriately and to base interpretive opinions on evidence from the story? and Did teachers consistently conduct interpretive discussion with their students?
Assessing students' interpretive ability presented difficulties. A multiple-choice test of possible interpretations of a story might not show students' ability to build an interpretation for themselves; therefore, we set up shared inquiry discussions, led by expert outside leaders, as performances to be assessed. Discussion as a performance is problem-centered and spontaneous, unlikely to degenerate into recitation. Furthermore, it can be sustained in a way that individual performances cannot be.
Through the shared inquiry discussions, we found that almost all students in both the experimental and control groups could answer interpretive questions appropriately in discussion and in writing. We saw no significant difference in children's rate of replies—their talkativeness—between groups within the same school, although the rate of replies differed markedly from school to school, probably due to community or ethnic factors.
The difference between the two groups lay in their ability to ground their answers in the text. The Junior Great Books Curriculum students had a far higher rate of text-centered answers than same-school control-group students in both discussion and writing.
To assess teachers, we observed them in their classrooms for week-long periods over the 18 weeks of the pilot to see whether they focused discussion on interpretive questions, referred students to the text to validate opinions, and maintained open-mindedness toward students' divergent answers. Teachers in 23 of the 26 discussions we observed maintained good interpretive discussions. In fact, 12 of the 13 teachers improved their ability to follow up on student responses and to involve students intensively.
Part of the pilot's success arose from addressing teachers' intellectual as well as pedagogical needs. The materials engaged the teachers, and the classroom activities raised their expectations of students. Because the activities provided frequent, low-risk opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding, teachers felt more comfortable using teaching methods predicated on high expectations of students. In addition, students' eagerness reassured teachers. They felt less need to interrupt interpretive discussion with factual questions to “check” understanding or with evaluative questions to stimulate interest.
Our pilot of the Junior Great Books Curriculum demonstrated that interpretive discussion used throughout the reading process does enhance students' abilities to understand literature. The guided practice in reading for meaning gives students strategies they can use when approaching literature on their own.

Anderson, R. C., E. H. Hiebert, J. A. Scott, and I. A. G. Wilkinson. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education.

Bridges, D. (1979). Education, Democracy, and Discussion. Windsor, U. K.: NFER.

Carlsen, W. S. (1991). “Questioning in Classrooms: A Sociolinguistic Perspective.” Review of Educational Research 61: 157–178.

Great Books Foundation. (1992). An Introduction to Shared Inquiry. Chicago: Great Books Foundation.

End Notes

1 The Junior Great Books program has provided challenging literature for children and teacher training in interpretive discussion since 1962. For more information call the Great Books Foundation at (800) 222-5870 and ask for the regional coordinator for your state.

Margaret M. Criscuola has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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