From my experience as a student negotiating the stresses of English at secondary level, and even now as a teacher, it has always been apparent that the main cause of brain- aches and sever confusion derive from trying to extract ‘further meaning’ from texts. Teachers often use phrases such as ‘unpick the language’; they tell you to ‘go beyond the words on the page’, to make inferences about characters that you’re not sure you understand and even to take a stab at guessing why the writer wrote this novel or overly-long epic poem in the first place. It’s an intimidating aspect of English. All the scarier because sometimes it feels like reading for meaning and hidden messages is a skill you can’t be taught. It’s not like learning to spell: working out which letters go where. It’s not like learning to read fluently: working out the sound letters make. Instead, all of a sudden, you’re being asked the big questions … ‘What’s the author’s intention here?’ and ‘Why?’
The truth is there is plenty you can do to develop your inference skills. I am currently doing a lot of research into improving skills of inference in young readers and, I assure you, it’s anything but a hopeless case. As individuals, there are things you can do to develop these skills for yourself: simply answering a riddle a day can help. Working out the meanings of texts and ‘unpicking’ that language is just the same as solving a riddle. Think about it, you don’t read riddles literally, do you?
For example, “I can run, but cannot walk. Anywhere I go, thought follows close behind.”
You would never read this riddle and think “that’s all there is to it!” You know the words are signalling to something more. When you answer a riddle it’s your job to work out the connotations of the word ‘run’ and ‘thought’ to get to the right answer. Well, it’s exactly the same with novels and poems, which are always infinitely more than just the words on the page. You have to think about the specific words that have been used, and ask: ‘Why?’
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“I can run, but cannot walk. Anywhere I go, thought follows.”
So… To run – to literally run somewhere… a marathon perhaps. But you can also “run” a DVD, “run” a tap, “run” an event or “over-run” on a speech. And what about the words ‘thought follows’? Thoughts come from the brain, or live in your mind and follow closely something that “runs”. Well, thoughts live in your head, so what can run on your face? Standard answer (especially if you’re a hay-fever sufferer like me) – a nose. The answer is A Nose.
And it’s really not so different when you’re dealing with novels, plays or poems. Your brain has to go through the same steps that it takes to solve a riddle. It’s a process that can be practised through word analogy games before being applied to real things, like books. If you start thinking about all creative texts as though they were riddles that need solving, it all becomes much easier!
My advice to students working at 11+ or GCSE, and for whom ‘reading for meaning’ causes panic, is, quite simply, to relax. Next time your English Literature teacher asks you about a character’s state of mind and you don’t know where to start, think about the character’s language as though it were a riddle. What connotations do his/her words have? What do they signal to? Analysis of literature doesn’t have to be scary; it’s all about developing the right chain of thought. Riddles are an excellent place to start.
Buy yourself a book of riddles and get practicing….
Emma H – English Tutor.
Contact Tavistock Tutors for more information.