Feel The Words

One of my favorite reading questions is, “How do the words make you feel?”

It’s not a very Common Core-ish question, but it is an extremely valuable question. As a writer, I am always acutely aware of how my words could make my reader feel. Empathy with the reader is essential to developing a writing voice.

Readers need to approach the page with empathy for the characters and empathy for the writer. Decoding and comprehension can’t end with understanding the denotation of the words. We all realize that, of course. That’s why we teach lessons in mood and tone. We also teach vocabulary lessons denotation and connotation. That’s all good.

However, we need to take it up a notch.

Monitoring “how the words make you feel” needs to go hand-in-hand with monitoring comprehension. “How do the words make you feel,” should be part of any questioning strategy we use in the classroom. There needs to be a signpost for it, or at least a question related to a signpost (for those of you who follow Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice and Note). If you are a devotee of Cris Tovani, as I am, you should have your students annotate their feelings as often as they annotate their thoughts.

To feel the words is to understand the words deeply. Too often, our students just read the words, without connecting them to any thought or feeling. Students’ reading goals are often to get to the end of the paragraph, or the page, or the paragraph in the most painless way possible.

Well, unfortunately, in reading as in exercise, no pain often equals no gain.

Think of the last time you asked students to read anything to themselves, whether it be an assigned piece, reading workshop, or SSR. How many students cried? How many laughed? How many got angry?

Intellectual responses alone are not sufficient for deep comprehension. If you have kids reading Number the Stars, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief, you should spot a tear or two once in a while. If they are reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you should hear a chuckle. Kids should be frantically flipping pages to get the end of an Alex Rider thriller or a Percy Jackson story.

If your students are too willing to put their books down, that’s a sign they aren’t really feeling the work.

We teachers are part of the problem. We get so wrapped up with comprehension questions and constructed responses. We preach, “Find the textual evidence!” when we should be teaching, “Feel the words!”

The Common Core encourages a close reading of “the words themselves.” We need to understand that the words are not enough. Words weaved together properly, transcend what’s on the page. They become something greater in the mind of the reader.

I’m fond of teaching with poetry because every poem is short and packed with meaning. Teach students to become good readers of poetry, and reading prose is a piece of cake. You can’t detach feeling from poetry, anymore than you can take color from a painting or the harmony from a piece of music.

(By the way, there is no logical reason to separate poetry from prose in reading instruction, or literature instruction. We need to break down the artificial dividers we place between forms and genres. Our readers will thank us for it.)

Feeling the words can be messy. Describing emotional responses is more difficult than performing intellectual tasks. Some teachers might have a problem with that.

Get over it.

Response to literature should never be clean and formulaic, as much as the standardized test developers might like that. You shouldn’t be able to have a clean discussion about literature. Your students should be raising questions you can’t answer. They should contradict themselves and each other. At times, confusion should abound. Argument should be the rule of the day.

My favorite analogy of reading instruction comes from Nancie Atwell. In In the Middle, she compared discussing books in class to having conversations at the dinner table. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my house dinner table conversations are seldom calm and peaceful. The tend to toward the passionate side.

Our classroom discussions should also be loaded with passionate intensity, to borrow liberally for Yeats. The quickest way to get our conversations to that point is to teach students to feel the words.