Readings for a New Semester (Part 2 of 3)



This is Part 2 of a 3-part series. See Part 1 on reading full-length texts hereImage courtesy of Jain Basil Aliyas



This series began with a post about the importance of reading full-length texts. In addition to these–the primary course reading for the semester–most of our assignments on include supplementary readings and videos, which try to capture the complex issues of our books in current news. In my own classes this fall, we’re reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, along with articles about the politics of Black women’s hair; the ongoing problems of lead-contaminated water in poor neighborhoods; and the lasting impact of segregated neighborhoods–all of which touch upon a recurring image, theme, or conflict in Woodson’s book. Moreover, nearly every poem references an author, historical event, famous Black figure, Biblical story, or political movement which students will need to look up in order to fully appreciate and engage with the main reading. What I’m wrestling with as I plan these classes: what do I want students to do with all of these related texts? Do the supplementary texts simply serve to reinforce the main text (as if to say, see guys, the issue is real and ongoing!) How can they use one text to say something new about another text? How do we talk about the same issue in different genres, eras, and locations?

The complexity of reading and synthesizing multiple texts is what Cheryl Hogue Smith addresses in her article, “Basic Writers and the Echoes of Intertextuality” (TETYC, Vol. 39, No. 2, December 2011). The whole article is very much worth your time, and explores the skill of intertextual analysis that we are heavily invested in our students mastering. 

Smith begins with a teaching anecdote: After carefully selecting a set of related readings and visuals, she was surprised to discover that her students did not see the connections among the material—some were even about the same story or historical figures. With much guidance and prompting, students finally discerned the relationships between texts, but their difficulty prompts Smith to reflect, “It appeared to me that my students were compartmentalizing each ‘reading’ in that each reading was isolated somewhere in their minds.”

From there, Smith sets out to investigate and approach solutions to this difficulty of intertextual awareness and analysis. Some of her conclusions include:

Difficulty with intertextual analysis is NOT due a student’s innate lack of skill.

“Were they incapable of seeing intertextual connections? The answer, of course, is ‘obviously not,’ since I have often seen my students relate songs or TV shows to their life experiences, or connect songs and TV shows to other songs and TV shows. But since most of the basic writers who cross my path admit to having read so few academic texts in the past, I’m not sure whether the notion of ‘intertexutality’ with academic texts is something they knew that they were supposed to experience.”


Intertextuality is learned with practice, time, and reinforcement. 

“intertextuality is also a habit of mind. That is, students need to be told about and to have repeated experiences in the discovery and generation of intertextual connections—at least the discovery of that initial connection between texts.”


We don’t actually teach intertextuality, even when we think we are. Borrowing from Walter Werner:

“even in high school social studies textbooks, where authors strategically place an image and words together, ‘providing context for and implying comment upon each other’ none of the books explicitly alerted readerst to the concept of the words and images connecting. The authors of the textbooks seemed to take for granted that the students would look at the images and read the words and then use the connections as a tool for analysis”


So, we must actively teach intertextuality, not leave students to read our minds, figure it out by luck or accident, or fail altogether.

“we need to first show them that academic texts speak to one another, that as readers they should take what they’ve learned from one text to help them understand another.”


And we have to make their experience and desires relevant in the curriculum.

“To help struggling students notice intertextuality, maybe we have to first provide them with texts we know they will be more likely to care about”


Intertexutal analysis is an act of meta-cognition.

“if students can learn to think about their thinking as they are reading, that is, if students can think metacognitibely about texts as they read, they can begin to de-compartmentalize, remember, and connect the texts we assign and recognize the rich intertextuality that academic texts have to offer.”


Ultimately, we must change the way we teach reading.

“We must also help them change the way they view reading so that the act—not just the text—doesn’t become an isolated event”; “In the case of many basic writers, they do read actively, but their active engagement often consists of mining texts for what they hope is the ‘right’ answer that they assume their teachers want and that more successful students already know.”


Hogue Smith’s article has pushed me to introduce all course readings more carefully and deliberately, to plan to speak more openly about academic discourse’s expectations, and to think about my ongoing task of instilling this particular habit of mind, rather than expecting it on the first day. It may sound as if we risk “giving away the answers” if we tell students what to look for in a text. But good writing isn’t about this kind of test, and developing student writing should be about collaboration, with scaffolding and guidance. 

My older daughter is really into pirates and buried treasure right now, so this metaphor is on my mind: Maybe our job is to first tell students there is a gem to be found, and we can even show them where exactly it’s buried. It sill leaves the student to do all the work of digging it up, shaping, polishing, and presenting it. And for the many subsequent times they will be faced with unmapped territory, we give them experience to know there is a pay off to getting their hands dirty.

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