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Massachusetts Curriculum Framework

English Language Arts
ADOPTED February 1997

Literature Strand

The Learning Standards in the Literature Strand set the expectation that students will learn to respond thoughtfully to all forms of spoken and written literature.

The Importance of Literature

Literature is the heart of the English language arts and the touchstone for all language learning. It represents the unique human gift of composing and communicating ideas through language. With its emphasis on active and thoughtful response to a variety of genres, this strand echoes many of the priorities expressed in the Common Core of Learning: "All students should read a rich variety of...fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction from different time periods and cultures, relating them to human aspirations and life experiences."

This strand encompasses literature in written and oral form--books and other print media, storytelling, speeches, and performances. (Film, video, and multimedia are considered in the Media Strand.) An effective English language arts program teaches students to respond to a rich variety of literature with increasing sophistication and to communicate their interpretations of what they have read, heard, and seen through various means of expression.

Selecting Literature

In selecting literature for the classroom, teachers should consider the following:

For fiction, poetry, and drama, important aspects include:

  • Themes that provoke thinking and provide insight into universal human emotions and dilemmas
  • Authenticity in depiction of human emotions and experiences of diverse cultures
  • Excellence in use of language (e.g., rich and challenging vocabulary, style, skillful use of literary devices)
  • Exploration of the complexity and ambiguity of the human condition

For nonfiction, important aspects include:

  • Accurate and complete information
  • Coherent arguments and points of view
  • Excellence in the use of language

Literature should reflect the diversity of interests and abilities within each classroom. Relying solely on textbooks is limiting to both teachers and students. Many types of literature and instructional materials can be used to enable individual students to meet high standards. Accordingly, texts and students must be matched.

Consider the following anecdote about author John Steinbeck.

"Some people there are who, being grown, forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child....I remember that words--written or printed--were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies." John Steinbeck, the writer of these words...was finally lured into a lifetime passion for language and an abridged version of Thomas Malory's cycle of Arthurian legends. It was given to him by an aunt, who may have suspected that some magic in the book might awaken the reader's imagination. Near the end of his own life, Steinbeck returned to childhood literary roots to recreate the story world that had shaped his own life's work.The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is his last gift to a worldwide community of readers.

Steinbeck's experience emphasizes the goal of helping learners to connect with literature even if it means connecting first with an "abridged" version. Getting the right book into the hands of the right reader at the right time is the essence of being a matchmaker.

Literature should reflect the diversity of our nation and world. It should include high quality fiction, poetry, drama, and non-fiction from many cultures. It is important to remember that no single author or piece of literature can represent an entire culture; no one situation represents all situations of a given culture. For example, a focus on only traditional Native American tales might reinforce students' notions that Native Americans are a people of the past without a presence today.

Approaches to Literary Criticism

Literary analysis usually begins with a set of assumptions about the most purposeful way to "open" a text or with a theory about how to interpret literature. There are, of course, many different theories about interpretation of literature, drawing on aesthetic, historical, psychological, philosophical, or linguistic perspectives. Each perspective offers a critical lens through which to view a work of literature. For example, an aesthetic approach might concentrate upon the words and form of a particular work, seeing it as evidence of art for its own sake (New Criticism); or it may focus upon the reader's emotional reaction to the work (Reader Response). On the other hand, a historical approach might look at literature in terms of the type of society that produced it (e.g., Marxist Criticism). A psychological or psychoanalytic approach would emphasize interior characterization and internal action and, perhaps, include a study of the biography of the author (e.g., Freudian Criticism). A philosophical perspective would teach students to consider the ethical, moral, or religious significance of a work of literature.

In a comprehensive literature curriculum, students learn that there are many approaches to the interpretation of literature and that no one approach is "privileged." Throughout their academic experience, they have the opportunity to test out different theories of literary criticism and learn that a text and its influence can be viewed from more than one perspective.

Organizing A Literature Curriculum

School and district literature programs should be organized so that there is a broad and coherent selection of materials articulated for each grade. Literature units and courses may be organized by author, genre, literary period, or theme, or by historical periods. Each approach can be related to study in history, philosophy, and history or criticism of the visual and performing arts.

  • Students who are studying the work of a particular author learn how a writer develops his or her style, voice, and ideas over time. By reading or listening to interviews with the author, students can be "introduced" to the author in his or her social and political context. By reading critiques of the author's work, students learn how critics develop their opinions and how the author influenced the times in which she wrote. For example, by reading some of his early and later works, students can learn a great deal about the evolution of George Orwell's thinking, as well as about the political and moral issues of his time.

  • Students also study a particular genre to acquire knowledge of a particular literary form. For example, by studying a unit on the short story, featuring writers from countries around the world, students learn how short stories are written in a variety of cultural settings and how some may emanate from the oral traditions of a people.

  • A unit on historical periods enables students to realize how culturally significant literary works and historical events can influence subsequent works of literature. For example, a study of well-known excerpts from the King James Version of the Bible as literature enables students to discover the enormous influence of this translation on subsequent literature and oratory in England and in America. Another historical approach might focus on particular literary periods, such as the Romantic or Victorian period, or the Harlem Renaissance. This will help students learn how authors reflect the ideas or social issues of the era in their works. A third approach might connect the study of American historical documents with literature; examples of this form of organization are shown in Appendix F.

Thematic units can engage students with literature at any level . For example, second graders can explore the theme that an act of kindness is never wasted by comparing a contemporary tale such as William Steig's Amos and Boris with Aesop's fable "The Lion and the Mouse." Teachers should, nonetheless, acknowledge that the theme chosen for literary study may be only one interpretation of the various works under consideration.

Humanities courses, particularly at the secondary level, can help student integrate their understanding of literature and the history of the visual and performing arts. Students can also learn to relate various art forms to intellectual and social movements and historical events. When teachers collaborate across the disciplines, they design curricula in which students have the opportunity to apply skills and knowledge learned in one discipline to those learned in another.

Including a Variety of Nonfiction

In their daily lives, and eventually in the workplace, students need to be able to comprehend informational text that is practical in nature. Elementary students need to learn how to find the significant information in a reference entry or nonfiction book, or how to read and follow instructions for making a recipe or playing a game. Middle and high school students use reading and writing strategies to understand the complex informational material contained in a computer manual or a history, science, or mathematics textbook.

Many works of nonfiction have high literary merit, such as speeches, biographies, and works on nature, science, the arts, or history, and these should be read for their aesthetic qualities as well as for the information they contain. As they read and discuss excerpts from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, or Simon Schama's Citizens, for example, students learn to pay attention to the way in which authors of nonfiction use words and images for both aesthetic and rhetorical purposes.

Useful Teaching Practices

The following practices can enhance the study and enjoyment of literature for all students, PreK - 12 and in adult basic education programs.

  • Reading Aloud and Memorization: Students should have many opportunities to read aloud in class. When teachers also read aloud, they model strategies for responding to literature, teach lessons on literary techniques, broaden students' reading interests, and build appreciation of the language and sounds of literature. Reading aloud is valuable at all grade levels. For example, the scene at the end of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Scout stands on Boo Radley's porch and comes to understand Boo better by imagining what he must have seen "begs" to be read aloud. As many teachers of high school English have discovered, reading this scene aloud illuminates literary concepts such as theme, characterization, and point of view as it envelops listeners in the language of literature.

    Memorizing poetry, speeches, or dialogue from plays can engage students in listening closely to the sounds and rhythmic sequences of words. Young children delight in making a poem their own by committing it to memory. Since memorization and recitation or performance require repeated reading of a poem or speech, these techniques can often help older students find layers of meaning that they might not discover in a single reading. As many adults know, the poems, songs, and speeches learned in the classroom often last in memory long after graduation.

  • Dramatization: When students plan and dramatize scenes in a story, many members of the class have opportunities to get involved in improvising dialogue and movement for a particular character. Inviting authors, illustrators, actors, and directors into the classroom for single presentations or as artists-in-residence for extended projects helps students to understand the process of creating and presenting literary works. Hearing the "behind the scenes" story of how an article, book, play, film, or multimedia production came to be is also a powerful form of career education.

  • Response through the Arts: Projects that combine reading and writing with artistic activity can help many students concentrate on the meaning of their readings. For example, as his class studies Elizabethan theatre after reading Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , a ninth grader who likes to paint can be invited to design a set for the play as it might have been performed in the Globe Theatre and explain orally and in writing the rationale for his design. To complete the assignment successfully, the student must read the play and informational text closely, and express his ideas clearly in writing and design.

  • Classroom Book Collections and Classroom Reading Time: Most students need to be given time for reading in school. Many schools set aside time each day for sustained silent reading and provide classroom libraries to help students develop an appreciation of reading.

  • Using Schoolwide and Community Resources: The classroom library and the school library/media center can be essential resources in developing a strong and varied literature curriculum. Library media specialists can work with teachers in selecting instructional materials to support literature study through a variety of approaches. These materials include print and non-print media such as film, photographs, paintings, music, CD-ROM, laserdisc, and computer software. Teachers and school library media specialists should also collaborate with librarians in public libraries to ensure that students can make good use of these larger collections.

Literature Strand
Learning Standard 8: Students will decode accurately and understand new words encountered in their reading materials, drawing on a variety of strategies as needed, and then use these words accurately in speaking and writing.

PreK-4 Use their knowledge of phonics, syllabication, suffixes; the meanings of prefixes; a dictionary; or context clues to decode and understand new words, and use these words accurately in their own writing.

PreK-2: Students encounter difficulty in decoding the word "sap" in a story about maple trees. Their teacher asks them to recall how they sounded out "tap," "map," and "cap." They use their knowledge of phonics to decode "sap" and then discuss the meaning of the word in the story.

3-4: Students learning to read the labels on common, over-the-counter medicines come across the word anti-bacterial. Their teacher asks them to figure out the meaning of anti-freeze and then has them figure out the meaning of anti-war and anti-labor , as well as anti-bacterial, so that they learn the meaning of this prefix.

5-8 Use their knowledge of Greek and Latin roots as well as context clues and glossaries to understand the specialized vocabulary in the content areas, and use these words accurately in speaking and writing. While reading about the men and women who pioneered in space and under the sea, students come across such words as astronaut and nautical and use their knowledge of Greek and Latin roots and the context to work out the meaning of these words. They then compile a list of words they find in their science materials that are based on other common Greek and Latin roots.
9-10 Use their knowledge of Greek, Latin, and Norse mythology; the Bible; and other works often alluded to in British and American literature to understand the meanings of new words. Students come across the word narcissistic in a literary work (or genetic in their science materials, or venereal in their health materials) and reread the myth of Narcissus and Echo to understand the meaning of narcissistic (or a portion of Genesis to understand genetic, or the myth about the goddess Venus to understand the meaning of venereal).
11-12 Use their knowledge of literary allusions to understand their meaning when used in other literary works. Giants in the Earth,

ABE Perspective: When they encounter a new word in a newspaper article, ESOL learners try pronouncing the word in several ways to see if they can recognize a word with which they are familiar with by ear.

Literature Strand
Learning Standard 9: Students will identify the basic facts and essential ideas in what they have read, heard, or viewed.

PreK-4 Identify the basic facts and ideas in what they have read, heard, or viewed, drawing on such strategies as recalling prior knowledge, previewing illustrations and headings to make predictions, listening to others' ideas, and comparing information from several sources.

Focusing and Planning:
PreK-2: Students and their teacher read together Dan the Flying Man, a predictable book which uses repeating phrases. When they reach the part on each page that tells where Dan flies next, the teacher reminds students to use the pictures, the rhyming pattern, and their knowledge of beginning sounds to figure out new words. Students demonstrate use of these strategies in their independent reading to figure out other books' essential ideas.

Monitoring and Assessing:
After reading Patricia Lauber's Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mt. St. Helens, the students are unclear if the eruption is related to the eruption of volcanoes in Japan. Students generate their own ideas and then the teacher provides a video on the volcanoes around the Pacific Rim. The students brainstorm what they learned from the video and are now able to place Mt. St. Helens in a broader context.

5-8 Identify basic facts and ideas in what they have read, heard, or viewed, drawing on such strategies as recalling genre characteristics, setting a purpose, generating essential questions, and clarifying ideas by rereading and discussing. Focusing and Planning:
Groups of students prepare to read or listen to reports about men and women who have contributed significantly to science and technology, such as Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, James Watson and Francis Crick, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Elijah McCoy, Albert Sabin, Charles Drew, the Wright Brothers, and Rosalyn Yalow. Students generate questions they expect the reports to answer based on their knowledge of biography and share their com pleted reports. (Connects with science and technology)
9-10 Identify and describe the essential ideas in what they have read, heard, or viewed, by using the focusing, planning, monitoring, and assessing strategies that they have found most effective in helping them learn from a variety of texts. Focusing and Planning:
As part of an interdisciplinary humanities unit, students brainstorm ideas and do research on the influence of the literature preceding the French Revolution. They read selections by philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu, and view a filmed version of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to see the operatic version of Beaumarchais's play. They compose essays for a classroom collection, indicating how basic ideas in these selections related to subsequent political events.
(Connects with history/social science, arts)
11-12 Identify, evaluate, and synthesize the essential issues or ideas in what they have read, heard, or viewed, and explain why the focusing, planning, monitoring, and assessing strategies they used were effective in helping them learn from a variety of texts.

Focusing, Planning, Monitoring, and Assessing:
Students analyze and evaluate the controversy about the Smithsonian's planned exhibit of the World War II bomber plane Enola Gay in 1996. They brainstorm the various perspectives they seek to explore and generate questions to guide their understanding of the material they collect.

After examining the explanatory labels and wall text planned for the exhibit, they read the subsequent protests by various United States veterans groups, public officials, and military or other historians. They read newspaper editorials on the issue, recent Japanese scholarship on World War II, the reactions by yet other historians, and the final response of the Smithsonian director to the controversy as he explained why he withdrew the exhibition.

Students then compose essays evaluating the nature of the "culture wars" exemplified in the disagreement over the appropriateness of the exhibition at the Smithsonian. In their essays, they evaluate which strategies were effective for them in learning to draw conclusions from the variety of texts and conflicting viewpoints they read.
(Connects with history/social science)

ABE Perspective: Students prepare to read an article on nutrition by making predictions based on headings, charts, illustrations, and personal experience, and by generating a list of questions they expect the article to answer. They share written reports with each other.

Literature Strand
Learning Standard 10: Students will identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the characteristics of different genres.


Distinguish among common forms of literature such as poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction, and drama and identify such differences as these:
poetry is written in verse and commonly associated with images, concrete descriptive phrases, and the figurative language of similes and metaphors;
prose is associated with straightforward statements, unadorned by imagery and closer to everyday speech than poetry;
fiction is associated with narrative, novel, and short story, as opposed to
non-fiction, which is associated with presentation of facts, concepts, and ideas.

Apply this knowledge as a strategy for reading and writing

PreK-2: Students listen to a fable from Aesop, a Thornton Burgess tale, and a story about woodland animals. Students are asked by their teacher to decide which selection is fiction and which is fantasy, to create a graphic organizer showing the similarities and differences between the stories, and to reach a conclusion about what they learned from each story.

3-4: Students investigate bugs in a variety of ways: they collect bugs, care for them, observe them, read about them, and write about them. Using a magazine such as Cricket as a model, students create their own class magazine about bugs, and include non-fiction articles, poetry, and short stories.

5-8 Identify and analyze the characteristics of four major genres - non-fiction, fiction, drama, and poetry - as forms chosen by an author to accomplish a purpose. Students study Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and then study the play based upon it. They select one scene from the play that corresponds to a section in the actual diary and analyze the difference of character portrayal in each. Students analyze the specific lines not found in the diary and present an argument on how the lines present a different view from the diary. Finally, students take excerpts from the diary not used in the play and create an extra scene for the play. (Connects with arts)
9-10 Compare and contrast the presentation of a similar theme or topic across genres to explain how the selection of genre shapes the message. Students compare and contrast three reactions to Lincoln's death: Walt Whitman's poem, "O Captain, My Captain," Frederick Douglass's eulogy, and the report in The New York Times on April 12, 1865. They demonstrate what each piece contributes to their understanding, making specific contrasts between the impersonal newspaper report and the personal poem and eulogy. They further analyze the differences between the two personal genres by finding examples of the use of imagery, diction, metaphor, sound, structure and tone. (Connects with history/social science)
11-12 Identify and analyze characteristics of genres such as satire, parody, allegory, and pastoral that overlap or cut across the lines of basic genre classifications such as poetry, prose, drama, novel, short story, essay, or editorial. Catch 22

ABE Perspective: After reading a traditional picture book of the "Story of Little Red Riding Hood" to her children, a student reads the versions in Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner, or James Thurber's Fables for Our Time and analyzes the satirical elements she detects in the modern versions of the tale.

Last Updated: February 1, 1997
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