Research on Poetry Reading in Secondary Education - Cognitive Models, New Studies and their Methodological Challenges

Submitted by: Mark-Oliver Carl
Abstract: The symposium explores the comparatively understudied (Peskin 2007) field of cognitive processes and dispositions of (different types of) poetry readers among students and reflects on the conditions of the production of such knowledge. It brings together recent and ongoing innovative research projects, examines methodological challenges, relates their findings to cognitive theories, and discusses how they may support teachers who feel particularly insecure in this area of literature as part of their work.

Developmental studies of literary reading, building on cognitive models of text comprehension as strategy- and knowledge-based, genre-sensitive processes of constructing different types of mental text representations (Van Dijk/Kintsch 1983), and drawing on methods from psycholinguistics and social sciences, have often focused on narrative prose only. A possible reason is that research into poetry reading processes is a particularly ill-structured domain, their object often being conceptualized as elusive. Methods of data collection and analysis require significant and well-reflected adjustments when applied to the reading of poems (Dixon/Bortolussi 2011).

Recently, developmental aspects of reading poetry in the literary classroom are finally receiving more attention (for an overview cf. Burke et al. 2016). The symposium aims to deepen this discussion by including research of particularly latent dispositions and processes involved in secondary students’ reading of poetry within and outside the classroom. Breukink and Das locate their studies within current empirical research on literary reading development of Dutch secondary students. Combining expert panels, think-aloud protocols, comprehension tests, interviews and eye-tracking , their studies provide insight into situation modelling of poems vs. narrative and expository prose texts, as well as into the development of poetry reading competence and types of stronger and weaker poetry readers respectively. Kleber’s think aloud study explores through Qualitative Content Analysis the development of poetic inferences across German secondary school, while Sigvardsson’s interview study elicits via Grounded Theory Methodology three reasons why Swedish secondary students and teachers read poetry.

Common challenges which are addressed are how limitations of text and participant choice can be overcome, how seemingly disparate results of qualitative studies can be integrated into models of poetic reading, and how their relevance is communicated to practitioners.

Selected references:
Dixon, P. & Bortolussi, M. (2011): “The scientific study of literature. What can, has and should be done.” In: Scientific Study of Literature 1 (1), pp. 59-71.

Peskin, J. (2007): “The genre of poetry: Secondary school students' conventional expectations and interpretive operations.” In: English in Education, 41(3), pp. 20-36.

Van Dijk, T. A. & Kintsch, W. (1983): Strategies of Discourse Comprehension. New York: Academic Press.

Burke, M., Fialho, O., Zyngier, S. (2016). Scientific approaches to literature in learning environments. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. doi:10.1075/lal.24

Keywords: poetry reading, reading processes, cognitive models of reading, poetry readers’ profiles

Address of discussant:
Dr. Mark-Oliver Carl, Universität zu Köln, Institut für Deutsche Sprache und Literatur II, Albertus-Magnus-Platz 1, 50923 Köln

Participant contribution abstracts:

• Anna Sigvardsson: “Secondary teachers and secondary students on why they read poetry”

To date poetry education has been one of the most under researched areas of literature education and poetry reading pedagogy for secondary students is especially understudied. In order to develop poetry teaching it is essential that more aspects of this particular part of literature education be investigated further. Activities with poetry outside of school may also provide ideas for the pedagogical discussion but the leisure uses of poetry seem even less investigated (cf. Felski, 2008).
The proposed presentation discusses why secondary teachers and secondary students read poetry in their spare time based on empirical data from two interview studies with 36 participants. Given the explorative nature of the research, constructive Grounded Theory was chosen as the overarching qualitative methodology. Open and focused coding (Charmaz, 2014) has been used to develop categories from the most recurring statements of why one reads poetry during leisure time.
Regarding the young readers of poetry, three tentative categories have been found so far, which highlight important functions of lyric poetry for this group: being seen by the poem, an internal community and support in difficult periods. It is evident that a creative interplay between the readers’ self and the poems ‘I’, or persona, is enacted. The reading process seems to be a supportive relational practice that enables readers to use perspectives in the poems to better understand themselves as individuals and as members of a larger community.
When the categories were related to Felski’s (2008) concepts of ‘recognition’, ‘enchantment’, ‘(social) knowledge’ and ‘shock’ – it appears that only ‘recognition’ had explanatory value. The proposed presentation therefore also relate to the theory of context models (van Dijk, 1997) to explore findings further. The preliminary analysis of the teachers’ statements suggests that they read for similar reasons as the young readers. However, further explorations of the categories are needed to find out more about their characteristics.
The results point to the importance of letting pupils explore a wide repertoire of poems in class in order to find poems that are personally relevant to them. Moreover, some uncontrolled reading in class may help pupils engage with the form.

Keywords: poetry reading, secondary education, leisure reading, Felski
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Felski, R. (2008). Uses of literature. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Pub.
Van Dijk, T. A. (1997). Cognitive context models and discourse. In M. Stamekov (Eds.) Language structure, discourse and the access to consciousness, 189-226. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Anna Sigvardsson, Division: Education, Language and Teaching, Department of Arts, Communication and Education, Luleå University of Technology, 97187 Sweden

• Hans Das (study A) & Corina Breukink (study B): “Students’ reading activities when reading poetry”

In the Netherlands poetry education has an ambiguous status. Even though literary development and reading comprehension are learning objectives, they are neglected in the reality of the classroom. The focus seems to be on teaching technical and periodical conventions. These obvious didactical limitations in didactics are hardly surprising, since poetry reading in secondary education still remains under-researched. To be able to enhance poetic reading competence effectively, it is necessary to expand the scientific knowledge base. A main question in current studies is: How do secondary education students read and understand poetry? The following studies both investigate into and describe the reading (and answering) activities that readers develop in order to construct meaning from a poem (situation model).

Study A, which elaborates on Witte et al, describes the developmental levels of the students' lyrical abilities. It also connects to a study by Janssen et al., because the reading activities applied by the students are examined by means of interviews and thinking aloud protocols. Study A provides insight into provisional poetry reader profiles and reading processes for each particular profile – allowing for the design of (a) poetry learning line(s) in secondary education.

Study B draws on the notion of ‘situation model’, using a reading test with comprehension questions and retrospective interviews, that are followed by eye-tracking pilot studies that connect to valid measures in reading research that objectively reflect fine-grained online text processing (Rayner et al., 2006). In this study the reading and comprehension of poetry is contrasted with the reading of expository and literary prose, in order to examine in what way genre steers the reading and comprehension processes (Zwaan, 1994). Study B offers insight in differences and commonalities of offline and online reading comprehension processes for prose and poetry, elicited with and without comprehension questions. Building on this empirical knowledge, a poetry reading program will be developed, in co-creation with secondary school teachers.

The (preliminary) findings, conclusions and common challenges (e.g. the selection of texts and participants) will be presented in dialogue, to discuss how they are complementing.

Key words: ‘think aloud’, ‘reader profiles’, ‘reading development’, ‘reading and answering processes’, ‘eye movements’

Janssen, T., Braaksma, M & Rijlaarsdam, G. (2006). Literary reading activities of good and weak students: A think aloud study. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 21(1), 35-52.

Rayner, K., Chace, K.H., Slattery, T.J. & Ashby, J. (2006). Eye movements as reflections of comprehension processes in reading. Scientific Studies of Reading 10(3), 241-255. DOI: 10.1207/s1532799xssr1003_3.

Witte, T., Rijlaarsdam, G., & Schram, D. (2012). An empirically grounded theory of literary development: Teachers' pedagogical content knowledge on literary development in upper secondary education. L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 12, 1-30.

Zwaan, RA. (1994). Effect of genre expectations on text comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 20, 930-933.

Addresses of contributors:
Hans Das, c.o. Research Centre Arts in Society, Oude Boteringestraat 34, 9712 GK Groningen, The Netherlands
Corina Breukink, c.o. Research Group Language and Education, Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, Trans 10, 3512 JK Utrecht, The Netherlands

• Christopher Kleber: “Generating inferences during reading of difficult poetry – A comparative study with fifth graders and university freshmen”

This study was conducted as a comparative design that sampled 30 fifth-graders from a German “Gymnasium” and 27 freshmen from Heidelberg-University in order to identify developmental aspects in poetry reading throughout secondary education. The participants thought aloud during their first encounters with the poem “Du darfst” by Paul Celan (1967). According to an expert rating, the stimulus material can be considered difficult because of its incoherence and aesthetic language use, and it doesn’t necessarily demand specific context knowledge that would benefit the freshmen over the fifth graders. The research objective was to investigate differences in inferential reasoning between groups. Inferences are defined as the information in the mental model of a text that go beyond explicit text information and are necessary to establish coherence (Noordman/Vonk 2015).

T-units of the verbal protocols were classified via a taxonomy of literary inferences that covers two important aspects of comprehension: the operational type of the inference and its contribution to the construction of a multidimensional referential model. The first aspect is divided into the subclasses problem-detection, concrete-inference, abstractive-inference, explanation based on general knowledge and explanation based on further text information. The distinction between concrete and abstractive inferences was made because earlier research indicates the importance of abstraction as a creative operation for literary understanding (Welling 2007). Explanation classes were added to integrate Peirce’s theory of good inferential thinking: Most inferences are hypothetical by nature and therefore need to be validated. The second aspect covers mutually accepted dimensions of referential models (Tapiero 2007): language/structure, space/time, plot/causality, protagonists/objects, motives/intention and theme/moral point.

Results show that university freshmen significantly outperform fifth graders in the categories “problem-detection”, “abstractive-inference” and “explanation based on further text information”. Regarding the referential model, the fifth graders seem to consider “space/time” more and “motivation/intention” and “theme/moral point” less than the freshmen. Thus, inferential abilities generally improve during secondary education, but certain aspects are possibly lost. High variances in both samples in every category hint at both the individuality of poetry understanding and at persisting differences in inferencing abilities. Depending on their priorities in poetry education, teachers can draw different conclusions from these findings.

Keywords: poetic inferences, mental model construction, inferential reading development, think aloud

• Celan, Paul (1967) Atemwende (Breathturn). Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
• Tapiero, Isabelle (2007): Situation models and levels of coherence. Toward a definition of comprehension. New York: Routledge.
• Welling, Hans (2007): Four Mental Operations in Creative Cognition: The Importance of Abstraction. In: Creativity Research Journal 19 (2-3), S. 163-177
• Noordman, Leo G.M.; Vonk, Wietske (2015): Inferences in Discourse, Psychology of. In: James D. Wright (Hg.): International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences. 2. ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier, S. 37–44.

Christopher Kleber, Heidelberg University of Education, Department of German Language and Literature and their Didactics, Im Neuenheimer Feld 561, Room A420, 69120 Heidelberg