This is the second in a series of posts on each of the six Reading Strategies. To get your hands on a copy of Practical Reading Strategies, with activities for each of the strategies, click here.
The Visualising strategy encompasses the five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. There are many activities which can highlight the use of sensory information in a text, or evoke a reader’s own senses. A text annotation, for example, can focus on the descriptive language used by an author to create a sense of place, or evoke a particular atmosphere, mood, or even the time of year. Consider this from Great Expectations:
So I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So, I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of Saint Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles; and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on.
In this short passage, Charles Dickens gives us a wealth of sensory information including sight, touch, sound, and smell. As a reader, we can even infer the taste of the scene from the strong scents.
The sixth sense
In Practical Reading Strategies I argue that the sixth sense for readers is empathy. The ability to “feel with“ a character is dependent on both the author’s skill and the reader’s ability to make meaning from the text. There is a parallel here with the previous strategy of Making Connections. A reader will find it easier to empathise with a character with whom they share values, traits, and experiences. But like the text to self connections of the previous strategy, the ability to visualise and to make empathetic connections with characters can be focused on and taught in lessons.
Often, adolescent readers will find it difficult to empathise with characters because they are not given enough time to read closely and understand the shared experiences. As teachers it is our job to slow down the pace of reading instruction, for example through close reading activities, so that students are given the time and space to form meaningful connections with characters.
Empathy and non-fiction
Empathising with the characters in fiction gives students a window into a world they might not otherwise be able to experience. The same ideas apply for non-fiction. In persuasive writing, including traditional forms like opinion pieces and editorials as well as digital texts, writers often deliberately engender feelings of empathy to convince readers to accept their position. Again, by explicitly teaching how authors evoke feelings of empathy we give students critical literacy tools which can be used to make better, more informed decisions.
How do authors evoke the senses?
The five typical senses are fairly straightforward. Some authors, particularly in the classics, use rich and heavily ornamented descriptive passages leaning on sights, smells, textures, sounds, and tastes to create a sense of place. Empathy is a trickier beast. Here are some ways authors can evoke empathy in their characters (or in nonfiction, in their own position):
- The “underdog” effect: crafting characters who are likeable because of their positioning against a more powerful opponent
- Physical and personality trait descriptions: Like using sensory information to describe place, well rounded characters are easier to identify with if their personality and physical characteristics are detailed.
- Give them a challenge: characters without a challenge to overcome are hard to empathise with. The best characters often have relatable, “universal” challenges to overcome.
- Strong values: characters with strong personal values such as love, family, honour, or justice are easier to identify with as they hold a mirror up to the traits we’d hope to exhibit ourselves.
- Similar contexts and experiences: it’s easier to empathise with characters when we have some sort of shared experience, world view, or context.
Practical Reading Strategies contains clearly explained activities for Visualising and the other five Strategies. Join the mailing list for a free PDF extract from chapter one, including a sample activity.
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