For the sound of their own dropping

When you hear the word ‘devices’, your thought may be of keyboards, mice, touchpads, joysticks, scanners, microphones, barcode scanners, webcams (okay, I will stop there) and what you are really not there on – you know technological thingamajigs – that sort of thing. But what about our literary friends? No, I don’t mean the ones of flesh and blood. I mean you know, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification – things in that basket of literary devices.

What are these devices we use to infuse layers of meaning and make depth in a work of literature?

And depth is the issue. Reading is challenging enough when learning a second or third language, but when we factor in some literary devices, we must also factor in the ways in which we can be of use as parents or as teachers and the kinds of questions we can ask our learners. In case you are hitting a blank on what these questions may be, think for a start of all those major hack questions that start with ‘wh’. These not only clarify the story context and meaning below the surface of a text, but also uncover the devices 😊

We can ask our students to spot devices such as flashbacks, flash forwards and dream sequences. In common screenplay formatting, these are very easy to spot, as they are marked as such, but in other cases a flashback might be introduced more discretely. One of the reasons this works so well is how real it is for all of us – that smell or taste that drags you without invitation to a memory where we are suddenly in a different world of experience.

It may be confusing if you are simply reading linear text with a mindset for sequencing and time order. And confusion is the best help to reveal the benefit of the device! Confused? You want the surprise and the re-thinking that goes with something out of place. You want the attention dragged into a newer perspective. You can, for example, be reminded of what it feels like to be not listened to when you read in Yeats’ The Sad Shepherd’ ‘Then cried he all his story to the dewdrops glistening, but naught they heard the dewdrops, for they are always listening…’ (fly back to the title of this blog to see the next line). Lovely isn’t it? Disrupting your ordered narrative making is what this poetic device does. ‘Then cried he all his story to the dewdrops glistening, but naught they heard the dewdrops, for they are always listening for the sound of their own dropping’

The questions are many but the key one is – what is the effect on meaning? After exploration and then familiarity with the potential to use flashbacks or dream sequences at any given point during a story, (or whichever text type best describes what they’re reading,) most students tend to become much better at spotting it and recognising their purpose. One question we can ask is for a student to draw a timeline of key events to check their understanding of what happened at which relative point in time. We can then ask them to retell the story in a chronological sequence. And better still use their own narrated resequencing of events to explore the effect on the layering of meaning in a story.

We can ask students to watch out for hidden intentions in cunning characters by asking them to predict (as in make) the text to follow. Using the dialogue from a fable and some pre-taught similes to identify some of the commonly used adjectives, we can scaffold a student into a speculative prediction about the likely events unfolding within the next few pages. Of course (I know you know) the prediction can be linear evidence, but why would it? Why now take this opportunity to recreate the story – in doing this we are ourselves becoming narrators. Still, the teacher may feel the need to excise some of the predictions that are too out of harmony with the touch stones in the story 😊

Sometimes this can be as direct as asking: “What do you think happens next?”, or “Why do you think the fox wants the crow to sing?”. Allegorical dramas like Aesop’s Fables also give students the chance to explain how characters from fables may warn us of the dangers that we may encounter in our lives. Of the subtle sneaky traits in others, of ulterior motives and also of qualities to appreciate. Qualities to look for when choosing who we spend time with, how to spend that time and who to consciously take influence from. An awareness that is gifted in in the words from Max Erhman’s Desiderata ‘Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.’

Next time you are thinking of reading skills, allow your learners to uncover the devices that make the story work, and let them create their own to make a virtue of their devices.

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