Figure It Out: A Reading Comprehension Lesson

I’m a big fan of structuring lessons so that students can figure things out on their own. In the education world, what I am talking about is sometimes called the constructivist approach, sometimes called inquiry-based learning, sometimes called—well, whatever the name, lessons learned this way usually stick—and in the act of discovery, students are empowered as learners.

Here’s an example of what I mean: a reading comprehension lesson involving allusions—in this case, in the context of one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird. The goal is to show students how allusions enrich the meaning of a text—how to spot them, how to decode them, how to make meaning of what is frequently an analogy.

For example, take this dialogue between Scout and Jem, in Chapter 2:

“Don’t worry, Scout, “ Jem confronted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way.—it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?”

“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I—”

“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”

I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.

“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”

Students might be vaguely puzzled by “Dewey Decimal System,” but they could just as easily pass right over the reference. If they do, though, they miss the humor in Jem’s misnomer. That’s the way allusions work, I explain to them. They aren’t necessary to understanding the plot, but knowing that Jem is confusing a library cataloguing system with the education reformer John Dewey is funny. Furthermore, in this short passage, we get a glimpse of Jem as an occasionally annoying big brother who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. Since this is a sibling type many students know first-hand, this depiction of Jem rings true and helps some students to directly and immediately identify with Scout.

That’s the concept. To get started with the lesson, I print and cut into slim strips a list of other allusions from To Kill a Mockingbird, put the strips in a hat, and pass the hat around the room. Students “draw” a strip, and I tell them that the first part of their assignment is to figure out the literal meaning of the words on the strip. (The same strategy could be used with any text that is heavily allusive. I’ve used it with Shauna Seliy’s coming-of-age story, When We Get There, and with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, for example.)

This part of the assignment used to be more difficult than it is now. Years ago, before Google, before Wikipedia, before the website To Kill a Mockingbird: The Student Survival Guide (, I’d take my students to the library so they could look through books and print encyclopedias to find the answers. Some of the allusions weren’t so easily identifiable, so I’d allow them to ask other people for help—other people but me, that is. My lips were sealed—except to suggest books they might check or to provide hints that would send them in a fruitful direction. After they knew what they had—sometimes a parent would, understandably, just tell them—they’d have to find at least two print sources that explained the allusion and then summarize the meaning and document their sources.

I still ask my students to do this, but thanks to electronic searches, it’s the easy part of the assignment now.

The next step is finding the allusion in context. They’re spread throughout the novel, so while I distribute the strips early on, it will be late in the story before the task is completed by everyone. Once the students come upon their allusions, they write a paragraph explaining the allusion’s purpose in the text. This can be challenging for young readers; nevertheless, they often make amazing connections and articulate insights that astonish me.

Some allusions, such as “Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself [my italics],” help the reader establish the time period of the story. So do items like “linotype machine,” or “flivver,” or “Ladies Law.” Other allusions establish place: “Jitney Jungle” and “Bellingrath Gardens,” for example, make explicit that this story takes place in the South. These allusions authenticate what the author has already told us: the setting is Maycomb County, Alabama. Some “place” allusions supply deeper background information as well: “Stonewall Jackson ran the Creeks up the creek” is a reference to the intersection of Alabama history, Native American history, and Finch family history.

There are some tougher ones, though, like “Lord Melbourne,” a British parliamentarian who loved the ladies. When Uncle Jack tells Scout about Lord Melbourne in response to her asking him what a “whore-lady” is, he reveals his discomfort in discussing adult topics with children. His circumlocution, of course, contrasts with Atticus’ straightforward responses to his children. Thus, the allusion to Lord Melbourne (which is obscure for most readers, not just 9th graders) helps to build the character of both men. A student could have read the paragraph, been temporarily confused, but ultimately not concerned, because the allusion does not advance the plot. And yet, “getting” the reference to Lord Melbourne deepens the reader’s understanding.

So does this one, another reference made by Uncle Jack: When he and Atticus are discussing the upcoming trial of Tom Robinson—whom Atticus has been appointed to defend—Uncle Jack remarks, “’Let this cup pass from you,’ eh?‘” Untangling that one means linking the Biblical reference to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane—O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:39)—to Atticus’ wish that he didn’t have to step into the role of defense attorney in what he knows will be a losing battle. He knows as well that defending Tom Robinson will stir up the town: His children may be the targets of people’s vitriol, and he could lose them in a backlash. Nevertheless, in the same conversation with Uncle Jack, Atticus is clear. He says that he couldn’t ask his children to obey him if he didn’t defend Tom. He will comply with the court order. A student could, of course, explicitly make the Christ symbol connection—but, more likely for a 9th grader, the student who understands the allusion will see the analogy between Christ’s situation and Atticus’ and understand that the comparison supports the picture of Atticus that has building throughout the story: He will do what he must. He will do the right thing.

But the task of building meaning isn’t over. It isn’t enough, to my mind, for a student to know only his or her own allusion. Sometimes, depending upon curriculum needs, I’ve had students report out on their allusion while the others take notes, but this process takes more time than I often have. Recently, I’ve accomplished my purpose much more expediently by posting the students’ work on the walls of the classroom.

Each paper has three parts: the paragraph from the text where the allusion appears, the explanation of the allusion, and then the paragraph about its purpose or how it enriches the meaning. The students circulate around the room, pen and paper in hand, and take notes on what their peers have written. This takes about one class period. I keep silent, read over the students’ shoulders, check the written work to be sure the students have explained their allusions clearly and correctly. Misunderstandings are infrequent, I find. If something isn’t quite right, it’s usually easy enough to question the student on the side, and he or she will see the confusion and make the adjustment on the spot.

By the end of the hour, each student has compiled a list of allusions and their meanings. In essence, they have taught each other some pretty sophisticated vocabulary and deepened each other’s understanding of the text. They’ve also learned a valuable reading skill: how to identify and figure out an allusion. A short matching quiz the next day confirms that the “vocabulary” has been learned (Most kids score 100%), but more importantly, the students come away understanding what an allusion is and how one works in a text.

Imagine how tedious this would have been if I had stopped in our reading to explain every one of these connections. I would have grown tired of the sound of my voice—and the kids would have yawned. Openly.

Instead, they figured it all out on their own, taught each other, and know they can do the same thing independently with the next book they read. That’s empowerment.

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