In 1960, Margaret Early published a study that defines how all readers move through four stages of literary development. The stages can be characterized by a focus on literary elements. From the years of early reading experience, the preschool years, to the upper elementary years, approximately fifth grade, students read for “unconscious delight.” They are absorbed in the plot of a narrative and usually, when asked why they liked a book, respond by saying, “First, this happened and then, that happened.” Their attachment to text and their enjoyment of it is at a pre-critical level. Sometime during their middle school years, students move into the second stage of literary appreciation. During this stage, students read for vicarious experience and focus on character development and conflict within a narrative. Students gravitate towards books that have characters that typify their life and experience. Understanding the triumphs and defeats of the characters they meet in literature gives students a better understanding of who they are and how they can best face their life situations. The third stage of literary appreciation finds juniors or seniors in high school reading for philosophical speculation. As they read, they ask, “Why and what if?” Students at this stage are reading books with content beyond their own experiences and focus on a narrative’s theme. They are able to consider the bigger questions society faces: Is justice equal? How can something be simultaneously beneficial and detrimental? What does it mean to be our brothers’ keeper? Finally, the fourth stage of literary appreciation is not seen until the college years and, sometimes, not at all. At this stage, readers enjoy an author’s craft, how he or she uses literary devices to make their words come alive. At this mature level, readers not only enjoy plot, character, and theme, but also appreciate an author’s talent as a writer. We read for “conscious delight,” for aesthetic enjoyment. As students progress through these stages, they do not “leave earlier stages behind;” for example, readers at the third stage of literary development not only focus on theme, but also on plot and characters.
According to Dr. Kylene Beers in her book, “When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do,” we cannot force our students from stage to stage. They will only proceed when they have multiple opportunities to read. When we want to discuss a variety of literary elements with our students, it behooves us to begin with the element connected to their stage of literary development. Most sixth-graders are in the second stage of literary development; they focus on characters within a book and read to discover how the conflicts faced by those characters are resolved. To help students understand theme or main idea, literary discussions should begin with character and plot. Gradually, teachers can guide the discussion to thematic concepts. The project for my unit will focus on the literary characters of the Civil War. Students will consider the characters they meet and attempt to view life from their eyes. As they connect to their characters’ experiences, the events of the Civil War, the “plot” of the war will become more understandable. Class discussions of the larger questions of the war and its effects on life today, the themes, will result from these understandings. As teachers, it is important that we consider these four stages of literary development as we plan for our students’ reading experiences.