Seminar activity ideas 10: A continuum line – exploring and comparing texts, genres, interpretations

Seminar teaching

Advantages

A continuum line is a useful strategy in any context where students are comparing two or more texts or genres, or where they are debating the validity of an argument or interpretation. It can be carried out as a paper exercise or as a practical activity – the latter can be particularly helpful at the feedback stage.

The aim is to encourage discussion of the text (or genres), to support students in gaining a more sophisticated awareness of textual characteristics and conventions, as a focus for comparison and as a way of developing students’ abilities to extend and articulate their analysis.

What to do

  1. Opposing terms are placed at either end of a line or at opposite ends of the classroom.

continuum

  1. What the terms are will depend on the focus for your discussion. For example, if you are going to debate the relative importance of a series of literary features and concepts to a particular genre, the opposing terms could be as general as ‘Very important’ and ‘Not important’. If, on the other hand you are discussing several prose texts, you might want to use a continuum line to investigate their stylistic similarities and differences. In this case, you might use the literary features and concepts as the opposing terms, for example ‘Reflection’ and ‘Action’, followed by ‘Literal’ and ‘Symbolic’, and so on.
  2. Students are asked to position the text (or genre or literary feature) along the line in relation to the opposing terms.
  3. Debate is encouraged, and assumptions about texts and genres questioned, as students decide where to position the texts (or terms) along the continuum line.
  4. Students feed back their decisions either by taking it in turns to introduce their continuum lines or through a ‘living continuum’. The latter works particularly well as it encourages students to challenge the decisions of their fellow students. As students position themselves along the line, allow them the time to explain their decision and attempt to persuade their colleagues to move.
  5. Use questioning to support students in identifying and articulating the thinking behind their decision-making, the general points they can pull out about the features, style, etc. of the texts or genres, and any assumptions that have been challenged or undermined. Sample questions to ask during the feedback include the following:
  • If working on a selection of texts by the same writer, can you begin to recognise characteristic features and approaches? Or are they all very different?
  • If working on a selection of texts by a range of writers, are they all very different or are there common features that seem to be characteristic (or defining of) this genre?
  • Did anything surprise you about your discoveries (for example, that plot and story are not always important in a narrative poem)?
  • If more than one pair is looking at the same text, did both pairs of students position themselves in the same place on the continuum line? If not, why not? What did this reveal about the text? Or about different readers’ interpretations?

The examples below show you how a continuum line can work in practice and some of the situations in which you might use it.

Example 1: Exploring genres

At an early stage in a course it might be useful to establish the conventions of a particular genre (for example drama) or sub-genre (for example expressionist drama). To do this, students will need:

  • A set of literary concept cards, each with the name of a feature, convention, or technique on it of the genre or sub-genre you are exploring.
  • A continuum line with the terms ‘Very important’ and ‘Not important’ at either end.

Students position the cards along the line, annotating them with brief notes on the thinking behind their decision.

The very act of choosing where on the line to place themselves will have the effect of alerting students to the weaknesses in some of the assumptions we make about generic distinctions (for example, a student who suggests character is definitely a feature of drama rather than poetry might be challenged to think about narrative poetry, dramatic monologue, or, even, the extent to which a poet’s persona might be considered a character).

The same approach can be used to engage students in a discussion of the differences between genres (for example poetry and drama or narrative in prose and narrative in poetry), before beginning the process of questioning and complicating their first assumptions. In this case the terms ‘Poetry’ and ‘Drama’ are placed at either end of the line, with pairs or groups of students given a set of literary feature cards (as above). The students position the features along the continuum line according to whether they think it is most characteristic of poetry or drama.

Example 2: Comparing texts

In pairs students are allocated a short text (a poem or an extract from a novel or play). They are given a series of continuum lines, each with different opposing terms  and asked to place their text extract on each line. In this way they build up an understanding of the features of the text, beginning the process of analysis.

As an alternative, use an ‘Important’/’Not very important’ line and ask students to position their text in relation to a series of literary features and conventions, such as plot, setting, character, imagery and so on, suggested either by you or by other students in the group.

Example 3: Comparing interpretations

All students work on the same text extract and the same pairs of opposing terms.

Peer feedback on a living continuum line will allow students to see clearly the range of ways in which a text might be read. The process of defending their own position and persuading other students to move will both encourage close reading and support students in developing and clearly articulating their interpretation.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre.