Seminar activity Ideas 3: Zones of Proximity

Seminar teaching


‘Zones of proximity’ is a visual approach to support students in evaluating and prioritising ideas, concepts and additional material for the analysis of a text. It can be used for a range of purposes: as part of the planning process when writing an essay, to evaluate the significance of critical responses to a text, or to evaluate which narrative concepts or poetic techniques it might be most fruitful to consider. In each case the basic method remains the same.

This approach is particularly helpful when thinking about a text in relation to its contexts (whether socio-historical, literary, biographical), where the analysis of the text can be overwhelmed by fascinating contextual material or, conversely, contextual information can be ‘tacked’ on as an afterthought. With this visual strategy the text remains literally at the centre of the student’s exploration, within the context of the additional information. In effect, zones of proximity offers a concrete way of applying – and seeing – Peter Barry’s distinction between remote and adjacent contexts.

Although students working at undergraduate level may want – and need – to discuss texts in relation to more substantial or complex contexts, it is worth demonstrating how revealing such tiny snippets of background material can be.

What to do

Included here is an example on Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.

For this activity you will need:

  • an extract from the text being studied
  • a set of cards, each with a short piece of contextual information on it
  • blutack
  • a large sheet of paper
  1. Students place a key poem or extract from a longer poem in the middle of a large sheet of paper. (Different groups could look at different poems.)
  2. They read the poem, sharing their own first responses and making a note of any questions they’d like answered about its context.
  3. They read each context card in turn, quickly rejecting any cards which they don’t think illuminate the poem in any way.
  4. They collect together the remaining context cards and arrange these cards around the poem according to how useful they think they are in helping to interpret the text. The more useful or interesting the context is in relation to the poem, the closer it is positioned to the text at the centre.
  5. As each context is read and positioned on the paper, students discuss the reasons for their decisions. What difference does it make to their reading to have this piece of contextual information? In what ways does this piece of information open up, add to or challenge their reading?
  6. Students re-form into new sharing groups. They take it in turns to introduce their group’s zones of proximity, explaining the thinking behind their decisions, showing how the selected contextual information adds to their understanding of the passage, and the reasons certain pieces have been prioritised above others. The other members of the new group should feel free to question the choices or suggest other cards which they think it might be more productive to explore.
  7. Students can then go on to think about whether there is any other contextual information they think might be illuminating. The group agrees three questions about context which they think it would be helpful to have the answers to. As a group, the students try find the answers to these questions and write an additional context card for each one (no more than 50 words).
  8. On the basis of the group discussion, students choose one piece of contextual information and a short piece which uses the contextual information to illuminate the text or further extend their interpretation of it.

A variation

Students create the context cards themselves, with pairs or groups given responsibility for writing 8 to 10 cards on a particular context (for example, the literary context, political events, social history, biographical information). It’s a good idea to put a word limit on each card (for example no more than 50 words). This can have the benefit of forcing students to be selective, beginning the process of evaluation at the reading and note taking stage.

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