Today we’ve come to the third installment of a new series I’m calling “Back to Basics.” The first post was all about making and/or finding time to read, the second focused on how to make sure you’re making sense of what you read, and today’s post is all about making connections with what you read.
If you ask me, this is probably the most important post, because I firmly believe that you can spend all the time in the world reading and comprehending a book, but if you don’t connect with it, you won’t remember it in a week, let alone in a few months or years. That’s why this post is all about making connections–something E.M. Forster struck on in his novel Howards End:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
That phrase, “Only connect!” is one of my favorite little literary quotes. And even though Forster’s character, Margaret Schlegel, was referring to the importance of personal connections, I think we could make the same point about connecting with the books we read.
So if you’ll forgive me for being totally English teacher-y, I wanted to share some strategies for thinking deeply about the books that you read. All of the strategies will be focused around an educational “method,” if you will, that you might remember from middle or high school english classes.
This method has to do with activating schema in your brain. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it comes to us from cognitive psychology, and it basically refers to a method of categorizing and organizing new information in the brain. I’ve heard it compared to a filing cabinet. Each time you encounter new information or a new experience, your brain references the “files” it has collected over your entire life.
Still not sure what I mean? Here are two examples. First, think about when you go to a new restaurant, one with an unfamiliar ordering process. When you walk in and size up the place, you think about all the other types of restaurants you’ve been to, and how this one might be similar or different. You might not be aware that this categorizing is happening, but it is.
Consider this second example. If you go see the latest Marvel movie, you categorize the superhero featured in the film with what you know about other Marvel heroes, what you know about the fictional world they inhabit, and what you know about superhero movies in general.
Once the new experience is over and you’ve ordered your food or watched your movie, you have a brand new file to add to your cabinet, one that can be consulted any time you need it.
According to this theory of schema, we learn best when we are activating what we already know and then making new connections with new information. That’s why in my classroom I try to build my students’ background knowledge up before we begin reading a novel. When we read Fahrenheit 451, for example, it’s a lot easier to say, “Hey, remember when we talked about censorship and Nazi book burnings a few classes ago?” than it is to explain everything as it’s happening in the book. Schema gives us a framework for processing and retaining new information–it allows us to pull from the massive filing cabinets we already have in our brains.
One way we can take this idea into the realm of reading for pleasure is to think about how every new book we read is helping us build up this awesome framework. Activating prior knowledge doesn’t have to be a chore, it can be part of the process that goes into selecting and starting a new book.
Another way we can use schema in our reading lives is to ask ourselves text-connection questions as we read and when we finish a book. There are three main types of connections that I teach my students, and I think they’re helpful for just about anyone. They are text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections.
Let’s break those down a little bit further:
1. Text-to-Self Connections
We always start with the self because it’s what we know best, and it’s the easiest of the three connections to make. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to make these text-to-self connections:
- How do I feel about this book/character/plot point?
- Why does it make me feel this way?
- What is my opinion of the main character?
- What is my opinion of the antagonist?
- How is the plot of this book similar to or different from something that has happened in my own life?
- Which characters in this story are like me? Why?
- Which characters in this story are different from me, and how are they different?
2. Text-to-Text Connections
Next, we broaden our horizons and we think about this book in relation to other texts. And by “text,” I don’t just mean books. Here we can think of “texts” as movies, TV shows, documentaries, songs, or commercials–just about anything!
- How is this book like others I’ve read? How is it different?
- How does this author present [a certain issue] as compared to other authors?
- How does this author get [a certain issue] right or wrong? Which authors have I read who get this issue correct?
- Where do I see the same patterns and plots in TV and movies?
- How are these characters like other characters I have read about?
- If I combined the characters in this book with the characters in another, what would happen?
3. Text-to-World Connections
Finally, we move away from texts and consider the world in general. Here we’re looking or political, historical, cultural, or literary significance.
- What historical period is this author trying to present? Is it accurate? How do I know?
- What other texts have I read about this time period or from this time period, and how do they help me better understand that period?
- How does this book fit with today’s culture? How does it stand out from today’s culture?
- Is this book making a political statement?
- How do the characters in this story fit with today’s world?
I think these questions are a great starting place, but remember, that you don’t have to move through these questions in order. You can combine them at any point to make a connection from all three “areas.”
So what’s the point? If we’re reading for pleasure, why would we even want to stop and consider this? Here are a few reasons why I think it’s so important to engage with everything you read–even if it’s just for pleasure:
- When you make connections, you strengthen your comprehension. If you only read books in isolation and never connect them to each other, you might have gained a lot of knowledge, but you won’t have a complete understanding of an issue.
- Having a deeper sense of what a story means and how it connects with your life and your world makes it a richer part of your inner life. It’s not just about reading a book to check something off your to-do list, it’s about experiencing life in as many ways as possible, through people and events you’d never get to meet or experience on your own.
- Making deep connections gives you more schema to pull from in the future–so the more you read, the easier it will be to make those lasting connections, and the less work you’ll have to do to categorize new information.
Thanks for bearing with me through this long post–believe me, I never meant to use the phrase “cognitive psychology” on the blog, but it just fit so well with today’s topic! I’ll close by saying that I hope you’ve enjoyed these Monday posts as much as I have. I think I’m going to continue the “Back to Basics” series this year, focusing on a different literary element each month to help you reclaim all of those lost English classes. This will be the last one for January, though! Can you believe the first month of the year is almost over? Soon we’ll be moving to February and starting a new theme: The Greatest of These is Love.
Let me know in the comments how you’re making connections this month.
“Only Connect!” (and keep reading, of course!)