*Disclaimer this post is part of the presentation that I gave at CEL Convention 2016 with my partner, Ms. Katherine Ondrof, from Westwood Regional Jr./Sr. High School.
I came across hint fiction for the first time in Dr. David Galef’s course, Creative Writing Pedagogy, at Montclair State University. I am incredibly grateful for Dr. Galef because without his influence, I would not have encountered these types of texts and the foundation for my students’ reading skills.
What is Hint Fiction?
In his anthology, Hint Fiction: An anthology of stories in 25 words or fewer, Robert Swartwood defines hint fiction as: “a story of twenty-five words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story.”
Furthermore, the design of hint fiction: “should not be complete by it having a beginning, middle, and end…it should be complete by standing by itself as its own little world.”
It is the process of students learning to enter and explore these worlds suggested by twenty-five words that enhances literacy instruction.
For the past two years, the first text we read together as a class has been:
“The Return” by Joe R. Landsdale
They buried him deep.
At the beginning of the year when we first examined “The Return,” I paired up the students and asked them to discuss the events transpiring in the story.
Typically, students figure out that the titles of hint fictions are key to understanding their meanings. With their partners, the students usually begin asking questions like “Who is the ‘him’ getting buried?” and “What did he do to deserve this punishment?”
I let them converse for only about a minute or two before interrupting them and sharing their interpretations as a class. I picked up this effective reading strategy at a Teachers College Reading & Writing Project conference at Columbia University led by Mary Ehrenworth (I cannot strongly enough recommend reading her book, The Power of Grammar).
This technique keeps all students engaged because their partners serve as an immediate audience for their thoughts, yet the students don’t speak long enough to become distracted. Before I learned this method, sometimes my “class discussions” would consist of three or four motivated students conversing with me in front of the other twenty sitting passively — not exactly an efficient approach for transforming teenagers into active readers...
When the students share their explanations of the events in “The Return,” they typically provide entertaining and creative analyses related to zombies or vampires. I blame Twilight and The Walking Dead.
What are “Good” Readers?
Once we have fun with their immediate reactions to “The Return,” I begin introducing the students to our class’s philosophy in regards to reading. I discuss with them how reading is an active process and we define what makes a “good” reader.
I try to abolish the myth that good readers automatically beam information from the text into their brains. Rather, I show them how expert readers actively think about textual evidence while they read. I also remind them of the basic elements of story. We start the year off by focusing on six “expert reader” skills: predicting, questioning, connecting, visualizing, evaluating, and clarifying.
6 Expert Reading Skills
My goal is to give my developing readers a purpose while reading, and to establish connections between specific evidence from the text and their understandings.
Usually, most students can ask questions and make connections to their personal lives or to the “real world” fairly well.
Sometimes they struggle to make predictions because novice readers get stuck explaining what has occurred in the text rather than explaining what will happen next.
A similar dilemma exists when the students try to visualize — some instinctively construct images in their minds, while others need to be prompted to examine the characters or the setting before they can form a mental picture.
Developing readers struggle the most when making evaluations or clarifications.
Despite teenagers’ natural inclinations to judge everything and everyone, they struggle to explain how and why they form their opinions. As we practice close reading, I have to prompt the students to consider what specific evidence is shaping their perceptions.
For most of my juniors, clarifying is even more difficult.
When struggling readers encounter a difficult or confusing passage, typically they skip past it. Students must recognize that even sophisticated readers happen upon challenging parts of texts. The difference is that advanced readers will confront these moments of confusion by rereading the text and using its context to create meaning.
As with the evaluation, I guide my juniors by asking them to consider the text’s structure — what about its use of syntax or diction reveals its meaning?
Hint fiction and these active reading skills are an effective combination because teachers can quickly assess how well students use specific evidence from the texts to construct meanings. This task is daunting, particularly at the beginning of the year; however, the students are less likely to be overwhelmed by twenty-five words.
I try to guide how they select textual evidence by reminding them of the elements of story: plot, characterization, setting, etc. I also prompt them to consider the hint fiction’s structure — in other words to read like writers.
We start by considering the story’s title and then move in chronological order. With this framework in mind, the students begin developing their meanings for the text by seeking out characters and settings.
I stress the need for them to anchor their interpretations to specific evidence, particularly to prepare them for college reading and the new SAT with its emphasis on close reading.
My hope is that as the year progresses and these conversations reoccur, many of my students will be able to strategize prior to reading a text. I want them to construct a mental checklist and run through it identifying the structures that can guide them towards a text meaning or help them to build their own.
Quick Hits: Other Benefits of Hint Fiction
Time Constraints — every English teacher struggles to help their students develop the skills necessitated by the Common Core and to read the texts on their department’s designated curriculum.
The brevity of hint fiction’s design enables teachers to quickly practice active reading with their students. These types of texts can be particularly useful as formative assessments — you can pre-assess your students’ reading skills or continuously monitor their progress throughout the year.
Short Attention Spans — a knock (somewhat unfairly) against today’s students is the duration of their focus.
However, these stories are easily “digested.” Sharing them in class can be an effective way to help developing readers build stamina for longer texts such as short stories and then novels.
Emphasis on Close Reading — when studying a novel, it’s difficult to create learning situations where the students can perform a word by word analysis.
Hint fiction’s compact structure forces the reader to consider each word individually. Then, the students can thematically connect these briefer texts to the longer works they are currently studying in class.
I'm an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School looking to grow both as a person and a professional.