Short Story Appreciation

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

My Short Story Appreciation course at the Seniors College will begin in October and I’ve found nine new stories, all recent winners of a variety of writing contests from all over the world, so there will be a fair sampling of different cultural literature. One of the reasons I’m really excited about this course is having a fair-sized group of adults to share ideas with. It’s not an easy topic to bring up and if you and your friends haven’t read the same texts, there’s not much you can discuss with them. In a class, however, you all get to read the same text, dissect it, and discuss it. You get to share ideas, interpretations, and impressions and leave knowing there is a group of people you will meet again who might or might not share your thoughts and feelings, but who make reading a text more interesting because of the varied knowledge, experiences, and opinions they bring to the discussion. How fun is that?

I know one of my favourite classes was literature, no matter where in the world it came from. Is it any surprise I mastered in Literature in English? That said, there are several levels of reading and the appreciation of literature increases with each level. Different sources will mention anywhere from 2 (literal and figurative) to 5 levels. So we can cover all bases, we’ll look at the 5 levels: 1) lexical; 2) literal; 3) interpretive; 4) applied; and 5) affective.

As the word suggests, lexical comprehension involves understanding the words in a text. This is less of a problem as readers mature because of the broadening scope of their vocabulary. Improving your lexical comprehension is simple: if you don’t understand a word, consult a dictionary or thesaurus. Unfortunately, not all words mean exactly what the dictionary tells us, unless you have a comprehensive dictionary that includes idiomatic expressions and colloquial usage. That also includes localisms and dialect, as well as nuances in the use of words. Quite often, we will be able to determine the meanings of words, phrases, and expressions from the lexical milieu—or the surrounding words and paragraphs. The way the words are used, who is using them, what the speaker’s expressions are—all these can be determined from the lexical milieu or context. It can get a little more complicated: lexical meaning includes grammatical understanding. If we don’t understand the way sentences are structured, we’ll have difficulty understanding implied meanings.

Literal comprehension comes from understanding all the facts presented in the story or text. You understand it literally when you can answer the basic questions: who, what, where, and when. Sometimes, understanding at the literal level is easier than lexical comprehension because the facts don’t change; word meanings can. The interpretive level of comprehension involves answering the questions why, how, and what if. This involves reasoning, extrapolation, and prediction. When interpreting literature, we try to figure out characters’ motivations, processes, progression, and intention. Applied comprehension is when we try to see the connections between the text and existing knowledge or opinions. We decide things like right or wrong, make judgements and comparisons. When we attempt to understand the social and emotional aspects of a text, we comprehend the story on an affective level. We are able to connect motives to the development of both plot and character and, thereby, comprehend the story in its entirety, from every possible angle. It is a level of appreciation that improves with maturity and age because then, we are better able to apply the higher-order thinking skills involved in the latter 3 levels of comprehension. These higher levels of comprehension are what the Short Story Appreciation course aims to achieve.

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