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Using textual evidence

In a previous post, I mentioned some elements of a story that students should look for while they are reading. Once students are comfortable finding those basic elements, it's important for them to learn how to support their findings with textual evidence. Textual evidence is evidence that comes directly from a text that you use to support your claims or arguments. Has the protagonist grown over the course of the story? How do you know? Is hope an important theme in the story? How can you tell? We have to be able to prove that the suggestions we make about certain characters or certain aspects of a story have been derived from the text itself and are not merely our own opinions. Using textual evidence is how we do just that.

I'm going to now share how a student can support their findings when identifying the protagonist, setting, and conflict in a story using the book The Giver by Lois Lowry. I've chosen to use this book in particular because I read it with a student recently, so it's still very fresh in my mind. If you haven't read it before, don't worry - I won't give any spoilers!

1. Protagonist

The protagonist in The Giver is a boy named Jonas. This, naturally, will be the easiest element to prove. For example, the very first sentence of the story reads, "It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened" (p.1). The focus of the story continues to surround Jonas, so we know the first sentence is accurate in telling us who the story is about. If I were to describe Jonas's character to you, one word I'd use to describe him would be obedient. This can be based on something very straightforward from the text, such as "Jonas obeyed cheerfully" (p.86), but it can also be based on something a little more complex: "[Jonas] was fascinated. It didn't seem a terribly important rule, but the fact that his father had broken a rule at all awed him. He glanced at his mother, the one responsible for adherence to the rules, and was relieved that she was smiling" (p.12). It can be inferred from this paragraph that Jonas is obedient based on how surprised he is by his father's rule-breaking and his concern about how his mother will react to it. All of these quotes give us a glimpse into the protagonist in The Giver.

2. Setting

We can also deduce the time of year in which the story begins based on the very first sentence: "It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened" (p.1). "December" means it's towards the end of the year and it's wintertime, though depending on where he is, that might not necessarily mean it's cold. We don't know what year it is, and we are never told exactly where this story takes place, but there are certain parts of the story that make it clear this is a work of dystopian fiction and it is set somewhere in the future. In the first paragraph, the narrator writes, "Squinting toward the sky, [Jonas] had seen the sleek jet" (p.1), which tells us the story is at least a contemporary one. Here is an example that suggests the novel involves a dystopia: "For a contributing citizen to be released from the community was a final decision, a terrible punishment, an overwhelming statement of failure" (p.2-3). From this sentence, we know Jonas lives in a community. The phrase "released from the community" is a foreign one that seems to imply people who are criminals are removed from the community instead of put in jail or something to that effect like we would do today. At one point, Jonas says, "You've visited other communities, haven't you?" (p.6), which makes it sound as though Jonas's community isn't exclusive. It's similar to saying someone is from another state - "communities" here seem to bear more weight than the way we use the term. Later, Jonas's father mentions, "When I was an you are, Jonas, I was very impatient, waiting for the Ceremony of Twelve" (p.13). This suggests the people in this community are defined by their ages because Jonas is given the title of "Eleven," and it sounds as though the "Ceremony of Twelve" is rather significant. His father goes on to say, "There was not the element of suspense that there is with your Ceremony. Because I was already fairly certain of what my Assignment would be.' Jonas was surprised. There was no way, really, to know in advance. It was a secret selection, made by the leaders of the community, the Committee of Elders, who took the responsibility so seriously that there were never even any jokes made about Assignments" (p.14-15). People are not only defined by their ages but also by their "Assignments," and each community is apparently run by a group of elders, once again showing the weight of one's age in this book. It also suggests people are not in control of their own destinies to a certain extent, which is a common idea addressed in dystopian fiction. All of these quotes give us a better idea of where and when this story takes place. A text might not directly answer the questions where and when, but aspects of the story should help us narrow down our answers.

3. Conflict

I mentioned I wouldn't share any spoilers, and I'm determined to stick to that, so the conflict I will share that appears in the book is an internal conflict that exists within Jonas towards the very beginning of the story. The second page of the story reads, "[Jonas] had waited a long time for this special December. Now that it was upon him, he wasn't frightened, but he was...eager, he decided. He was eager for it to come. And he was excited, certainly. All of the Elevens were excited about the event that would be coming so soon. But there was a little shudder of nervousness when he thought about it, about what might happen" (p.4). Jonas's conflicting emotions suggest an internal conflict - he doesn't know what to expect with this event (we learn it's the Ceremony of Twelve he's thinking about, as was shared in the paragraph above), which explains his anxiety, but he also seems ready for it to happen. This quote shows the struggle that Jonas appears to have within himself.

I just chose three elements to discuss in detail because, as you can see, I had a lot of evidence to share! Students should grow comfortable supporting their claims about a text with textual evidence because this is necessary when writing a literary analysis, which middle school and high school students will be required to do in their English classes. Learning to find the most important literary elements and being able to support their findings with textual evidence are essential to writing a strong literary analysis. I'll talk more about the actual process of writing a literary analysis in a future blog post.

If you have any questions or if you would like to learn more about how I can help your student find success in their reading comprehension, please do not hesitate to contact me here!

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