Northrop Frye in the Elementary Classroom

by Glenna Sloan, Queens College, City University of New York

Speech presented May 6, 2007, at the Canadian Literature Symposium on Northrop Frye

In this presentation, I will describe some of the ways I have attempted, over many years, and with the help of my students—all teachers—to put Northrop Frye into elementary classrooms.

I begin with indoctrination. I preach the gospel according to Frye in an effort to save teachers from the false teachings of the reading industry. These include the notion that howchildren read is more important than what they read, that fragmenting the reading experience through inane drills of so-called sequential skills is the way to develop literacy. The reading pundits insist that suitable early reading material must be dumbed down or, as they say, leveled, an unfortunate word which means written in limited vocabulary deemed appropriate for the reader’s age. I refer to Professor Frye’s blistering critique of Harcourt’s Adventure series of basal readers when I insist that genuine literature is far and away the most effective reading program ever devised.

In an interview with me, Professor Frye said: “As you read and write from the basis of literature, eventually you realize that there is a difference between learning to read and write at the minimum standards of literacy and being able to write with some power of articulateness and to read with some sense of direction. So the teaching of literature is the teaching of reading and writing. And what you’re aiming for here is the transfer of imaginative energy from literature to the reader” (University of Toronto, February 23, 1970).

This transfer certainly can never come from a dull reader filled with mediocre texts but it does come when the emotions and imagination are engaged with wonder and delight at what words can be made to do, as in the prose and poetry of Alice in Wonderland , say, or the verse of A.A.Milne. Taking a keen interest in the printed word is always the first step in learning to read, a cumulative process that develops over a lifetime. Without an early goosebump experience caused by the written word, children are likely to have little interest in reading.

In a graduate class in children’s literature and literacy development in the Division of Education at Queens College of the City University if New York, I share with teachers aspects of Frye’s revolutionary way of looking at literature. Professor Frye once declared that “the only guarantee that a subject is theoretically coherent is its ability to have its elementary principles taught to children” (Frye, 1963c, 33). Using his ideas, I encourage the teachers to build for themselves a deductive framework to guide the children’s inductive learning about how literature works.

Besides theory, the teachers learn in this class how to select and evaluate the various genres in children’s literature, classic and contemporary, both literary and sub-literary, because Frye was no literary snob. He understood that imaginative verbal structures range on a continuum from awful to amazing. To develop taste for the best, children need to experience the entire spectrum.

An approach to literary study that has been successful with most grades is an intertextual study called Reading for Connections. At all elementary levels we follow Frye’s advice and choose as reading material Biblical and Classical mythology, folk and fairy tales appropriate for the age. We have found that, by choosing apt material and asking the right questions, we can guide children gradually to induce from their reading, listening and viewing that likenesses unite literature and that all imaginative verbal constructs are connected whether literary or subliterary such as comics, advertisements or pop songs.

The notion of intertextuality fits well with Frye’s belief that in order to ultimately understand what literature as a whole is about, the reader/critic must “interpret every work of literature in the light of all the literature he knows” (Frye, 1963a, 44).We learn all things by making connections, by constructing new knowledge from what we already know. Literary or imaginative works are unified through their likenesses, similarities discoverable in recurrent character types, plot patterns, themes and imagery. The more we read, the more obvious it becomes that literature is not merely a collection of unrelated poems and stories.

Although created centuries apart, Hercules and Superman are recognizable as the same character type, the hero with magical powers. The helpful talisman in the form of an invincible weapon or invisibility cloak aids the ancient heroes of classical Greek myths and modern heroes like Harry Potter. In television advertisements a brave and virtuous Mr. Clean defeats his evil adversary, Dirt. The character of wise teacher or mentor recurs with regularity down the centuries, in a past time as Merlin and in our time as Yoda of Star Wars.

“All themes and characters and stories that you encounter in literature belong to one big interlocking family,” Frye wrote (1963a, 18). In myth, folk and fairy tales may be found the blueprints for all stories coming after them. In discovering the truth of this statement, graduate students, and ultimately their grade school pupils, are asked to recall and consider all the fairy tales they have encountered through reading, viewing, listening and discussion. Then they are asked to respond to this statement: Folk and fairy tales contain blueprints for all stories that come after them.

What elements are common to folktales? The students brainstorm to identify patterns and motifs that they have noticed recur in this traditional literature. Through shared inquiry they establish a list of recurrent patterns such as The Adventurous Quest or Journey, A Well-Intentioned Quester or Hero, often an Underdog; Animal or Human Sidekicks of the Quester; Trials and testing of the Quester. Aid for the quester from a wise or supernatural being. Reliance on a talisman. The old plots may feature plot devices and themes such as transformations, loss and recovery, rescue from evil, righting of wrongs, and rewards for good or courageous behavior. Wishes come true. Happy endings are the norm. The numbers 3, 5 and 7 regularly recur.

Dangerous forests, wastelands, dungeons and deserts contrast with the safety of meadows, gardens, and palaces set on high ground. Weather and the seasons play a part. Great trials may take place in winter or in rain and snow. The success of a venture frequently occurs in spring, the time of rebirth, or in high summer. And so on.

Once these lists are determined, young students draw upon their reading, listening and viewing to discuss the recurrence of literary elements found both in folk and fairy tales, in modern fantasy, and—more of a challenge—in realistic contemporary stories, films and television shows. I have time for only two brief examples from a study in reading for connections I conducted with fifth graders in PS219 Queens, New York City. Others are included in my book, The Child as Critic (Sloan, 2003).

The following conversation was based on William Steig’s picture book, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Steig, 1969). In this literary fairy tale, a magic pebble he found in the fall causes Sylvester, after an ill-conceived wish, to transform into a rock. In the following spring, his parents happen to picnic at this very rock.

Sara says: This story tells of loss and recovery. Sylvester is lost when he turns into a rock, but his family gets him back to himself at the end. Jason says: This book is a good example of transformation. Sylvester turns into a rock and back again into a donkey. Jared adds: And the transformation is because of a talisman, the magic pebble. Rachel adds: And a wish, don’t forget. Sylvester’s mother wishes he was with them and he turns from a rock into a donkey. Jason puts in: Sylvester gets rescued in the spring when the leaves come out and flowers are just starting to bloom.

It is more challenging to make connections between the old tales of fantasy and a modern realistic story. But the children managed with Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (Paterson, 1978). Abandoned by her mother, Gilly has lived unhappily in a series of foster homes, stubbornly cherishing the vain hope that her mother will come to claim her.

Jared starts: Gilly doesn’t go on a journey, but she has a quest. She wants to find her mother and live permanently with her instead of in foster homes. Sara puts in: In a way, her foster mother, Trotter, is like the wise woman in fairy tales, don’t you think? She’s on Gilly’s side and gives her good advice. Jason says: I think there’s a transformation in this story. Gilly doesn’t change into something else, she stays a girl. But she changes inside. In the beginning she fought against how things were in her life. But in the end she accepts what she can’t change. Once she wouldn’t have done that.

For decades I have introduced the teachers in my graduate classes to Frye’s comprehensive theory of literature, with particular emphasis on intertextuality, the four plots and the insight that stories are a series of displacements from myth and fairy tale to modern realism. I caution, as Frye did, that these ideas are not meant to be directly taught to children. He insisted that no aspect of his theory was intended to be memorized and presented as a substitute for literary experience. From a basis of plenty of reading of the right sort and with practice asking the right questions, teachers find that they can help the children to discover through inquiry the major characteristics and conventions of plots and characters and begin to see for themselves that literary works have long histories dating back to the earliest times. Children do begin to see that each literary work fits, like a piece in a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, to form a whole, as Frye put it, “an order of words,” (1976b,118).

Here is a concept young scholars can grasp. Here is an opportunity to add the dimension of structure to discussion that typically centers on content alone, for this approach does not preclude other ways of looking at literature. But here the focus is on how literature functions as an art form.

In another class, titled Literacy Through Poetry, Verse and Wordplay, my students and I take seriously what Frye says about the primacy of poetry in literacy development, and develop strategies for best classroom practice based on his actual words.

Frye said “What poetry can give the student is, first of all, the sense of physical movement. Poetry is not irregular lines in a book, but something very close to dance and song, something to walk down the street keeping time to.” Frye believed that experiencing the rhythms of verse, such as nursery rhymes, which reflect the child’s own bodily rhythms, in a sense teaches the child the basics of language. Experiencing language through musical rhythm and melodic rhymes he believed could “develop a speaking and prose style that comes out of the depths of personality and is a genuine expression of it.” “Ideally,” he insists, “our literary education should begin not with prose but with such things as “This little pig went to market”—with verse rhythms reinforced by physical assault. [All ]The infant … needs is to get bounced. If he is, he is beginning to develop a response to poetry in the place where it ought to start. For verse is closely related to dance and song; it is also closely related to the child’s own speech” (Frye, 1963b. 25-26).

In The Stubborn Structure Frye insists that “The greatest fallacy in the present conception of literacy education is the notion that the [normal] language of everyday speech should be the staple and center of literary teaching” (Frye, 1970). He wonders why the rhymes, jingles and songs children already know are not their first reading material and therefore their first models for writing rather than the debased prose basal readers. He wonders also why educators, in teaching children both to read and to write, fail to capitalize on the young child’s propensity for and delight in riddles, conundrums, tongue twisters, rhymes and puns.

Frye writes: “In teaching youngsters to write, you throw a dead language at them and ask them to decipher it. And I think the obvious way to teach a person to write is to listen to the way they talk and try to give some shape and direction to that talk as it goes on” (1970, 95-96 ).In the Foreword to the first edition of The Child as Critic he talks about how a young child revels in the sound of words, not knowing their meaning, but chanting them or marching to their rhythm. He declares, “There’s a great current of verbal energy that comes out of any child, he says, and the thing to do is direct that, not to lead him into a sort of rat’s maze of subjects and predicates and objects before his time…”(Canadian Broadcasting Company, 1990, 13).

Early reading material has also to capture children’s emotions and imagination by showing them all the wonderful things words can be made to do. Without experiencing this initial pull of words, children will not readily or willingly make the considerable effort required to read and write them. Literacy after all begins in hearts not heads.

Frye declaration that “Poetry is always the central powerhouse of a literary education” (Frye, 1963b, 26) is astonishing news to the majority of elementary educators. In elementary and middle school poetry and verse are typically relegated to the periphery of the curriculum and treated as unnecessary frills. Because poetry is not taken seriously in either the classroom or for that matter in the culture at large, few studies have been undertaken on its motivational potential in children’s literacy development. Without the quantitative data from experimental studies so revered by educators, administrators in particular, poetry remains at the edge of the curriculum.

Of course, common sense and experience tells us that there are ample data to support the hypothesis that literature and the love of words it engenders foster reading and writing. Read the biography of any successful writer and you will find the evidence. Poet and playwright, Eve Merriam, growing up in Philadelphia, reports attending there every D’Oyly Carte production of Gilbert and Sullivan operas . The polysyllabic playfulness of the rhymes and rhythms in these operettas echo in Eve’s poetry together with the tumbling word clusters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet she read and reread.

“Literacy Through Poetry, Verse and Wordplay,” the course developed under Professor Frye’s influence, has been popular for decades with elementary and middle school teachers pursuing a master’s degree. I require my students to conduct our own brand of action or ethnographic research in their classrooms. Many children approach the reading and writing of poetry with suspicion, even trepidation, often because they know little or nothing about it. My teachers administer a survey to their pupils to determine attitudes and knowledge about poetry. Then they design a treatment accordingly, one that will further knowledge and change attitudes about poetry by presenting it in ways designed to preserve delight and destroy drudgery. As the teachers plan, the key words that guide them are delight, immersion, pleasure, enjoyment. Selection is made from poems children are known to love: rhythmic rhyming verse, story poems, poems funny and fanciful. Teaching is mostly experiencing at this level. Questions on content, especially requests for prose translations of poems, are to be avoided. I inform my students that asking “What does this poem mean?” is in my view far worse than cursing in the classroom. Response to poetry, and other literary works, for that matter, as Frye suggested, is best made through another art form such as movement, drama, drawing, composing in words or images, choral speaking and the like. I insist, as Frye would, that poetry itself do the teaching; it has the words for it.

Over many years, my students and I have discovered that planned, intensive effort to use and not abuse poetry in the classroom, has marked results in increased knowledge, changed attitudes and, to some extent improvement of language skills, although significant improvement in reading and writing obviously requires more time than just a few weeks. But, at the very least, one of the main goals of the course is always achieved: every teacher reports that their students show an increased interest in written language and new enthusiasm for reading and writing. And this is fine, according to Professor Frye. He speaks of encouraging children to write poetry, if only to discover how difficult it is to write it unusually well. “But the purpose of such encouragement is to breed a love of poetry, [that is, of words] not to breed poets” (Frye, 1956, p.290)

At the end of the treatment, a second survey is administered to the children. A child who at first wrote, “Poetry is too hard to read” now says “Poetry is words leaping off the page.” Another declared initially that she liked nothing about poetry; after the learning sequence on poetry, she wrote: “What do I like best about poetry? It lets your thoughts explode in words.”

Left blank in the beginning, spaces for answers now bloom with names of poets and titles of favorite poems. At the beginning, few children report checking out books of poetry and verse from the library; after their classroom experience, most report that they have favorite poets and search library shelves for their work. Evaluating her project, undertaken with second graders, one teacher wrote: “I see that what they and I have done together has caused a new spark in us, a new interest in reading and writing words.”

My time for offering testimonials is limited, but with apology for the plug, I refer you to my report of my students’ classroom work. Give Them Poetry! published by Teachers College Press in 2003, provides detail about the teachers’ experiences with children and poetry from kindergarten to Grade 9.

I like to think that Professor Frye would be pleased with the work I and my students undertake. He said that children more easily than most adults grasp the fact that poetry is a direct, forceful, natural form of utterance and not something perversely obscure and difficult. He complained that elementary and secondary teachers are often guilty of abusing poetry and misleading their students by treating it as a foreign language to be translated.

Frye and others, the poet Kenneth Koch among them, hear young children’s spontaneous alliterative chants and taunts, observe their love of puns and riddles and their intuitive use of metaphor and describe them as natural poets One example I particularly enjoy is this: On seeing his grandmother’s serious case of varicose veins a child inquired, “Grandma, how come your legs are all thunder and lightning?”

Although he insisted that he had no direct experience in teaching young children to read and write, Frye had a keen interest in the subject and much of value to say about this increasingly challenging enterprise. In today’s world books must compete for children’s time with other intriguing and convenient handheld devices that also deliver fascinating entertainment.

Professor Frye had no patience with educational fads and fancies. In developing literacy, he knew and demonstrated the only way viable path toward literacy—through genuine literature. He honored me immeasurably by writing the Foreword to the first edition of my book, The Child as Critic and I close with a quotation from it:

“The author makes clear from the beginning her opposition to what she calls the “skills and drills” approach [to literacy development] which frustrates and stunts all genuine imaginative growth. Emphasis on skills tries to be efficient: It regards learning to read as a largely mechanical operation, to be taught with the least waste of time by repetition of familiar words, adding new words as facility is gained. The argument for such teaching seems extremely plausible, and has only the flaw that the human mind, which always begins as a child’s mind, is simply not built that way. Consequently such an approach is not merely immoral and anti-intellectual, it is also miserably inefficient.”



Canadian Broadcasting Company. (1990). The Ideas of Northrop Frye. Transcripts of broadcasts, February 16, 19, March 6.

Frye, Northrop. (1956). Poetry. University of Toronto Quarterly, 25, 290-304.

Frye, Northrop. (1963a). The Educated Imagination. Toronto, Canada: Canadian

Broadcasting Company.

Frye, Northrop. (1963b). The Well-Tempered Critic. Bloomington, I|N: Indiana University Press.

Frye, Northrop. (1963c). The Developing Imagination. Learning in Language and Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frye, Northrop. (1970). The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Frye, Northrop. (1976b). Spiritus Mundi. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Paterson, Katherine. (1978). The Great Gilly Hopkins . New York: Crowell.

Sloan, Glenna (2003). The Child as Critic. 4th Edition. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Sloan, Glenna. (2003). Give Them Poetry! New York: Teachers College Press.

Steig, William. (1969). Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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