Assessing Literary Interpretation Skills


  • Sylvie Debevec Henning Ph.D.

    1. State University of New York, Plattsburgh
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      (Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University) is Professor of French and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at State University of New York, Plattsburgh.


ABSTRACT  Along with other foreign language colleagues, the author has been participating in a comprehensive assessment project. Having accepted the principle of assessment based on proficiency rather than fact-acquisition for the four language skills, the group tried to apply the same principle to literary interpretation. ACTFL has no rating scale in this area, so the author undertook to elaborate one.

The four levels of the author's scale are based on a graduated arrangement of interpretive activities, each composed of an action and a textual or contextual component. Since literary interpretation requires strong reading comprehension, the novice level presupposes an intermediate-high level of reading comprehension. The notional components are sequenced from the specific and concrete to the general and abstract (e.g., from plot events to temporal structures). They are also arranged to move readers out of a self-oriented (biographical) perspective into a more world-oriented one (e.g., from character description to the work's relation to its socio-cultural or historical contexts). Finally, the components are increasingly self-conscious. The functions progress from recognizing and distinguishing through describing to understanding and finally to analyzing critically. The same textual/contextual component may appear at several levels, each time, however, matched with a different action.

The group is here concerned with the assessment of interpretive proficiency, not coverage. Consequently, the focus is on literary components that can be used to interpret any work, both as a coherent textual structure and as an element in larger contextual frameworks.