Listen to the interview with Sarah Levine:
Literature makes readers feel things. In your everyday reading life, you might hate a certain character, feel disgusted by violent imagery, cry at the end of a book, or be outraged or frustrated by an author’s racism or sexism. Unfortunately, our current teaching climate often doesn’t make a lot of room for feeling in literary reading. Standardized exams, for example, generally ask students about symbols and central ideas, but do not ask students to consider their own emotional responses. As a result, students often perceive literary reading as an exercise in summarizing or focusing on surface-level meaning.
But in their everyday, out-of-school lives, students can be passionate interpreters of all sorts of literary texts, from stories and poems to movies and songs.
The strategy described here—Up-Down-Both-Why— puts everyday feeling front and center in the process of literary interpretation. It is designed to help bring the heart back to literary reading and move students from conventional summary and literal sense-making to rich, thoughtful interpretation. Readers draw on their initial feelings—in particular, negative and positive responses to texts—and use them as a jumping-off point for interpretive reading. When students use this approach, they are more likely to build connotations and symbolic meaning, evaluate characters, and reflect on big ideas about how the world is or how it should be (Eva-Wood, 2004; Levine & Horton, 2013; Levine, 2014) .
What is Up-Down-Both-Why?
The strategy works like this: First, read with an eye toward text that seems especially positive, negative, or both. Then, ask yourself why it seems that way.
When teachers introduce this approach, they often ask students to imagine a continuum with positive on one side, negative on the other, and combinations in the middle:
Formally, this strategy is called affective evaluation, but teachers and students have come to call it “up-down-both-why” because in practice, people often draw up and down arrows or make “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” gestures to communicate their evaluations. They also sometimes use the words “up” and “down” as shorthand for “positive” and “negative.” Hence, “up-down-both-why,” or UDBW.
Whose UDBW? Mine? The Author’s? Both?
When using UDBW, you might make a “personal reading,” focusing on your own positive and negative responses to a text, drawn from your understanding of your world. You might also make what is called an “authorial reading” (Rabinowitz & Smith, 2005), focusing on your sense of the positive and negative responses an author might expect you to feel as you engage with the world the author has created. Most of the time, your reading comes from both places.
For example, let’s say you see this limo on the street.
In this case, you’re the reader of this “text,” and the authors of this text are the people who rented this car for the day and are showing it to you.
As a reader, your personal response to this text might be more positive. Why? Maybe you associate such a limo with fun, wealth, high status, or luxury. Or your personal response might be more negative. Why? Maybe you’re thinking about self-indulgence, or elitism.
However, you probably understand that the author expects you to see this “text” as more positive. Regardless of your personal associations, you can infer that the author of this text is probably using the limo to create a positive sense of status, luxury, and value.
The closer you are to the author’s world and its norms and expectations, the closer your personal and authorial UDBW are likely to be.
Either way, you consistently want to ask your kids to consider both kinds of readings. You can teach them to ask themselves, “How do I personally feel? and How do I think the author might expect me to feel?”
What does UDBW look like in action?
Readers’ interpretations work on many literary dimensions, from a single word in a poem to a critical reading of a music video (Lee, Goldman, Levine, & Magliano, 2016). Some of the most common dimensions include:
- Connotations of words, images, names, objects
- Judgments about characters
- Overall thematic inferences
- Aesthetic evaluations (reflections on the beauty or effectiveness of authorial craft or literary devices)
- Critical lenses (examinations of the way race, gender, power, and other aspects of identity and society are portrayed)
Readers can make use of UDBW at each of these dimensions too. They can use a simple positive-negative scale, or adapt the language in their scales to better fit different literary dimensions:
Below are examples of high school sophomores and juniors using UDBW at each of these dimensions. These examples all come from classrooms where students were reading “Linoleum Roses,” one of the vignettes from Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (below).
Dimension 1: Focus on Details
Here’s an example of one student doing a close reading of this vignette. The student was using UDBW as she read, meaning she was reading with an eye toward text that she found to be especially positive, negative, or both. She paused first at the detail, marshmallow salesman, and then described her positive and negative associations with that phrase.
To me, marshmallows are positive because they are sweet, but also negative because I don’t know, it’s like there’s nothing to them, and like to be a marshmallow salesman? First of all, no one sells marshmallows, like door-to-door or whatever. So it’s like this guy is selling nothing, so that seems negative, like he’s just shallow.
Because the phrase marshmallow salesman is a bit unusual, it is likely to communicate or elicit a stronger response than some other words in the sentence. Using UDBW helped this student to “bump” against this phrase, and then move on to describe her positive and negative associations. By asking herself why she felt both positive and negative responses, she was able to move from the concrete (marshmallow salesman) to the abstract connotation or symbolic meaning (“this guy is selling nothing, so that seems negative…shallow”).
Often, kids can identify interesting language but don’t know what to do with it. They might say, “This is a good image,” or “Marshmallow salesman is weird.” UDBW —connecting text to negative and positive associations—seems to help kids move from literal to interpretive sense-making.
Dimension 2: Focus on Character Interpretation
Students are probably most comfortable thinking in positive and negative terms when talking about character, since they do the same when thinking about the people in their own lives. One useful scale to support students’ interpretations of character is anchored by “sympathetic” at one end and “unsympathetic” at the other.
Here’s an example from a discussion of “Linoleum Roses,” in which the teacher asked students whether, overall, they found Sally to be more sympathetic, more unsympathetic, or both. Most students put their thumbs both up and down, and explained their evaluations as follows:
Student 1: She don’t know what love is. She don’t know what she’s getting into!
Student 2: Innocent.
Student 3: Unaware.
Student 4: She doesn’t have much education.
Teacher: And does that make her seem more or less sympathetic to you?
Student 4: More, because she might be taken advantage of.
Student 5: But she should know enough to not stay with him. She’s old enough to not act stupid.
Student 2: No, she’s vulnerable.
Students can also use simple sentence stems to talk or write about characterizations:
The text characterizes Sally as both sympathetic and unsympathetic by showing her to have not a lot of education, but at the same time being ignorant to how the husband is abusing her.
Dimension 3: Focus on Thematic Interpretation
UDBW can be especially helpful when students are building thematic interpretations. Even though we want our students to see subtlety and nuance in texts, they often end up thinking about themes in terms of simple morals or lessons. A way to address this problem is to ask students to think about themes in terms of worldviews: the author’s (or the text’s) attitudes and perspectives about life and human interactions.
In these terms, texts are worlds filled with people and things: marshmallow salesmen, broken screen doors, smooth ceilings, women sitting alone. And worldviews are an author’s (or text’s, if you don’t want to talk about authors) attitudes and perspectives about those worlds.
Using UDBW, students can think about themes/worldviews on a continuum anchored by optimism at one end and pessimism at the other at the other. This continuum can work in general or specific terms. For example, to what degree do you think The House on Mango Street (or author Cisneros, if you prefer) is optimistic or pessimistic about humanity in general? Or more specifically, does the novel seem more optimistic, more pessimistic, or both, when it comes to the role of women in society, race, immigration, or belonging? And why do you say so?
Note that when asking your kids to talk about themes or worldviews, it’s helpful to have them focus on last lines, final chapters, or overall effects. Readers can really only fully reflect on textual or personal worldviews after they have finished a text, and have seen the entire world that a text has to offer. Then, as readers consider the text’s worldviews, they can also reflect on the degree to which those worldviews align with their own.
Below is an example of another activity involving “Linoleum Roses.” Kids talked in small groups about whether the text overall seemed more “up,” “down,” or both (that is, optimistic, pessimistic, or both) about love and relationships, and explained why. Then each student wrote about their specific interpretations, and decided where each interpretation belonged on an optimistic/pessimistic continuum.
Notice that some students used sentence stems to jumpstart their interpretations as well, including “In the author’s world…” or “I see this text as [more positive, more negative, or both]… .” You can offer sentence stems using more or less academic language, have students create sentence stems themselves, show a range of examples as possible models—whatever works best for you.
Dimension 4: Focus on Literary Techniques
In the classroom, students are often good at identifying literary techniques, as in “that’s a motif,” or “there is alliteration in line 5.” However, they often get confused about what to make of those techniques after identifying them. They might say, “that image really helps you imagine what’s going on,” or “that’s a good metaphor.” In a classroom context, talking about effects of particular techniques is intimidating. Students may be afraid they will give the “wrong” answer, and stay silent. Or they may feel the whole enterprise is for show. As one student put it, “English is about reading poems and telling about rhythm… It’s about NOTHING!” (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002, p. 25).
Reflecting on emotional responses gives students a framework on which to build interpretations of authorial techniques in several ways.
Moving from Techniques to UDBW
First, you can use UDBW to help students move beyond identification of authorial techniques. Let’s say you are asking students to identify patterns in the paragraph below. Students are good pattern seekers, so they might notice that the words “except” and “and he doesn’t” repeat several times.
The trick now is…so what? What work might these repetitions do? Students can now use UDBW to ask themselves: “Do these patterns create more positive effects? More negative effects? Why?” Most will likely conclude that the patterns create negative effects. Why is that? What associations do you make here? In previous class discussions that I have heard, students have named concepts like limits, control, meanness, power, abuse, and lack of self-knowledge.
Moving from UDBW to Techniques
A second way of using UDBW to consider authorial techniques is to begin with emotional responses and use them as a guide to noticing such techniques. Here’s an example of one student’s annotations of a paragraph from “Linoleum Roses.” The arrows represent places where the student identified more positive and negative effects (the “ups” and “downs” of UDBW) concerning mostly imagery and character. The text boxes alongside the passage are where the student explained those evaluations (the “whys” of UDBW).
The student then moved to thinking about patterns. Instead of looking for patterns in the author’s language, the student looked at patterns in her own arrows and annotations (their ups, downs, and whys). The student saw that most of her “down” arrows connected to ideas about power and control. In discussing patterns, the student said, “It actually starts out okay—maybe she’s happy. She thinks she is happy. But then it gets more and more negative. I ended up annotating the whole thing as ‘down.’ The pattern I see is control.”
UDBW for Aesthetic Impact
You can also think about literary devices or other authorial moves in terms of their aesthetic impact or efficacy. In the real world, critics talk about whether authorial moves “worked” or were “effective.” Kids make these kinds of critiques as well, but generally do so only when they are familiar with the genre they are discussing; for example, a kid can easily critique a TV love scene as cheesy or appreciate a song lyric as original.
It’s more difficult for students to make these kinds of critiques with novels, short stories, or the kind of poetry they often read in school, because they may not have enough experience with those genres to know if a writer is doing something original or exciting. But you can use UDBW as a way into those discussions by asking them to consider an author’s craft on a continuum anchored by “effective” on one end and “ineffective” on the other, or “more powerful” on one end and “less powerful” on the other. Or students can define their own scale.
For example, with “Linoleum Roses,” you might ask students to discuss which of the three paragraphs they think is most effective in painting a picture of the main character, or whether there’s a line they think the author could get rid of without diminishing the impact of the story. Using Cisneros’ entire novella as a larger example, you might ask students to decide which vignettes they think are most powerful, or best written, or what metaphors they found to be most positive or negative, and why. While making such comparisons can feel artificial or reductive, doing so helps students develop criteria for effective artistry on their terms, but while being responsive to the text.
Dimension 5: Critical Lenses
By the time they reach middle school, and often much earlier, students are already skilled at looking at the world through a set of critical lenses—considering who gets to speak and who is silenced, what might be racist or anti-racist, how society has different expectations for different genders, and so on.
UDBW lends itself well to the application of critical lenses, and is probably one of the easiest and most satisfying ways to use UDBW. You decide the scale and the dimension based on your and your students’ interests and unanswered questions. For example, in “Linoleum Roses,” you could focus on the character level: Sally’s husband is definitely not a feminist. What about Sally? To what degree would you say Sally is a feminist? Or you could bump up to the authorial level: To what degree is Cisneros portraying Sally as a stereotype? To what degree does House on Mango Street use or defy stereotypes?
Fine-Tuning and Troubleshooting
What if students aren’t sure how to communicate their interpretations?
Many teachers use sentence stems to support their students as they work to communicate their ideas, especially in academic contexts. For example, when talking about details, students might use stems such as:
This image creates a sense of…
The language creates the feeling that…
Here are two sentences that students wrote using such stems:
The image of the marshmallow salesman creates a sense of emptiness and nothingness.
The language creates the feeling that the marshmallow salesman is not actually selling anything, because marshmallows are sweet, but there is nothing to them.
What if students focus only on personal readings and do not consider authorial readings?
Sometimes a student will focus only on their personal emotional reading without considering potential authorial readings. Or maybe they make an authorial reading that you feel is not supported by the text. This happens for all sorts of reasons—sometimes a student doesn’t understand what is going on literally; sometimes they are missing an author’s ironic tone; sometimes they don’t understand the terms of the fictional world; sometimes they are taking the perspective of just one character; sometimes they’re not paying attention to context. Sometimes they just don’t agree.
For example, maybe a student finishes reading “Linoleum Roses” and says, “I see this as completely ‘up.’ Sally is happy, so that’s good, and her house reminds her of wedding cake, which is positive. And I think the author’s attitude is optimistic.” This is often a tricky area for teachers. We don’t want to devalue the student’s response, but we think the student is missing some major negative effects of the text.
There are some things you can do to help students understand possible distinctions between personal and authorial readings without devaluing their initial personal responses. First, you don’t have to argue with students about their initial personal reactions. A benefit of UDBW is that students are the experts in their own emotional responses. But you can consistently ask them to consider their personal emotional responses alongside the emotions they think the author might have expected audiences to feel.
To do this, you can return to simpler texts, like the picture of the limo at the top of this post, and remind students that there can be differences in authorial and personal readings. You can work through examples that illuminate potential differences. For example, in my personal reading of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, I find Atticus to be kind of “down,” or unsympathetic; he embodies the white savior trope, and won’t let Scout use the “n word”– not because it’s evil, but because it’s “common.” However, in the world Harper Lee has created, my sense is that Atticus is meant to be very “up,” or sympathetic; Scout loves him, he can shoot straight, and he looks like a hero in the courtroom. So in this case I see that my personal emotional response to the character is likely different than the response the author might have expected me to have.
Another way to help students consider different readings is simply to ask other students to chime in—did they make the same “up” reading? Why or why not? Often, other students do the job of helping their classmates see things they missed. You can ask students to share their UDBW responses to a detail, character, or whole text by putting their thumbs in the air. Then you can all just look around the room and see the range of different responses.
Also—and sometimes teachers struggle with this—you can disagree with the student yourself. You are a member of the classroom community, and you are allowed to share your personal or authorial interpretations. You might say, “Oh, wow. I went the other way. I felt so sad after reading this. And I feel like the author is pushing for a much more pessimistic effect about marriage or love.” You can point to details that led you to your readings: “All those details about the husband made me feel really sympathetic for Sally. How do you deal with those details in your reading?” Your student may push back (“Sally doesn’t care; it says so right here, So why should we?”) or they may not.
Or you can let it go and see what happens. Most important is that students know that they can use their own positive and negative responses as a jumping off point to build interpretations; that their own personal attitudes may not be the same as authorial attitudes; and that they learn ways to consider both.
What if students focus only on the binary and ignore nuance?
If students focus only on extremes–positive or negative–then using UDBW can be reductive. The key here is to offer a continuum—more positive, more negative, or both. My research shows that students consistently offer nuanced interpretations of texts, even though they are beginning from a simple place. You can also help students experience nuance by having them create a continuum of descriptors for positive and negative, sympathetic and unsympathetic, optimistic and pessimistic, and mark where their response lies on that continuum.
Sometimes a student focuses only on one line that is particularly positive or negative, and forgets about the rest of the text. In that case, you can ask the student to take a look at all the up/down/both arrows they used to annotate a text when they read it. Those annotations can be a helpful visual tool to guide students’ interpretations and to remind them of the nuance in a text.
Feeling is fundamental to literary reading. Hopefully, an approach like UDBW will help your students connect with literary texts and build interpretations that lead to richer reading experiences. Beyond that, reading with feeling is a way into empathy, which lies at the heart of our hopes for our kids.
Special thanks to the English Language Arts teachers at Curie High School in Chicago for helping develop this idea.
Eva-Wood, A. (2004). How think-and-feel aloud instruction influences poetry readers. Discourse Processes, 38, 173–192. doi:10.1207/s15326950dp3802_2
Lee, C. D., Goldman, S. R., Levine, S., & Magliano, J. (2016). Epistemic cognition in literary reasoning. Handbook of epistemic cognition, 165-183.
Levine, S. (2014). Making interpretation visible with an affect-based strategy. Reading Research Quarterly, 49, 283–303. doi:10.1002/rrq.2014.49.issue-3
Levine, S., & Horton, W. S. (2015). Helping high school students read like experts: Affective evaluation, salience, and literary interpretation. Cognition and Instruction, 33(2), 125–153. doi:10.1080/07370008.2015.1029609
Rabinowitz, P.J., & Smith, M.W. (1998). Authorizing readers: Resistance and respect in the teaching of literature. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Smith, M., & Wilhelm, J.D. (2002). Reading don’t fix no Chevys: Literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.