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Literary analysis is a vital stage in the development of students' critical thinking skills. Bloom's Taxonomy illustrates that analysis should come at the fourth level, right after comprehension and application. What this means is that students must be able to understand and describe the text before they are able to analyze its elements.

Teaching literary analysis is often a daunting and overwhelming task. After all, it is essentially guiding students slowly through the process of critical thinking and understanding literature. That’s not a simple undertaking. Most importantly, with so many ways to go about doing it, where to begin?

To guide students toward discovering literature all on their own, the steps of this process need to be introduced in a simplified form. It's very important for the student to understand that literary analysis is indeed a process where there is no right or wrong answer. This empowers students to be passionate about their topics and, most importantly, encourages them to look beyond the words on the page.

1. Choose a Topic

Some students need guidance when choosing a topic, but others have ideas that they would like to explore. Topics can be divided into the main literary elements:

  • Characters
  • Themes
  • Literary devices
  • Setting
  • Narrative.

2. Focus the Topic

Here is where many students will need to do a lot of brainstorming, outlining, and specific thinking about the element on which they would like to focus.

  • The brainstorming process involves mapping out the different aspects of the chosen element.
  • Make a choice by narrowing down the selection and focusing the ideas.
  • Come up with a question to answer (thesis statement): What do you want to explore about the topic? Why does it stand out to you?
  • Answer the "why" question. Instead of letting students simply describe the text, "why" pushes them to analyze and even synthesize. This aspect is vital to student understanding, as most of the time a teacher is able to identify a relevant thesis related to modern-day issues and concepts. Here is where real-world application, analysis, and synthesis can begin to form in this piece of writing.

3. Gather Textual Evidence

Collecting material to answer or support your question is often a time-consuming stage, because most of the close reading will occur here. It's important for students to know that they're allowed to research the topic or text before starting to write. Many students feel that they should not be using Google or Wikipedia to research their texts. Here is where the teacher can have an honest discussion about digital citizenship, and how to tell credible academic sources from non-credible ones.

Show students that close reading and gathering evidence doesn't have to be a mundane, one-dimensional task.

  • Identify common themes, repetitions, and patterns.
  • Categorize elements, tone, and narrative style.
  • Highlight characterization, setting, and foreshadowing.
  • Label character types, symbols, and metaphors.

4. Introduce, Evidence, Analyze

Learning through writing and literary analysis happens through stages (see Bloom's Taxonomy). At this stage of writing, students have already accomplished remembering, understanding, and applying. Next comes analysis.

Introduce

Students should introduce their point in one or two clear topic sentences. Next, it's important to provide evidence that supports the main topic in order to convince the reader of the stated point of view. There are a few ways students can add their evidence.

Evidence

  • Quotation: When providing evidence word for word from a primary or secondary source, students should be reminded to use quotation marks only if the words have not been altered.
  • Summary: Students summarize a piece of evidence by restating it in a shorter form using their own words.
  • Paraphrase: Students explain a piece of evidence using their own words.

At this stage, it's important to use the lesson as a reminder to cite and give credit for words and ideas that belong to others. A conversation with the class about academic honesty is very important to help them understand intellectual property. This conversation will also prepare them for honesty and ethics in the real or academic world.

Analyze

This critical stage is often a learning curve for many students. It's important that the teacher helps them distinguish between descriptive writing and analytical writing. Descriptive writing answers the "who," "what," "where," and "how" questions. It often tends to summarize the text. Analytical writing, however, answers to the "why" question. When students consider the question, "Why is this point important?", it pushes them beyond mere description into ideas that are convincing, argumentative, and defend a position.

5. Conclusion

A strong conclusion outlines the main ideas of the essay, but it also works to provide a solution to a real-life problem. Students can focus on concluding with what they hope to get out of their analysis, or provide closure to the topic. Most importantly, students should seize the conclusion as an opportunity to provide their own opinion and reflection about their process of analyzing the text. The self-reflection here would be a vital key for teachers to assess the writing process and a great opportunity to provide essential feedback to the student.

Please share your own experiences in teaching students about literary analysis.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thank you so much Danielle! What grade level do you teach? With my students I have similar struggles all the time. I try to give them choices or a variety of reading options to to choose from, and that helps to make the experience enjoyable and even rewarding. But the "why is this important?" question, while it might take time, will help them develop their critical thinking skills. I am so glad you found this useful!

(1)
Atiya's picture

Hi Rusul,

This was an excellent read for me. I struggle with providing my students with the rigor needed and expressed in Blooms Taxonomy as a majority of my students are far below grade level reading. However, with the demands of the district's curriculum, teachers are required to push on students' thinking on a daily basis. The writing process as you outlined in your post is very important for students to be able to synthesis and demonstrate their understanding of text. This is surely and idea that I will try on with my students as we move to more project based learning in our cultural awareness unit!

Thanks for sharing,

Atiya

(1)
TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Hi, Rasul ... I dedicated it to him. His real name is Errol Sanders and the dedication read, "To Errol Sanders. Who Got All This Started. In Twelfth Grade."

Teach on!

PlazaMrC's picture

This is great, thank you. Do you have any completed works using the method that I could use as examples of what the finished product should look like?

(1)
Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Atiya, thank you so much. I am very happy you found this post to be useful. I would love to hear more about how you're thinking of incorporating it using PBL for your cultural awareness unit. Such a fantastic idea, and should be very exciting for the students! Please feel free to share this awesome lesson on Edutopia's community discussions if you're okay with that. I think many teachers would find it very helpful!

I do agree with you, that student's struggle with reading can make it difficult to focus on critical thinking and application. Here is where I think the demand of critical thinking/analysis needs to accommodate the student's ability. So if a student was able to pass a reading milestone, then he/she would be guided to focus on comprehension (ex: who, what, when, how) and first stages of analysis (ex: why). It takes time, effort and patience from both parties. But navigating through the process with the teacher will help students apply it throughout reading all the time.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

PlazaMrC, were you looking for student examples or one of my own? I don't have any digital ones at the moment of my student's, but you might be interested in this post: http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/whats-thesis-statement

It basically guides through the same process but with writing a thesis statement. Though the process is micro comparing to that of an essay, but generally my students also show results on the same spectrum from start to end. I will try to make my examples digital and share with you, or post here on the community discussions.

(1)
PlazaMrC's picture

Thanks again. :-)

I want to provide my kids examples of what their literary analysis should look like if they follow this process. Any good examples would be great.

(1)
V Koa Wing's picture

Thank you Rusul. I find it very useful too as it guides me through the steps towards writing literary assignment while going through critical process in view of an inductive approach. I intend to follow your guidelines.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Rusul.... this is great. I don't think I've seen a step-by-step kind of how-to with literary analysis. Good stuff. I cover this type of writing with third graders with Literature Letters.. They usually begin with descriptive writing, which is totally grade appropriate. However, the magic happens when I write back to them, which begins the deeper conversation about the "why" and the wisdom of the book.

Do you let/encourage your students to use footnotes or endnotes? When I wrote literacy analysis in graduate school, I loved using foot notes. It became a sort of stylistic writing for me copying one of my favorite authors David Foster Wallace.

Gaetan

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