A line from Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work,” speaks directly to the beauty and challenge behind teaching literary analysis. Literary analysis is something we must do, not something the text does for us, which is why students must actively learn strategies for it.
There are a number of strategies teachers can use to support literary analysis in the classroom. Direct, explicit instruction is one example that can be beneficial to the process. In Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching, Anita Archer and Charles Hughes define explicit instruction as a structured, systematic, and effective approach to teaching skills. It’s an “unambiguous” and “direct approach to teaching that includes both instructional design and delivery processes.” I found that through explicit instruction and modeling, my students understood the concepts behind my analysis, and some of their difficulties were addressed as modeling literary analysis made the activity tangible.
But modeling does not mean lecturing. Students need to engage with the concepts in a variety of ways. Through direct instruction and multiple opportunities to grapple with texts, my students were able to analyze those texts more deeply and with more confidence.
One of the best ways to foster textual analysis is through meaningful classroom conversations. This presents a unique opportunity for developing agency in students. In Dialoguing Across Cultures, Identities, and Learning, Bob Fecho and Jennifer Clifton say that “education is about change—of minds, perspectives, values, understandings, meanings, selves—really all tools through which we construct cultures and identity.” With the right tools, literary analysis can provide the opportunity to engage students in activities that will shape their sense of themselves in the world, and provide them with opportunities to evolve through exploration of text and classroom discourse.
I propose modeling the process of literary analysis through explicit mini-lessons that then lead into students’ own analysis. Over the past few decades, instructional practices have shifted away from teacher-as-lecturer and toward student-centered practices, collaborative opportunities, and inquiry-based approaches. In No More Telling as Teaching, Cris Tovani and Elizabeth Birr Moje make an important distinction about the practice of lecturing being “more efficient than effective.” They drive home the point that it’s important for students to learn “through a mix of classroom participation structures.”
The Common Core State Standards call for students to engage in close reading activities that cultivate deep reading comprehension. By high school, students need to become increasingly facile with language and literature, developing their vocabulary and reading increasingly complex texts. For example, in grades 11 and 12, one of the expectations is for students to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.1).
How can this be accomplished? In writing, in class discussions, in all forms of discourse, how can students develop agency in literary analysis? And how can the right instructional moves set the stage for agency for all students? I found that my students would gain a better understanding when I modeled my own approach to deriving meaning from a text—sometimes with a different text that was similar in form or thematically related to what they were reading. Explicitly teaching students a variety of approaches provided them with tools they were able to use and apply across a variety of tasks, and this didn’t have to come in the form of a lecture.
Here are four strategies I used in my own classroom to support literary analysis in grades 9–12:
- Think Aloud: Model for students in real time how you would approach the analysis of a similar text to the one being discussed by the class. This provides a guide for students to better grasp how to approach a text.
- Model the Writing and Reading Connection: Annotate a text with a document camera and model self-questioning strategies. There is plenty of research supporting the reading-writing connection. Have students take notes and jot down observations of what they notice as you are modeling.
- Teach Literary Theory Through Collaborative Inquiry: My students enjoyed learning about literary theory and seeing a text through a feminist, New Critical, or postcolonial lens, for example. In Critical Encounters in Secondary English, Deborah Appleman says that “critical lenses provide students with a way of reading their world.” Students can work in assigned groups to analyze a text through a particular lens and present their analysis to their classmates through a medium of their choice.
- Vary Your Approach: After demonstrating literary analysis, offer students multiple opportunities to engage with a text, both collaboratively and individually. Expeditionary Learning has some particularly helpful resources.