Want Students to Master Literary Analysis? Try Starting With a Vocabulary Lesson 

Unless they understand words such as ‘symbolize’ and ‘connote,’ it’s difficult for students to analyze literature well.

January 12, 2021
Marla Brose / Albuquerque Journal / ZUMA Wire / Alamy Stock Photo

I remember my first experience teaching analysis to high schoolers. After briefly explaining how analysis differed from summary, I asked my students to analyze the carousel scene at the end of The Catcher in the Rye. While they took several minutes to read over their annotations, I eagerly waited for their brilliant discussion of this poignant moment, knowing that I’d hear at least one student make the connection between Holden’s fixation with the carousel and his fear of growing up; perhaps one student might even cleverly conclude that the carousel, in its predictable and circular movement, offers Holden an escape from the linear inevitability of life.

Instead, I received answers like this: “Holden clearly enjoys listening to Phoebe’s ride on the carousel. This shows he’s close to his sister.” Many students still simply summarized what they’d read. Where had my lesson gone wrong? It wasn’t until much later in the year that I realized that students couldn’t tell me what the language was doing because I hadn’t explained to them what language could do.

A Unique Challenge

In his book Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, literary critic Gerald Graff argues that literary analysis poses a unique challenge to students because they don’t encounter the vocabulary they need to talk about texts in the actual literature we ask them to analyze.

This problem is practically unique to the English classroom. In other subjects, course texts include all the essential vocabulary that students might need to write about a particular subject. Students in science read about mitosis, hypotheses, and inertia. Students in social studies learn about barter, constitutional monarchies, and plate tectonics. But in English classes, we may go over random vocabulary lists or quiz students about words they might encounter in a given story, but we don’t often stop and think about the words they need to talk about literature.

While we teach students literary language (simile, metaphor, foreshadow, etc.), teaching them about literary devices doesn’t give them the vocabulary to analyze those devices; students in English class are often asked to write and talk in the academic dark. Writing is already an elusive process, but compounding the inherent difficulties of writing with the unique challenge of writing about literature only sets up students to see the process—as Graff figuratively puts it—as some sort of magic trick: While fun to watch, it is best left to the professionals. By showing students the kind of language literary critics use to make their arguments, we can demystify the ostensibly impossible task of literary analysis, elucidating how scholars carefully examine an author’s diction and explain what that language is doing in a literary work.

When I set about generating a list of words that students might find helpful when analyzing a text, I had to get meta. I ultimately came up with a list of words that I often find myself using to discuss literature. The first list I give students each year generally includes the following words:

  • juxtapose
  • evoke
  • underscore
  • elicit
  • symbolize
  • convey
  • connote
  • allude to

To ease students into analysis, I begin by having them analyze forms they’re more comfortable with: artwork, songs, etc. What do the blues in Picasso’s The Old Guitarist evoke? What does a particular ad accomplish in juxtaposing dark and light? How does Adele convey a particular tone in this song? As I introduce these terms, I generally use templates:

  • This artist’s use of _____ evokes _____.
  • The repetition of _____ underscores _____.
  • In juxtaposing _____ and _____ to_____, ...

As the year progresses, I add to this list of words to get students to generate more thoughtful interpretations (problematizes, complicates, reimagines, etc.), and as students become more comfortable using this language, I gradually release them from templates, asking them to break down dense literary passages without this scaffold.

While students undoubtedly start off misusing (and overusing) some of these terms, they eventually feel more comfortable incorporating this vocabulary into their responses. What’s more, they learn that they can use these terms in different subject areas. And years later, students tell me they still use these words in their classes and conversations to analyze whatever it is they’ve been asked to examine.

Ultimately, it’s not just that these words make students sound smarter; it’s that this language helps students make smarter points by helping them focus on what the language in a given text is doing.

At the end of the school year, students won’t have mastered analysis, but they’ll definitely be capable of providing more nuanced interpretations through this vocabulary. By the time students arrive at Simon’s famous confrontation with the pig’s head near the end of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, they’re equipped to analyze it. They observe the odd juxtaposition of good and evil delineated in the passage. They notice how Golding’s repeated use of violent and grotesque imagery underscores the pig’s sinister presence. After discussing these observations, students can pick up on what this scene symbolizes. Suddenly, it is obvious that the pig’s head on the stick embodies evil and that Simon—the only boy on the island who doesn’t succumb to savagery—is being tempted by the devil.

This close reading always elicits gasps, and it almost always generates comments that attest to the powerful reading we’ve done: “Man,” many students will say, “things just got deep.” And when students inevitably articulate how disturbed they are by what we—through a careful unpacking of Golding’s language—have just discovered, I always respond by pointing out the rich meaning we miss when we don’t think about what the language in a given passage is evoking, underscoring, and/or conveying.

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  • Literacy
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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