So much of what we do in English class requires students to do higher order thinking, especially when close reading. That’s why I spend a lot of time at the beginning of every year teaching students how to analyze text.
When I was in high school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my English teachers told me what to think about the texts we read. They would assign texts and corresponding questions. We would answers the questions, go over the answers and then memorize said answers when test time came. It was all about regurgitation, not independent thought.
Today, I want my students to be able to approach a new text and do the literary analysis independently, without needing me (or Sparksnotes) to tell them what to think. Now, I don’t drop them in the wild forest of analysis without a compass and hope they come out unscathed. Instead, I use a gradual release model to teach them how to analyze text.
STEP ONE: What to look for when close reading
First we spend some time learning how to close read, talking a lot about the kinds of clues to look for, things like:
- Big moments in the plot
- References to the title
- character development
- conflict—developing, continuing or resolving
- images symbols
- figurative language
- structure of the text
You can find all of this in my free Close Reading Bookmarks and Tips .
Of course, I don’t just tell them what to look for while reading, I model my own process using mentor texts.
STEP TWO: Learn the process of analysis
After they’ve learned about close reading, I begin with short stories, because of their brevity, before we move onto longer texts. Then, I will use a little bit of gradual release as we study three short stories.
The first one is one of my all time favourites: The Singing Silence, by Eva-Lis Wuorio. The story is about a wonderful old guy named Vicente, who discovers that true contentment is not found in your pocket book, but in doing what brings you joy. It is just chock full of good messages and I use it as a jumping off point for teaching students how to analyze text
First I will set a purpose for reading the story: to analyze the character of Vicente and to discover the author’s message. I will direct them to take notes with that purpose in mind and will model the process of close reading with them, using the first few pages of the text.
When they have finished a close read, I will have them turn and talk to a partner. What did they learn? How would they describe Vicente? What evidence would they use to back up their statements?
We discuss their discoveries as a class and then I will model how to write a literary paragraph. We will repeat the process with theme.
Next, I will assign the story, Saturday Climbing, by WD Valgaardson, another text that deals with finding contentment. Students will get the same instructions: close read, paying attention to character and theme.
During the following class, they will work in groups to discuss their notes and then to complete a group paragraph, based on the model we co-created the previous day.
Once they are done, they will trade with another group to mark that group’s paragraph with the same rubric I will eventually use to mark the paragraphs they will write on their own. On the way out the door, they will provide me with an exit ticket that will guide my instruction for the next day–what do they still not get?
On the final day of this process, they will be assigned The Spaces Between Stars, by Geeta Kothari, and the task of discovering the theme. The end result will be a good copy paragraph that they will pass in for formative assessment.
Once we have completed this process, students feel a little more confident when we move onto longer and more difficult texts. Hopefully, by providing them with a reading compass, they will know what direction to go in that wild forest of literary analysis!
If you’d like more help with teaching your kids to analyze text, you might like to check out Teaching the Process of Literary Analysis.