Literary analysis is not easy, not for our students and not even for us. It’s a process that requires the reader to dive deeply into the text. It’s one that requires a great deal of thought. And it’s also one that took us (the so-called experts) years to master — if we ever really did. That’s why it’s so important to scaffold literary analysis with your students.
So, how do we take a room full of teenagers who would rather do anything else, and teach them to peel the layers off a text? How do we show them that this is a worthwhile — and possibly even enjoyable — exercise?
Start with the end in mind
The answer to scaffolding literary analysis is to start at the end. Spend time thinking about where you want your students to be at the end of your time together. What outcomes do they need to achieve? What skills do they need to demonstrate? Just as a builder begins with a plan to construct a building, we need our own blueprint. The builder will start with the foundation, then build in the frame that will hold the structure up. We need to devise a plan that will provide our students with a solid foundation for their learning and the scaffolding — or supports — that will help them get where they need to go.
My end goal for literary analysis is that students will be able to identify author purpose and the techniques used to achieve that purpose. I want students to be able to select and embed effective textual evidence to support their points, and I want them to be able to confidently present their analysis in both oral and written form. All of my activities and lessons will focus on leading them up the steps toward these end goals.
Start with engaging activities
I never begin with the hard stuff. I’ve taught with teachers who wear rigour like a badge of honour, believing that starting with difficult, complex texts will set expectations right from the beginning. This isn’t a strategy that works for me; in fact, I think it frustrates, rather than motivates students, and it usually doesn’t provide much scaffolding.
Instead, I like to begin my classes – or any new unit – with easily accessible and highly engaging material. If students enjoy what they are reading, it’s much easier to get them to dig a little deeper into it (Check out some ideas here).
Since I want them to identify author purpose and technique, I look for short, interesting pieces of non-fiction where the writer has used a variety of ways to develop a thesis, ones where they have moved beyond just examples and statistics to the use of analogy or figurative language to push an idea. Always, we look at word choice and its effect.
I do the same with independent reading. Each day we do a short mini-lesson on how authors create meaning, perhaps how they use metaphor. I show them a mentor text; then, they will look for similar techniques in the books they are reading. They will either write a short reflection or discuss what they’ve found with a partner. It’s all really low stakes — rarely for a mark — so students can learn to do a literary analysis without the stress of a poor result.
Focus on skills, not content
When we focus on covering a certain number of texts, rather than on skill attainment, we tend to rush so we can get it all in by semester’s end. I’ve done this too many times, sacrificing good teaching to the ticking clock and turning calendar page.
Now, regardless of the genre I use, the focus is on the skills the students need to build, not on the text itself. If students can identify how a metaphor affects meaning in a news story or a song, they should be able to do so in a piece of classic literature too.
So, I focus on the skill, find accessible texts to teach them that skill, and then use a gradual release of responsibility to transition them into analyzing more difficult texts. You can read more about this process on a post I wrote called, Teaching Students to Analyze Text.
Before I ask students to become more independent, I do a short lesson on note-taking and using post-it notes effectively. I’ve written about this before (check it out here), and can’t stress enough how important this is. We can’t just expect kids to know how to take notes, how to discern what’s good to remember and what isn’t. Taking part of a class to teach them good note-taking skills is time very well spent, and helps you to scaffold literary analysis
Create an environment that encourages risk taking
One of the most important steps in teaching my kids to analyze lit, is setting an environment that allows them to do so. As I said earlier, this stuff is hard, and kids hate to be “wrong” in front of their peers. Therefore, we need to create a climate where they feel safe to make an educated guess, to put forward theories and to be “wrong.”
In order to do this I work hard to show them that there usually is not one “right answer.” In fact, complex texts should be open to multiple interpretations. In order to do this, you need to consider how you respond to student comments. It’s so natural to say “that’s right” or “great answer”, but comments like “that’s an interesting observation. Can you (or anyone else) add to that?” or, “that’s a great point. Does anyone see it differently?” will encourage students and promote the idea that multiple interpretations are desirable.
I start this process by modelling my own thinking when I see a difficult text for the first time. I’ll put a poem or a passage on the smart board, and highlight and underline, question and comment. I do all of this in front of the students. I’ll put forth a theory: I think the author is suggesting… however, I’m not quite sure how this image/idea/point fits in. What do you guys think? This last question is so important. I –the teacher– am asking their advice. I’m not certain and I need to collaborate to get closer to an answer. I will also encourage them to disagree with me — and to provide proof for why they do.
We also spend a lot of time fostering effective group discussions. I put one group in a circle in the middle of the room and give them a topic to discuss, something from the literature we are studying. We start the discussion and I model what good group work looks like. Then we switch it up and try it with another group. I encourage debate and say things like: I agree with Andrew’s point and I’d like to add… Or, I might say I can see why you’d think that, but consider this… Mostly, I encourage kids to use more textual evidence to back up their points.
Be willing to let them work it out
I do a lot of group work when kids are learning to analyze text. They are expected to come to class with notes they take while reading. Then, I put them together and let them hash it out. The question is always the same: what’s the purpose of this chapter/scene/section and how doe the author achieve it? The group meeting allows them to have exploratory discussion, so they can “think it out.” They discover what they know and what they need to figure out. They ask lots of questions. They pull ideas together while building on each one. They refute each other’s ideas in order to fine-tune their thinking on the ideas in the text.
While students have these discussions, I wander from group to group. Mostly I just listen, but if they seem to be heading in the wrong direction, I’ll ask some questions: Why do you think that? What evidence is there in the text? Or, have you considered this? I never answer these questions; I just keep prodding. I aim to be part of the conversation, not the director of it. It can be really hard not to jump in and give them an answer when they are struggling, but they will learn so much more if you just push and prod, without giving them one — and they will be so excited when they get it on their own.
If however, they just can’t get it, or I notice that they have veered too far off the path, I ‘ll give them something to consider, a clue. I’ll tell them to think about it and come back to them later. If they still haven’t figured it out, I’ll give them another clue. If they still can’t get it, I will direct them more specifically.
After the group work, we always reconvene and have a full class discussion. At that point, I already know which group has come up with some insightful observations and so I can direct the discussion by asking them to contribute their ideas. However, I don’t usually start with that group. I’ll first ask a group that’s kinda there and then ask the other group what they can add. It’s a little manipulative, but the class feels like they’re working together rather than me just filling in the blanks for them. And this goes back to the first question–they know I’m never going to stand at the front of the class and give them the answers. They know they have to work to find them. Because of this, I think it’s more likely that they might actually do some of the work.
After we’ve done enough of these activities, students will have to show me what they’ve learned in an assessment. I always start with something short — maybe a paragraph that analyzes a quote or a character — and give them some formative feedback. Then, when I think they’re ready, we will write a literary essay.
There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a kid find success in an area that they find difficult. They may never come to love the process of analyzing lit, but they sure will find pride in knowing that they can. I’ve got a ton of exercises and activities that I use to get my kids to think about texts. You’ll find a lot of them here on my blog and also in this bundle of Critical Thinking Activities for Any Text.
Would you like more strategies for teaching analysis? Read this post.