Ok. So how do you teach allusions to students these days? How can you possibly teach them to recognize one when they just don’t have the background knowledge to do so?
In order to be truly adept at spotting an allusion in a text, a student needs a lot of knowledge about religion, mythology, history, and other works of literature. And students today seem to have less and less of that, making it harder and harder for us to teach them how to analyze an author’s use of this literary device.
Teaching allusions could require you to spend a lot of time giving background information before students read a text together as a class, but what if they are reading independently? Then what do you do?
Start with understanding
My philosophy has always been that students need to use literary techniques themselves before they can recognize how writers use them. So, as with many things, I started teaching allusions by having students write some.
I began by showing students some examples from pop culture, like Taylor Swift’s Anti-Hero or Love Story. Using something most students were familiar with is a much better way to start than with allusions that require knowledge of religion or history. If you start with something they know nothing about, they’ll automatically think it’s too hard and shut down.
Next, we moved on to an activity where students created their own allusions. Not only did they have a lot of fun with this “Allusion Challenge”, but they also came to a much better understanding of why and how writers use them.
Having this as a starting point makes it much easier for them to recognize an allusion when they see one in their reading.
See a possible allusion? Look it up!
Teaching allusions was probably always difficult; in fact it may have been harder years ago. Yes students were required to do more memorization of facts, but that doesn’t mean that every student had a vast understanding of religion, mythology, etc. And, if you wanted to find out more, you had to drive to a library and spend time digging through a card catalogue and the stacks before you even found a book that could help.
We all know how this has changed. And it means that if students see something in their reading that they are unfamiliar with, they can grab their phones and look it up.
While you may not be able to use phones in your classroom, you can try to build a habit of curiosity in your students. Tell them that if they find something unfamiliar in their reading, to write it down to look up later – especially if they think the author is using the reference for effect.
Then, once they have discovered what the allusion is referencing, they need to analyze WHY the writer would use this allusion. Why, for example, does Macbeth refer to Caesar in his soliloquy about his fears of Banquo? Why is there an allusion to the Lady of the Lake in Harry Potter? What were the writers trying to tell the reader by referring to these things?