Teaching The Process of Literary Analysis

Teaching literary analysis

Teaching The Process of Literary Analysis

If you polled your students would they tell you that they really understand how to do a literary analysis? Or are they just blindly following a formula without really understanding the process? 

If we want students to truly understand what they are doing, we need to show them the process of analysis and then make it a daily habit, not just something for final assignments. I've developed a number of lessons and activities to reinforce these skills, and I want to share them with you:

We've all read those papers that are nothing but plot summary when what we really wanted was analysis. These essays were a waste of time for the student to write and for us to read. To avoid this, we need to devote some time to showing kids the difference. Here's what I do:

After my kids have read a short story or a section of a longer text, I tell them to write as many statements as they can about what they have just read. Then, I do a mini-lesson on factual statements versus analytical ones. At this point, the students will put a checkmark beside their analytical statements and an X beside the ones that state a fact. This is a really important step in the process, because if they can't discern the difference, then analysis will not be easy for them. It's an idea I reference often in class discussions that follow: Is that a factual or analytical statement? If it's factual, I'll instruct them to reframe if I'm looking for analysis. Or, if I want them to support their statements with evidence, I'll tell them to give me some facts to back up their analysis. We make evidence versus analysis part of our daily conversation so they become familiar and comfortable with the difference. 

While we want our kids to move beyond summary to analysis, they still need to be able to identify key facts in the text, facts they will use as evidence to support their analysis. Therefore, we also need to build in time for them to learn how to identify key information and important moments in plot. When I begin any full class novel, we start with a lesson that does just that.
Lessons for teaching literary analysis

I get the kids to make statements about key facts and events in the first section they read. The kids brainstorm as many as they can. They do a turn-and-talk and then we discuss their ideas as a class. I ask: why do you think these facts are important? What is the author using them for? We write the facts and events on the board and decide, together, which ones are the most important.  I transfer them to either a piece of chart paper or a digital file that we can add to and reference later.  These key facts and events, then, begin to make up the evidence they will use later for analysis.

Once they know the difference between these two kinds of statements, we do some lessons on how to write assertions about text, how to choose the best evidence back these up, and how to write commentary about the evidence. 

Lessons for teaching literary analysis
I'm not talking about thesis statements and topic sentences here. I want them to get in the habit of making analytical statements about text any time we discuss the text, whether it's in small group or full class discussion or in the journal entries they write. Once they get a handle on that, they will be less likely to fill their essays with plot summary.

Kids need to see that analyzing text is not something that just happens. They need to know that there is a thinking process involved, one that starts with a close read. The best way to teach them how to do this, of course, is to show them. Copy or project a section of a text on the screen and let them see the process you go through when you do a close read. (You can grab my intro to close reading freebie here). Then, show them the assertions you would make about the text. Write some down and talk to yourself as you decide whether they are good ones or not. It's best not to plan this ahead, so they can see the real work you have to do, even though you're a supposed "expert".

If you had to sit down and write an analytical essay right now, you would know how to attack it -- but even then, even with all of your experience, it's not an easy task. That's why I provide my students with opportunities to work on the steps of literary analysis before they do an essay. 
Lessons for teaching literary analysis

One of my favourite ways to do this is with learning stations. My Discovering Theme Stations,  Novel Study Stations and Analyzing Poetry Stations take students through the thinking process they need to follow in order to analyze text.  You can also find lots of shorter activities you can use daily in Critical Thinking Activities for Any Text. 

Lessons for teaching literary analysis

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that I spend a great deal of time getting my kids to think critically. I make sure I scaffold skills and give plenty of formative feedback. That's why I was so disappointed with the essays that my International Baccalaureate students passed in a few weeks ago. They were filled with plot summary, superficial analysis and unsupported generalization. These students know better.

After I returned the essays, I shared my disappointment and they didn't seem surprised. I asked: did you spend time really working through your argument, or did you just try to plug information into "the formula"?  The vast majority confessed to the latter.

I was even more disappointed. What had we been doing in class? Were my efforts wasted? After beating myself up for a bit, I realized something:  Usually, I "forced" the writing process by requiring them to work through steps and hand in drafts. This time, I didn't. We'd done so much practice that I figured I didn't need to anymore--clearly I was wrong. So, I've made up a revision checklist that they will need to hand in with their assignments from now on. It will remind them to do the thinking that they need to do with analytical writing.

You can get all of these ideas laid out and ready to go in my latest product: Teaching the Process for Literary Analysis. And, if you'd like more support with this and any of your teaching strategies, you can join my Facebook group: Strategies for Teaching Secondary English. Finally, check out my next few posts to learn how I teach students to dig deep with finding textual evidence.

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  1. Jennifer Whitelaw29 May 2018 at 07:49

    I cannot get the download to open on my computer. Is there another way to receive the contents I just purchased? Could you email the components to me at jwhitelaw2005@gmail.com?

    1. Jennifer Whitelaw29 May 2018 at 07:54

      Specifically, I cannot open "Activities for Analysis" folder and its content.
      Thank you!

    2. Hi, Jennifer. Did you purchase the product on TpT? If so, that's a technical issue and TpT asks that we send all of those issues their way so they can figure out why it's not working for you. They are very quick!