.At some point in their career, every ELA teacher will try to teach students to do literary or critical analysis.
The first few times teaching it can be a nightmare. You aren’t always sure what strategies will work best for your class, the text you’re students will be using, or your own teaching style. While we can’t tell you what strategies will work best for your individual situation, we can show you a bunch of ideas to get you thinking.
Hopefully, between this post, your own observations, and your conversations with your colleagues, you’ll have a clearer idea of how to achieve your goals.
What is literary analysis?
We don’t have a precise literary analysis definition for you today. But literary analysis is the process of looking at the parts of a piece of literature and being able to answer questions such as
- What literary devices are being used?
- What aspects of the text are being analyzed and why?
- How has the author used language to create a specific effect?
- How do the literary devices and aspects of the text work to create meaning?
- How do they work together or individually to create meaning?
- What effect do they have on the audience?
- What points of view do they promote or obscure?
- Why would readers believe or disbelieve those ideas?
Basically, the purpose of literary analysis is to help students understand how texts work and what techniques authors use to influence the reader.
Who needs to do literary analysis?
Most students need to do literary analysis at some point in their academic careers. Although it may not always be called ‘literary analysis’ and may go by terms such as close reading or critical analysis.
Adults need to be able to analyze texts for meaning in their everyday lives too (although the specifics of what they’re looking for in a text may differ from a strict literary analysis).
When do students need to use literary analysis?
Students use the skill of literary analysis in ELA classes, but the skills used in literary analysis are transferable to other areas of study and life. They include skills such as
- Reading for meaning
- Creating an argument or claim
- Finding evidence to support claims
- Interpreting and explaining evidence to support claims or arguments
- Close reading/paying attention to the details of language in a text
Where do students apply these skills in real life?
Many students will ask the question, when am I ever going to use this?
Now, in case it wasn’t clear from the list of transferable skills listed above, the skills learned while performing a literary analysis apply to everyday life. Examples of this include
- Reading a legal contract, for example for a phone plan or rental accommodation
- Reviewing a business case
- Reading and understanding news information (and differentiating it from dis/misinformation)
- Making judgments on important life decisions such as starting a business, taking a job promotion, or moving across the country
All of these everyday tasks use the skills of understanding written texts, finding evidence to support ideas, and making judgment calls about what you’ve read/learned.
Why is literary analysis important?
Literary analysis is important because as humans we make sense of our world through stories. Being able to understand stories, language, and literary devices is essential to being active and responsible citizens in the world. Stories also shape our identities, values, and ideologies.
It’s also important because most education systems require students to conduct literary analysis or critical analysis in some way, shape, or form. This includes the Common Core Writing Standards.
The Common Core Writing Standards require it for two of the three strands: argument and informative. And a student who can effectively analyze others’ writing is more likely to develop strong narrative writing skills because they can identify which techniques work to achieve specific purposes.
How can teachers help students learn to analyze literature?
So, let’s look at some literary or critical analysis how-to strategies. To begin, we’re going to look at strategies students can use to improve their critical thinking about texts. After that, we’ll look at showing students how to find evidence to support their ideas. Finally, we’ll look at how to help students organize their ideas in writing.
Critical or analytical thinking strategies
The first step in any literary analysis is to help students come up with critical or analytical ideas about a text. Luckily, there are many ways to start helping your students think more critically or analytically. But the aim is to get your students to start asking how and why questions.
Why does the author describe the character in that way? How is the setting evoked? What impact does the setting have on the reader’s expectations? How are reader expectations subverted and why does the author do that?
Examples of strategies for critical thinking
- Explicit modeling of analytical thinking by doing annotated notes and think-aloud explaining of thoughts
- Choose a ‘lens’ through which you want students to analyze texts (for example post-colonial lens, feminist lens, or structuralist lens)
- Use graphic organizers to help scaffold student thinking
- Practice using evidence to support points using a ‘t-chart’ and pre-chosen quotes/points. This can be differentiated to become more or less difficult too. The easiest is for students to match up a point to evidence or a quote that supports it. Another tack is to ask students to choose whether the quotes are on-topic or off-topic for the point being made. Similarly, students could choose quotes from the text that suit the points being made.
- Have students do fun tasks that require analysis/empathy with characters. Examples include creating Spotify playlists for characters or scenes from a text or creating social media profiles for characters. Similarly, students could create search histories or photo rolls.
- Show students that people make choices about language all the time to make a point. Explore common similes, metaphors, and idiomatic expressions that they use in everyday language, and record these on a poster or chalkboard.
- Get students to analyze a variety of genres. Using picture books, photos, short films, music lyrics, poetry, and shorter and longer written texts, including both fiction and non-fiction, gives students lots of variety.
- Give students a set of literary analysis questions or question stems (how and why questions are often more effective at eliciting analysis instead of summary)
Finding evidence strategies
The next step in literary analysis, after thinking up critical or analytical ideas, is to find evidence from the text to support or refute those ideas. Strategies to help students do this include
- Asking students to create one-pagers or other shorter, non-traditional forms of analysis/product. They can still show literary analysis skills through these, such as finding quotes to back up claims or describing motivations, but in a smaller, more constrained, and more creative way.
- Get students to use colors to track different literary elements (in their notes or while annotating)
- Use picture books or short films to model how to do literary analysis. They are short but complex and can cover major points such as plot, theme, and character but they’re fast enough to find quotes or other evidence to support points
- Have students identify common literary devices in texts and explain why they are used or the effect the device has – a good time to do this is in low-stakes activities like independent reading or doing non-assessed activities
- Ask students to find quotes to support or refute specific statements about a text they are studying in class
Organizing ideas in writing strategies
Once students have practiced having critical or analytical thoughts and identifying evidence, the next step is to learn how to organize their ideas about a specific text in writing.
The first question many students are going to ask is how do you write a literary analysis?. But jumping into writing an entire essay response is likely to overwhelm most students.
Because of this, it’s a great idea to break down the essay into sub-tasks that students complete over time, rather than writing an entire essay all at once.
Other effective tips for helping students practice organizing their analytical ideas are to
- Give students written literary analysis prompts and then gradually reduce prompts as students learn to analyze more effectively
- Focus students’ time and energy on the process and not the product so that they are learning the skills they need and are not hyperfocused on having a ‘perfect’ essay
- Use an acronym to help students remember all of the parts of the analysis, a popular one is ICE (introduce, cite, explain)
- When modeling writing a literary analysis, think aloud, and write. Then, go back and show students where you have introduced claims, shown evidence, and explained how the evidence supports the claim. Using colors/highlighters can be a fun way to do this
- Using mind maps to take notes and organize ideas (see here for why they are effective)
- Get students to practice using literary analysis verbs in their writing – you can find a great list of literary analysis verbs here
- Show students the literary analysis rubric they will be marked from and then ask them to explain what that means or create a checklist of inclusions. Ideas to cover include what they need to include in the analysis, what is the difference between the different levels/grades of the rubric, what is the marker looking for in terms of how the writing is organized etc.
Where can I find a literary analysis example to show my students?
So, you’ve used a few strategies to get your students thinking, to help them organize their ideas, and to practice writing analytically. Now you’re ready to look at a literary analysis example to show them.
But obviously, you want them to read an analysis about a text they haven’t studied so that they can’t copy. Well, you’re in luck because if you sign up for it in the box at the bottom of the post, I’ll send you a copy of a literary analysis I wrote for Jane Austen’s Emma.
(Keep in mind, I wrote this as a university student, so it’s not perfect but it’s a good way to show students what they’re aiming for).
A great strategy would be to show students a literary analysis introduction example, taking note of the important features, and then get them to write their own.
Then you show them a literary analysis paragraph example, take note of important features, and get them to write their own.
Finally, you show them a literary analysis conclusion example, take note of the important features, and then get them to write their own.
Further reading about how to teach your students literary analysis
4 Strategies to model literary analysis
10 mini-lessons for teaching literary analysis
10 of the best literary analysis activities to elevate thinking
Get your students ready to analyze lit
10 tips for scaffolding literary analysis