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On Teaching Literary Analysis

NOTE: I wrote this article for Classical Conversations, but we thought our readers might also like a look.

“How do I teach literary analysis?”

This is the most common question I hear at the various homeschool conventions and conferences we attend. It’s understandable. Our culture – especially our academic culture – is obsessed with analysis, with taking things apart and dissecting them. We are taught to approach our intellectual pursuits, including our teaching, in a scientific manner, an obvious product of a scientific age more concerned with outcomes than with experience, more interested in process than in truth.

I can’t help but wonder why we care so much.

Imagine, if you will, that you want to know what a frog is. How will you find out? Some of you will simply look it up on Wikipedia or in some other encyclopedia. Others of you will capture a frog, drop it onto a dissection table, and take a scalpel to it. But do either of these actually tell you what a frog is? I would argue they don’t. They might tell what you frog has – organs, limbs, etc – but they don’t reveal what a frog actually is. If you want to know what a frog is you should visit your local pond for a few hours and watch the frogs: observe them as they plays, and eat, and survive.

Or consider this scene early on in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Mr Gradgrind, a teacher, asks for the definition of a horse. But, Cissy, the girl upon whom he calls, can say nothing. She doesn’t know how to answer that question despite her intimate knowledge of horses. She has been riding them all of her life, has taken care of them, and has seen them born. What Mr. Gradgrind wants, however, is the following description, provided by a boy named Bitzer:

Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teet, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisors. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hooves too. Hoofs hard… age known by marks in mouth.

When we, as teachers, make our first goal literary analysis we are essentially the same as Gradgrind. We are more concerned with facts than experience, more interested in dissection than imagination. However, if we focus on the experience that is reading great literature and on the development of the imagination, then we can guide our students toward, what David Hicks calls, normative ends: towards contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty.

But if not analysis, then what? Well, if our goal is to guide them towards contemplation of that which is good, true, and beautiful then we must teach them to first see that which is good, true, and beautiful. Thus we must help them to read attentively. We can do this via three reasonably simple paths: first, teach them to read in layers; second, teach them to observe; and third, teach them to identify passages they especially enjoy.

First, we should teach our students to read in layers. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Have them pull out a pink highlighter and quickly – very quickly, without concern for comprehension at first – scan whatever work you are assigning. As they are scanning it they should highlight any names, dates, and places they encounter in pink. Thus, while they won’t comprehend what’s happening in the work, they are identifying the work’s key players as well as the context in which the story takes place. If they do this, then when they finally do read the book at a normal pace they will be more prepared to do so. But, beyond that practical benefit, this activity plants seeds that lead to questions. As they scan and highlight the names, dates, and places, they will begin to be curious about who character A is and what he is doing and they will grow curious about the nature of the world in which the work takes place.

Next, have them pull out a green highlighter and scan for times when the author says what’s coming next, a structural approach sometimes referred to as meta-discource (meta: “its own category” and discourse: from the latin for “running to and fro”). You probably want to them have do this in portions, especially if you’re reading a longer novel or poem. For example, if you’re reading The Iliad, your students could scan and highlight a book at a time. If you’re reading Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice, you could have them scan and highlight a chapter or two at a time. But, again, this exercise is guiding them deeper in the world of the work, one simple step at a time. It introduces them to the form and structure of the work, while also revealing what the author is talking about. And, again, in so doing, students will naturally grow curious and that curiosity will lead to questions.

Finally, once your students have scanned twice and highlighted in pink and green, ask them to read the work (or the assigned portion) at a regular pace.

But what next?

As they’re reading the book, teach them to observe. This is as simple as it sounds. Teach them to see what’s there. If a character has red hair, notice it. If the author makes frequent use of a specific literary device or figure or speech, notice it. If Achilles gets more and more angry with each ensuing book, notice it. Things matter, as I tell my students. The skilled writer makes conscious decisions that give each image, sentence, phrase, and word meaning. In observing them you honor them – and the hard work the writer put in.

After all, meaning in literature is revealed through images connected like puzzle pieces. If we can’t identify those images then we can’t accurately ascertain the meaning. And we can’t identify the images unless we learn to see. Your job, as teacher, is to teach your students to see.

Of course, you also want your students to be interested, you want to discuss things which intrigue them and about which they have questions. So do it. Ask them what they’re interested in.


That’s probably what you’ll get from the majority of your students, right? Nothing. Just blank stares and uneasy fidgeting.

Well, those trusty highlighters can help here, too. Ask them to pull out a blue highlighter and this time instruct them to identify lines, or passages, or scenes, or words they like. Ask them to highlight them in blue. Then when you arrive to your next class ask them to pull out their books and share their blues. Unless my student’s are wildly out of the ordinary, you will likely find that many kids highlighted passages that others decidedly – and purposefully – did not. Now you’re on their turf, to borrow the sports colloquialism, and they’re ready to play. Let them share, exclaim, debate, disagree, agree, love, hate. Let them be confused why their classmates chose a passage for from that confusion will spring questions and out of those questions will come thought and in that thought their imaginations will be exercised and in that exercise they will necessarily be led truth-ward.

And that’s our goal, isn’t it? When it comes down to it, that’s what all this reading-in-layers, all this observation, all this highlighting and discussion is for. We want them to read normatively, to contemplate that which is true, good, and beautiful, for when they do the seeds of wisdom and virtue will be planted, seeds that lead to a harvest far more fruitful than the analytical approach can produce.

Teach your students to experience literature purposefully and they’ll begin to experience truth. And so will you.

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