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It’s been over a month since my fall semester began. The introductory material for my ENG 170 class – background information on the always-changing and fluid concept of “childhood,” the history of children’s literature, some basic literary terminology – have all been covered, though not to the extent that I would like. Introductory courses call for so much material to be covered and sixteen weeks is never enough time to accomplish that task to the degree I would wish for my students. Nevertheless, my class has moved on to the next major section of my course design: learning how to write literary analysis. Of course, this assumes we are also working on another primary goal: learning how to analyze children’s literature in any mental, verbal, and/or written form.
As I’m about two weeks into this second unit of my course, with two more weeks ahead devoted to this specific skill, I thought I’d break down my approach to teaching the writing of literary analysis. I’d really love to hear back from any teachers and students reading this post. Teachers, how do your approaches to teaching this task differ from my own? Students, what was the most effective learning experience you’ve had in relation to learning literary analysis? I’d love to hear from all of you, but I’ll start by sharing my own process.
A Note for College Instructors: If this is your first time teaching a college course, here’s a FREE 60+ page workbook you can download that helps guide you through the process of creating your syllabus, course schedule, major assignment sheets, and more.
If you’re looking for one digital tool to compile all your ideas, plans, and notes in, you might want to a digital journal.
Step 1: Basic Elements
While my approach to teaching literary analysis writing has changed over the past couple years (especially after I learned of this technique for teaching writing in my ENG 101 course), one thing that hasn’t changed is the first official step I take. I start with a PDF I created that breaks down what I consider to be the “five required elements of literary analysis” papers: thesis, topic sentences/claims, close reading, analysis, and a discussion of why their argument is significant. For each element, I first explain what the term means, then I follow that information up by providing an example that grows with each new element. In the current iteration of the document, I use the Grimm version of “Little Snow-White” as my example text. In general, the basic Snow White fairy tale plot line is pretty well known, so I don’t really worry about students being confused. I still link a digital version of the tale to my course website, though, and require my students to read it as part of our fairy tale readings. One final note, before I move on to more concrete examples. For the first element, the thesis, I take additional time in the PDF to explain the differences between exploratory and argumentative thesis statements, and use ever-faithful Charlotte’s Web for my thesis examples. Even if students haven’t read or watched this classic, it’s pretty easy to explain who the characters I’m referencing are and how they relate to one another in the story.
Here are my thesis statement examples:
- In this paper, I explore how gender dynamics affect the relationships between characters in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
- This paper examines how Charlotte’s gender influences her relationship with Wilbur.
- In this paper, I argue that Fern’s gender problematically causes the adults in her life to treat her differently than they do her brother, Avery.
- While multiple characters affect Wilbur’s life in Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte provides the most influence due to her portrayal as a mother figure.
And here’s the Snow White thesis statement I use to begin the scaffolded example of all the other elements:
In the Grimm fairy tale “Little Snow-White,” Snow White’s physical appearance causes her to be treated either harshly or carefully by the other characters.
At this point, I should probably mention that most students in this course are education majors (it’s a required course), not English majors. Also, while usually consisting mostly of sophomores, this semester I have a surprisingly large amount of freshman in my class. With this context in mind, I tend to go for a very prescriptive and step-by-step approach to teaching analysis.
So, back to my handy-dandy PDF. Here are short excerpts of my descriptions for each element. I’ve also created an infographic below that summarizes each point.
It tells your reader what you are analyzing in regards to the text and how you are analyzing this subject matter (or matters). It’s also a road map for your paper that tells the reader what to expect from the rest of the paper. It does not have to be only one sentence, though it often is. It does not have to appear as the last sentence in your first paragraph, though it often will.
Argumentative: The writer (you) makes a claim about something pertaining to the text, and then you provide support for this argument.
Exploratory: The writer explores an element (or elements) of the text, examining its/their presence and significance.
Claims are statements that work to support your thesis. They occur throughout a literary analysis paper, but are most often found at the beginning of each new supportive paragraph…When you begin your first supportive paragraph for this argument (the paragraph after your intro), you’ll start by making a claim (writing a topic sentence) that adds more detail to your thesis by narrowing down how you are going to be supporting your thesis with textual evidence in that specific paragraph.
Close reading involves paying attention to particular details about a text. These details are used to support the argument made in your thesis and in your claims/topic sentences. The details can be linguistic, literary, cultural, format-based, etc. Close reading also involves citing the text being analyzed (using direct quotes)…Close reading is not a summary of the text. It’s a way to include specific details from the text that support your argument.
Having found specific scenes or lines to include in your posts/paper (close reading), your next step is to analyze these details, showing your readers how these scenes/quotes support your argument. When writing literary analysis, you want to make clear to the reader how your thesis, claims, and close reading connect. The connections are made through your analysis.
So, you’ve made an argument and supported it with claims, close reading, and analysis. What’s left is showing your reader why your argument and analysis matters. There are different approaches to doing this. You might consider the connection to the text’s audience. You can also consider the text’s cultural-historical context. Or, you can consider another way your argument connects to something else important that’s outside of the text itself.
Once I reach the end of this PDF (which, as a reminder, includes examples of each element using “Little Snow-White”), I add in a few additional pieces of information to help move students away from thinking of really formulaic 5 paragraph essay approaches to writing analysis.
- You can wait until your conclusion paragraph(s) to discuss the significance of your argument. Or, this element may be included throughout your supportive paragraphs, weaving all your points together.
- You can use “I” in your paper. First person is allowed.
- Your thesis doesn’t have to list three things that you’re going to discuss in three paragraphs. It also doesn’t have to be the last sentence of your intro, if you think it works better somewhere else in the beginning of your analysis.
While memories of high school essays are not the worst approach to thinking about analysis writing by any means, I try to emphasize the flexibility of topic, argument, and structure in their future papers, after having been so prescriptive in my description of the required content.
Step 2: Genre Conventions
Once my students have been introduced to the basic content that needs to be included in their written analysis, I take some time to go over some other conventions of this academic genre along with some common mistakes to avoid. I created a Power Point with this information, so that students have a bit of variety during my lecture and aren’t just bombarded with another long list, this time of do’s and don’ts. Here are a few examples of the conventions and tips:
- Write about literature in present tense.
- Make sure your supportive paragraphs are parallel to your thesis structure.
- Stay away from generalizations and essentialist claims by being careful when using (or not using) words like “always,” “never,” “every,” and “obviously.”
- Provide your reader with additional context clues when using phrases like “our society” and “at that time” and “their social norms.”
With all this information and advice read and discussed in class, we then move on to practicing analyzing some of our primary literary texts. This semester, my students first tried their hand at analyzing a selection of children’s poetry, coming up with argumentative thesis statements in groups of two or three and picking specific quotes from the texts to analyze aloud in class in connection to their arguments. The following week focused on a larger variety of texts, including fables, myths, and fairy tales. [I use digitized public domain materials as often as possible in my classes, so that students aren’t paying for course material that is easily accessible online. If you are looking for other ways to find course materials and assignment ideas, check out this post along with this one.] Focusing on verbally analyzing the texts in class, my students also had the opportunity to begin the analytical writing portion of the class’ major assignments.
I give my students eight opportunities to write short analysis posts (400-600 words), though only four are required. They have the option of completing more than four, so that only their four highest grades are taken into account in their overall course grades. From a pedagogical standpoint, I’m a big believer in giving students built-in opportunities to improve their grades by practicing the skills central to the course learning outcomes. Practice might not “make perfect,” but it definitely leads to improvements. And since the posts are so short, I’ve tasked them with focusing on close reading and analysis in these posts, rather than all five elements (though they are free to include them). If you want to know more about how I assess these types of activities, I’ve written a post about the diverse assessment strategies I use in my courses.From a pedagogical standpoint, I'm a big believer in giving students built-in opportunities to improve their grades by practicing the skills central to the course learning outcomes. Click To Tweet
Step 3: Picture Book Application
This semester, for my final step in the literary analysis practice unit, I’ve included the four required picture books, rather than placing them at the end of the semester alongside the graphic memoir, El Deafo. My decision to move these multimodal texts to this unit stems from my current hypothesis that spending even more time on shorter texts will help my students better understand close reading and analysis before we enter the novels stage of the course. Of course, the addition of illustrations add another layer of opportunity for analysis, which has its pros and cons for students new to literary analysis. Still, I’m hopeful that my students will feel they have a strong grasp in how they can approach analyzing literary texts by the end of this unit (using course topics like gender, race, religion, (dis)ability, class, family, age, etc. as jumping off points) before we move on to our first novel, The Secret Garden.
Of course, actually writing analyses of these narratives is more of a challenge than having analytical discussions in class. That’s why I try to create new resources for my students as I notice common issues pop up in their written work. My newest document I titled, “Literary Analysis Issues and How to Fix Them.” I’ve found that one great repercussion of a responsive teaching approach is all the new materials I create that can be tweaked for future courses.
So, that’s a basic overview of my month-long intro to verbalizing and writing literary analysis. There are so many approaches to teaching literary analysis writing, but I’ve found this one works well for non-English majors. Because of how much writing my students do in my courses, I’ve also worked out a few strategies for making grading easier. I’m curious though:
Teachers, how do your approaches to teaching this task differ from my own? Students, what was the most effective learning experience you’ve had in relation to learning literary analysis?
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I was interested to see that you allow the use of personal pronouns. In the school where I teach, that is not allowed. I’m a new teacher and my specialty is special education, but I support English classes.
Yes, there is definitely a long tradition of believing that academic writing shouldn’t be written in first person. I do think that tradition is slowly dying out, though, at least at the college level. The idea that literary analysis can be objective (or that any analysis can be objective) is not something I believe in. Our personal experiences will influence our writing, and acknowledging that the author of a literary analysis paper is a human being who can’t cut off all their feelings and beliefs when writing is something I discuss with my students. My research is heavily connected to reader response theory and fandom studies. In the latter scholarship in particular, a common rhetorical move is to acknowledge our fan identity as coloring our research. This move isn’t made to reveal a weakness in our analysis, but to bring to light how author positionality can create a more nuanced analysis.
Do you have a downloadable copy of the pdf that you use for the literary analysis essay?
Unfortunately, I don’t. I tend to tweak the assignment for different classes and different semesters, so there’s no one set approach to this assignment for me. I recommend checking out the MIT OpenCourseWare website. Here’s their list of literature courses, which includes PDFs for assignments in each course: https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/literature/
I find it easier to read and grade students’ papers when they include the 3 points they are going to cover, in their thesis. I also find it easier to understand their paper when they embed the significance of their claims in their body paragraphs. I think it is great that you allow them the flexibility and I can see how this flexibility would give more students the opportunity to grow as analytical thinkers and writers. Do you recommend any strategies to make it easier for me to understand their writing? I guess I’m biased. I think the writing is less sophisticated when they wait until the very end of their paper to explain their significance and it feels disorganized to me. I would like your honest opinions and feedback please.
In my courses, it’s rare for a thesis to have three points. Most students focus on analyzing or arguing about one element of the story. In these cases, the significance can wait until the end because the whole paper’s analysis builds to it. All the supportive paragraphs tie together, then the conclusion paragraph or paragraphs focus on why that analysis matters. I can see how spreading the significance can work better if the thesis has three distinct parts. Perhaps the decision about placing it throughout or at the end can be tied to how the student’s thesis is structured, rather than giving them complete autonomy in choosing a structure.
As for making it easier to understand student writing, I think assigning a small writing assignment at the beginning of the semester can help with this goal. I often have students do a self-assessment during week one. In my literature courses, they read a short story and write a short analysis of it. This writing sample lets me know which students will need plenty of support in order to make their writing understandable. Once I know just how many students need this additional scaffolding, I can tweak my lesson plans accordingly. The first unit of the semester also tends to have a lot of small parts turned in for participation points and feedback. This approach gives me more touch points with their writing, so we can move towards more understandable as we go along. If progress isn’t made for certain students, then individual conferences are the next step. Perhaps recommending the writing center.
I hope these suggestions help!