Scaffolding Literary Analysis - Room 213

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Scaffolding Literary Analysis

Teaching students to analyze text

Literary analysis is not easy, not for our students and not even for us. It's a process that requires the reader to dive deeply into the text. It's one that requires a great deal of thought. And it's also one that took us  (the so-called experts) years to master -- if we ever really did.

So, how do we take a room full of teenagers who would rather do anything else, and teach them to peel the layers off a text? How do we show them that this is a worthwhile -- and possibly even enjoyable -- exercise?
Teaching students to analyze text
The answer is to start at the end. Spend time thinking about where you want your students to be at the end of your time together. What outcomes do they need to achieve? What skills do they need to demonstrate? Just as a builder begins with a plan to construct a building, we need our own blueprint. The builder will start with the foundation, then build in the frame that will hold the structure up. We need to devise a plan that will provide our students with a solid foundation for their learning and the scaffolding -- or supports -- that will help them get where they need to go.

My end goal for literary analysis is that students will be able to identify author purpose and the techniques used to achieve that purpose. I want students to be able to select and embed effective textual evidence to support their points, and I want them to be able to confidently present their analysis in both oral and written form.  All of my activities and lessons will focus on leading them up the steps toward these end goals.

Teaching students to analyze textI never begin with the hard stuff. I've taught with teachers who wear rigour like a badge of honour, believing that starting with difficult, complex texts will set expectations right from the beginning. This isn't a strategy that works for me; in fact, I think it frustrates, rather than motivates students, and it usually doesn't provide much scaffolding.

Instead, I like to begin my classes - or any new unit - with easily accessible and highly engaging material.  If students enjoy what they are reading, it's much easier to get them to dig a little deeper into it.  Since I want them to identify author purpose and technique,  I look for short, interesting pieces of non-fiction where the writer has used a variety of ways to develop a thesis, ones where they have moved beyond just examples and statistics to the use of analogy or figurative language to push an idea. Always, we look at word choice and its effect.

I do the same with independent reading. Each day we do a short mini-lesson on how authors create meaning, perhaps how they use metaphor. I show them a mentor text; then, they will look for similar techniques in the books they are reading.  They will either write a short reflection or discuss what they've found with a partner. It's all really low stakes -- rarely for a mark -- so students  can learn without the stress of a poor result.

Teaching students to analyze text
When we focus on covering a certain number of texts, rather than on skill attainment, we tend to rush so we can get it all in by semester's end. I've done this too many times, sacrificing good teaching to the ticking clock and turning calendar page.

Teaching students to analyze textNow, regardless of the genre I use, the focus is on the skills the students need to build, not on the text itself. If students can identify how a metaphor affects meaning in a news story or a song, they should be able to do so in a piece of classic literature too. So, I focus on the skill, find accessible texts to teach them that skill, and then use a gradual release of responsibility to transition them into analyzing more difficult texts. You can read more about this process on a post I wrote called, Teaching Students to Analyze Text.

Before I ask students to become more independent, I do a short lesson on note-taking and  using post-it notes effectively. I've written about this before (check it out here), and can't stress enough how important this is. We can't just expect kids to know how to take notes, how to discern what's good to remember and what isn't. Taking part of a class to teach them good note-taking skills is time very well spent.
Teaching students to analyze text
One of the most important steps in teaching my kids to analyze lit, is setting an environment that allows them to do so. As I said earlier, this stuff is hard, and kids hate to be "wrong" in front of their peers. Therefore, we need to create a climate where they feel safe to make an educated guess, to put forward theories and to be "wrong." In order to do this I work hard to show them that there usually is not one "right answer." In fact, complex texts should be open to multiple interpretations. In order to do this, you need to consider how you respond to student comments. It's so natural to say "that's right" or "great answer",  but comments like "that's an interesting observation. Can you (or anyone else) add to that?"  or, "that's a great point. Does anyone see it differently?" will encourage students and promote the idea that multiple interpretations are desirable.

I start this process by modelling my own thinking when I see a difficult text for the first time. I'll put a poem or a passage on the smart board, and highlight and underline, question and comment. I do all of this in front of the students. I'll put forth a theory:  I think the author is suggesting... however, I'm not quite sure how this image/idea/point fits in. What do you guys think?  This last question is so important. I --the teacher-- am asking their advice. I'm not certain and I need to collaborate to get closer to an answer. I will also encourage them to disagree with me -- and to provide proof for why they do.

We also spend a lot of time fostering effective group discussions. I put one group in a circle in the middle of the room and give them a topic to discuss, something from the literature we are studying. We start the discussion and I model what good group work looks like. Then we switch it up and try it with another group. I encourage debate and say things like: I agree with Andrew's point and I'd like to add... Or, I might say I can see why you'd think that, but consider this... Mostly, I encourage kids to use more textual evidence to back up their points.
Teaching students to analyze text
I do a lot of group work when kids are learning to analyze text. They are expected to come to class with notes they take while reading. Then, I put them together and let them hash it out. The question is always the same: what's the purpose of this chapter/scene/section  and how doe the author achieve it?  The group meeting allows them to have exploratory discussion, so they can "think it out." They discover what they know and what they need to figure out. They ask lots of questions. They pull ideas together while building on each one. They refute each other's ideas in order to fine-tune  their thinking on the ideas in the text.

Teaching students to analyze textWhile students have these discussions, I wander from group to group. Mostly I just listen, but if they aren't jumping into an idea that needs more discussion, I'll ask some prodding questions: Why do you think that? What evidence is there in the text? Or, have you considered this? I never answer these questions; I just keep prodding. I aim to be part of the conversation, not the director of it.  It can be really hard not to jump in and give them an answer when they are struggling, but they will learn so much more if you just push and prod, without giving them one -- and they will be so excited when they get it on their own.

If however, they just can't get it, or I notice that they have veered too far off the path, I 'll give them something to consider, a clue. I'll tell them to think about it and come back to them later. If they still haven't figured it out, I'll give them another clue. If they still can't get it, I will direct them more specifically.

After the group work, we always reconvene and have a full class discussion. At that point, I already know which group has come up with some insightful observations and so I can direct the discussion by asking them to contribute their ideas. However, I don't usually start with that group. I'll first ask a group that's kinda there and then ask the other group what they can add. It's a little manipulative, but the class feels like they're working together rather than me just filling in the blanks for them.  And this goes back to the first question--they know I'm never going to stand at the front of the class and give them the answers. They know they have to work to find them. Because of this, I think it's more likely that they might actually do some of the work.

After we've done enough of these activities, students will have to show me what they've learned in an assessment. I always start with something short -- maybe a paragraph that analyzes a quote or a character -- and give them some formative feedback. Then, when I think they're ready, we will write a literary essay.

There's nothing more satisfying than helping a kid find success in an area that they find difficult. They may never come to love the process of analyzing lit, but they sure will find pride in knowing that they can.  I've got a ton of exercises and activities that I use to get my kids to think about texts. You'll find a lot of them here on my blog and also in this bundle of Critical Thinking Activities for Any Text.

How do you help your kids build the skills they need for literary analysis? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments!


  1. I enjoyed this post and plan to put a lot of it into action. I have a couple of questions, though. First, I noticed that you said that your students "are expected to come to class with notes they take while reading." Do your students reliably complete their assigned reading? At the school where I teach, no teachers assign reading in the standard level classes - the students won't do it, so all reading is done in class, which is time-consuming and often boring. In the honors classes, we do assign reading, but I would say that maybe 20% of the students actually do the reading, 60% look at sparknotes or watch the movie, and 20% don't bother to pretend that they've read at all. Could you write a post about how you get your students to complete their assigned reading?

    Second, when you have your students analyzing in small groups rather than as a class, how do you prevent students from arriving at incorrect interpretations? I don't mean different interpretations - I agree that great literature is open to multiple interpretations - but sometimes they come up with an interpretation that completely misses the mark (especially with poetry). I'm sure you catch many errors while walking around, but probably not all. Do you just let them make mistakes?

    Thanks for some great ideas!

  2. Those are great questions, Erin. I will do a follow up post later today!

  3. Erin, If you re-read the post, I've added some ideas that deal with your question about incorrect interpretations. I'm also about to publish a new post that deals with your question about reading. Thanks for asking!

  4. One of the techniques I use to scaffold analysis skills is a good film analysis. After all, they have been watching movies longer than they have been reading, right? By starting in their comfort zone, they can find success early and keep at it when it gets a bit more challenging. I use consistent language when analyzing film for maximum transfer to analyzing lit. What choices did the director make? What effect do they have on the audience? (Costuming is always a great place to start for character analysis.)
    Two units I have especially loved pairing film analysis with close reading are To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet (1997 version!). Not only do these quality films provide many opportunities for analysis, it also hurts my literary heart just a little less knowing that students at least are getting "the whole story" when we inevitably can't read the entire piece. We are usually alternating between film analysis and lit analysis- which can be tiring, but nearly so much as the human cliff notes song and dance of in class readings! I have been doing this successfully for a couple of years now and cannot believe the difference it has made in my students' understanding.
    Music videos also work great with poetry and commercials are perfect for rhetorical strategies of speeches!

    Thank you so much for addressing this tough skill. I found this post this morning while browsing Pinterest and will be following for more great ideas!

    1. Great ideas, Sarah. I always start my IB class with viewing Dead Poets Society. After we watch, I assign youtube clips to groups and have them analyze what the director was trying to achieve in the scene and the techniques used to achieve it. Like you, I see it as an accessible way to get them into analysis. Thanks for sharing!