Friday 4 July 2014

How To Teach Literary Analysis - If You Want To ..........

For anyone who is using this blog to find good books for children and who would like to help their children gain a deeper understanding of these books, I'm going to share an article that I wrote two years ago for a homeschooling group newsletter.

How To Teach Basic Literary Analysis – An Overview
by Cleo

            What is literary analysis?  This can be a controversial question; even the experts cannot completely agree as to its definition and application.  But the fact remains that your child will, at some point, be required to draw meaning from the texts he is reading, and be expected to apply this meaning to different mediums, whether it is an essay, a debate, or perhaps simply a problem encountered in everyday life. 
            In his bestselling book How To Read A Book (1972), Mortimer J. Adler explains that the author of a literary text is attempting to have a conversation with the reader, and it is the responsibility of the reader to search diligently to find out what that conversation is about.  This form of  “active reading” is essential for any type of analysis, as it assists the reader in reading for understanding, instead of simply for information.  In essence, literary analysis is not about WHAT is said as much as it is about HOW it is said.  So how do we go about teaching the basics of this skill, and what should our expectations be for our child at each of the developmental stages (grammar, logic and rhetoric)?
            During the grammar stage, literary analysis is rather simple.  A child is not yet able to think in the abstract, and an elementary approach will suffice for analytical exposure.  Basic questions can be asked such as: What was your favourite part of the story?  What did you like least about the story?  Who was your favourite character?  Who did you like least in the story?  If your child enjoys this process, you can begin to delve into why he made his choices.  At this age level, the analysis does not have to be limited to just words.  Encourage him to notice other aspects of the book, such as the illustrations and ask, for example, why he thinks the author decided to use a certain illustration to convey a particular message.  However, if you feel your child is consistently resistant to the process, leave it.  Your goals are simply to persuade your child to think about the book, and to begin a dialogue between yourselves, developing a pattern that will be invaluable at later stages.  
            When a child enters the logic stage, he should be working on reading, summarizing, and identifying terms of reference (i.e. fiction, non-fiction, novel, fable, biography, poem, etc.).   He is now ready to be asked questions such as:  Who is the main character of the story?  What did he want?  What prevents him from getting what he wants?  What is the most important event in this story?  You may want him to write a short response to one of these questions, but first ensure you discuss the question with him to fully develop his ideas; this dialogue will help him organize his thoughts before writing, and keep him from being overwhelmed.
            At the rhetoric stage, the student will be asked to switch from content-oriented reading (who, what, when, where, and the “obvious” why) to form-oriented reading (the form used to convey meaning, how specific ideas are expressed, etc.).  The student should work towards acquiring the ability to dissect a book.  This requires a level of abstraction, the ability to see beyond content into the organization of ideas, and to discover subtleties of thought within a book’s construction.  Start acquainting your student with basic literary terms.  Allow him to make notes in the margins of the book to acquire better understanding of the literature.  Assign brief one-page essays in the form of a formal essay, a biographical essay, an historical essay, or a response paper.  A response paper topic could be chosen from the following examples:  1) choose a scene, plot, or character, and tell why it helped or hindered the story; 2) compare the reading with another work and draw a parallel; or 3) argue that a character behaved in a manner that was ethically right or wrong.  Again, ensure the topic has been thoroughly discussed before any writing begins.  Eventually, your child will be well on his way to understanding and identifying the techniques that make a literary work effective.
            A basic proficiency in literary analysis will allow your child to move beyond elementary reading.  By developing these critical thinking skills, your student will benefit during his post-secondary education, as well as in his personal reading.  He will be able to distinguish between literary and non-literary works, being better equipped to judge a book according to its merits.  As Francis Bacon so aptly put it: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”  Literary analysis can give your child a discerning “appetite.”  But whether your child is just setting off on this literary journey or has advanced to the composition of essays, your goals in teaching literary analysis are to ultimately foster a life-long love of reading in your child, and to help him acquire the skills to dig deeper within a book to find the treasures hidden inside.

Selected Bibliography:

Adler, Mortimer J.  How to Read a Book. New York, N.Y.; Simon & Schuster, 1972
Bauer, Susan Wise The Well-Trained Mind. New York, N.Y.; W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2004
Thanks to Ester Maria & Karen Anne

Recommended Resources:

Grammar/Logic:                  Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence & Nancy

Logic/Rhetoric:                    Teaching the Classics
                                        TheWell-Trained Mind by Susan Wise-Bauer

Rhetoric:                                  The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise-Bauer
                                        Essential Literary Terms by Sharon Hamilton
                                        How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler (This is a
                                                       dense book.  Keep in mind if you/your child only absorbs a
                                                      portion of it, you/he will still have learned a great deal.)

© Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel, Years 2014 - 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Children's Classic Book Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content


  1. Just a wonderful summation about the basic steps of reading with the intent to bulid up a child's skills in analytical thought! I wish someone had helped me in this manner when I was a child, I'm in between books waiting for some orders to come through the mail. Time to re-read Stuart Little as my first child book on your list. It will be fun to leave the 'adult reading world' for a few hours!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Nancy. I wish someone had helped me to develop the skills of reading too. I spent many years reading books but not engaging with them. I'm having fun learning these skills now, so I guess it is never too late!

      It is indeed a wonderful experience to leave the adult world for awhile!

    2. I just finished Stuart Little and I'm stil smiling about it! Stuart was a feisty fellow, never trusted the cat Snowball, fell in love with a sweet little bird named Margalo. One day he packed his bag and ventured into the world. Stuart's advice will help me along the way: " A person looking for something doesn't travel fast. But the sky was bright and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction!" Great read and memories....

    3. I've been trying to look at more things when I travel along. Certainly you go more slowly but I think you take away and learn more.

      I loved this book too! I just read your review and commented:

  2. I will write my short impressions about the books I read on your blog. The book is mentioned on my list of books 2014 with a link to your blog, ok?

    1. Thanks, Nancy, that would be wonderful! :-)