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Teaching Literary Analysis
Serving a sentence with purpose.
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 by Chad Donahue

Chad DonahueThis article is premised on the following guiding idea: Every sentence in every novel does something.

In my opinion, this is one of the most important foundational ideas for helping students understand literary elements and their use in literary text.

With every sentence, the author – through language – is doing something. The natural question that follows is: What is the author (or language) doing? For purposes of teaching literary analysis, there are five possible answers:

• Developing the plot.
• Develop a conflict.
• Developing a theme.
• Developing the setting.
• Developing a character.

A sixth possible answer, or category of answers, may be:

• Generating a response.

The next question becomes, “How is the author doing this?” Once students begin to answer this question, they are engaged in literary analysis. The obvious first answer is: with language.

Going further, students can start learning about specific literary devices or tools authors use to make language more effective as it achieves one of the six answers above:

• The author may be using figurative language in the passage to help develop a conflict.

• The author may be using irony to develop the plot.

• The author may be using allusion to develop a theme.

• The author may be using hyperbole to generate a response.

Take any random sentence from any random novel students might be reading in Humanities.

For example: Using the sun and the fact that it rose in the east and set in the west, he decided that the far side was the northern side of the ridge. (Hatchet, Gary Paulsen)

If we ask “What is the author doing?” in the sentence, we quickly come to realize there are several possibilities:

1. Developing the setting of the story
2. Developing the main character, Brian.
3. Developing the plot.

If we then have students look carefully at the words in the sentence and generate a list of key words, we might get: sun, rose, east, west far side, northern side, ridge

Since setting is about location and time (environment and context), a quick look at the key words in the sentence suggests setting as the main element being developed by the author. Futhermore, since more than one literary element can be seen in nearly any sentence, students are encouraged to defend their choices. The very act of debating their choice provides a learning experience in itself. If a student makes a strong case for character development, for example, the teacher can recognize and reward the student’s success while still taking time to show why setting is likely the stronger choice.

For example, a student might say: “I see how the words point to setting, but I also think it’s showing us how Brian is learning to read the signs around him. This is character development.”

As the teacher, I would not correct this student’s observation because such observations are generally well received in essays. There isn’t always a single right or wrong answer when it comes to analyzing literature. There are, instead, stronger and weaker arguments.

Chad Donohue teaches middle level Humanities at Park Place Middle School
in Monroe, Washington. He has 19 years of teaching experience and
serves on the adjunct staff of Seattle Pacific University.

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