Simplifying Literary Analysis

Feb 15, 2024 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

Imagine a living room filled with teens excitedly talking over each other and debating the merits of this character or that plot. This scene has occurred monthly at my house for the past seven years as I have facilitated a teen book club for my children and their friends. You can read more about that in this blog post, but I would not have been able to plan and execute this without preparation. Many years ago when I watched Teaching the Classics, I realized it is to literary analysis what Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is to writing. Teaching the Classics has simplified literature in our house. It’s like having a basic recipe for something you make all the time but knowing how to customize the recipe for different holidays or occasions. The Teaching the Classics video course with its accompanying teacher’s workbook builds for parents and teachers the foundations of literary analysis and provides a process that they can apply to any story.

Teaching the Classics is a video seminar from CenterForLit. The course systematically prepares parents and teachers to discuss stories of any length or level with students of any age or experience through Socratic discussion. A Socractic discussion is simply using questions to talk about the book. As you watch the seminar, Adam Andrews first teaches the tools of literary analysis, including the author’s background and the literary context. Next, he launches into the five elements of fiction: setting, characters, conflict, plot, and theme. He models the analysis process using simple children’s books and short stories. A story chart is included as well to help students visualize how the elements of fiction work together to form the story. As he models the discussion for each story, he also introduces common literary devices such as onomatopoeia, alliteration, imagery, simile, personification, metaphor, foreshadowing, irony, allusion, and many others. As you model this Socratic process over and over with your students, they will internalize some of the questions and begin to ask questions of themselves as they read books on their own.

Along with the video seminar, Teaching the Classics includes a seminar workbook that provides over one hundred questions that you can ask about any story. These questions are organized into categories that correspond to the five elements of fiction as well as a series of questions about literary devices. Each element of fiction has multiple questions that range from simple to more complex. For example, the first question under “Who is the story about?” is “Is the character a man or an animal?” The final question is “Is the character a sympathetic character?” Any age student could answer the first one, whereas the final question might be better asked of older students who understand what it means to be sympathetic. Many of the questions include “how” or “what caused___” so that students must support their opinions with details from the story. The final section encourages students to think about the author’s context and beliefs. This is an essential practice for older students to understand the perspective of the author when they are reading more advanced or challenging novels.

In addition to the detailed training and the questions in the workbook, the final session of the video course provides an overview of how to apply the seminar and create a literature program of study. In the seminar workbook, a nine-week suggested schedule is included for learning the five elements of fiction with suggested children’s books. Daily lesson plans are given that can be adapted for any student and any story. Do you need writing assignments for your portfolio? Adam Andrews includes general writing prompts at elementary, middle, and high school levels that you can customize for your students. Do you use IEW for writing? The questions included in Teaching the Classics will also help students as they retell narrative stories in Unit 3 or write formal critiques in Unit 9.

By investing eight hours to watch the video seminar, you will learn how to study literature with students of all ages. It will save you time and money as you no longer have to purchase reading guides for every book you want your students to read. Students will see the big picture after reading and discussing books in their entirety, rather than focusing on reading comprehension questions that only provide proof the book has been read without knowing whether the students have really understood the story. Most importantly, your students will develop the habit of thinking Socratically about books. As you repeatedly practice this process with your students, they will internalize some of these questions and begin to ask questions of themselves as they read books on their own.

Great literature is an essential part of IEW’s theme for the year: Furnishing the Mind. When students read great books and learn how to think about them, they are furnishing their minds with great literature. Ideas, characters, setting, and themes take up residence. At a recent book club meeting, one of the students asked me, “Do you ever just find yourself thinking at random times during the day about one of the books we’ve read? That never happened before I started with your book club.” Another student’s mom told me that the book club has reignited a love of reading in her son. This would not be possible without the valuable training Teaching the Classics has given me.


by Danielle Olander

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