Teaching Literary Analysis to High School Students

High school students often groan and roll their eyes when faced with learning literary theory and critical analysis. They say that they prefer just to read the work instead of tearing it apart or that literary analysis is just a bunch of opinions.

The last observation is true. However, it is those opinions that make literary analysis worthwhile because they are the opinions of the reader, that is, they are what the reader has learned from the literary work. The first step in making students comfortable with literary analysis is to make them understand that literary analysis does not have right or wrong answers, only shades of meaning and that one reader may come away from a poem with a completely different meaning than another.

In order to validate that meaning, however, students need to learn to recognize the parts of the work that leads them to their observations and conclusions and provides scholarly support for their reading of the piece. That is where the “tearing apart” process is involved and where literary theory and the ability to apply different lenses to a work becomes a valuable tool.

Different lenses allow readers to look at a work in different ways. A reader who applies on only one lens, such as reader response, may take away only one set of impressions, one message, from a work while a reader who applies a reader response lens, then a feminist lens, then a Marxist lens, will see the work in many different lights, even coming away with opposing impressions of the same work. This provides the reader with a much more complex vision of a work and what it is saying about humanity and society.

Getting students to understand how lenses work and why they are important can be almost as difficult as getting them to understand what benefits literary analysis can have for them. Stressing that, when students analyze literature, all responses are valid, that it is alright to link their own experiences to literary works, and that there are no wrong answers as long as they can support what they observe with the text eases some of the anxiety students may feel when faced with great literature.

It is usually a good idea to limit the number of lenses taught to no more than four to avoid overwhelming the student although a handout or brief discussion of other lenses that are not part of the curriculum might serve to whet the curiosity of more ambitious students. Making students thoroughly cognizant and comfortable with the lenses being taught can also help. Lectures, discussions, and handouts on each lens will help to clarify their differences. To avoid information overload, introduce each lens being taught individually as separate units on separate days instead of throwing all the lenses at the class at once. Allowing students to “practice” using various lenses in class on comic strips or some other form of pop culture will put them more at ease with using those lenses on more serious works. They might even have a little fun with it.

Literary analysis can be daunting for students. They often feel that they must somehow develop great revelations from small bits of text. However, linking the text to the students’ lives and perceptions so that they see that analysis is actually about relating literature to themselves will allay much of the “fear” of close examinations of literature. If students are taught to view literary analysis as the literary equivalent of looking at art, they will begin to understand that just as judging art is about relating the work to oneself and one’s life, judging literature is the same process and has the same outcome. The readers or viewers must decide what message, if any, they can take away from the work. The more skilled they become at reading literature through different literary lenses, seeing it from different perspectives, the richer their literary experiences and their lives will be.