Last year, I left my comfortable position teaching seventh-grade language arts at a small, rural middle school in New Mexico teach high school English and AP Literature to juniors and seniors closer to home. The first few weeks in my new position were challenging, not just because I was teaching at a new school in a new district, but because I was also teaching students at the end of their high school career instead of at the beginning of their middle school adventure. I had to reevaluate my understanding of the English curriculum, especially since the concepts I had to introduce to my middle schoolers were now skills I had to strengthen within my seniors. After writing “too much plot summary!” on yet another student paper, I realized that analysis was especially challenging for my seniors. Thus began my analytical adventure of analyzing the concept of analysis!
What is Analysis Anyway?
What is analysis? Take a moment to seriously consider the definition to this word used so frequently in the world of education, it’s become white noise to our students. Jot down your definition of analysis so you can refer back to it later.
Plot Summary vs. Plot Interpretation vs. Literary Analysis
I don’t know about you, but when I have to write “too much plot summary” on an essay for the umpteenth time in one night, I feel an overwhelming desire to jam my red pen into my retina. Perhaps a healthier approach to this problem would be to help my students understand the differences between plot summary and analysis.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across this excellent document by Austin Peay State University that clearly explains the differences between plot summary, plot interpretation, and analysis. After reading the article, I realized that I didn’t fully understand the difference between literary analysis and plot interpretation. I knew what it looked like when I saw it, but I didn’t know how to get my students over the plot interpretation hump and into the beautiful valley of analysis. As a result, I couldn’t effectively articulate the concept of analysis to my students, leading to nights of near self-mutilation. You may download the full article here. For your convenience, I’ve also summarized the main points of the article below:
- Plot Summary: A condensed description of the basic plot points of a text. Plot summary does not address the deeper meaning, nor does it contain opinions. It simply explains what happened in the text.
- Plot Interpretation: This is when a student describes details they’ve had to infer from the text, yet they still haven’t reached the deeper meaning. This is like picking up on someone’s body language or subtle sarcasm without understanding why they’re acting that way. For example, students may infer that Lady Macbeth is experiencing extreme guilt because she is sleepwalking and having nightmares of blood-soaked hands that cannot be cleaned, yet they don’t take it further by connecting her guilt to the overall theme of the work or to the unchanging human condition.
- Literary Analysis: Literary analysis requires students to first break a text into its constituent parts (characterization, setting, etc.), and then consider how each part contributes to the deeper meaning of the whole. They must first be able to comprehend the text (which is required to write an analysis), make connections within the text (which is required to interpret the plot), and then finally consider how each piece of the text contributes to a deeper or hidden meaning. Often, this deeper or hidden meaning relates to an abstract concept, the theme, or the human condition in some way.
Analysis and the Six Facets of Understanding
When considering why analysis is important to the English curriculum and to student learning, you may have listed a myriad of reasons, and your reasons may be very different from those of your colleagues. When asking students to analyze a text, it is important to remember that there are multiple types of analysis, but the concept is still the same: students must first break the text down into individual components, then forge strong connections between those components and a concept outside of the text. By doing this, students will discover and begin to understand the significance of the text to real-world applications.
Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe breaks down the concept of understanding in chapters two and four. In chapter two, they define understanding as the ability to transfer information to new experiences (40). The key to a strong education, they argue, is to give students multiple opportunities to transfer the concepts learned in class to completely new problems and experiences. When students can successfully choose the correct skill or concept and effectively apply it to a new situation, they have demonstrated progress towards mastery. There are six facets of understanding, and teachers can help students strengthen analytical skills by designing assessments around these six facets:
- Explanation: the technical workings of a concept
- Interpretation: significance/meaning of a concept
- Application: using a concept in new, unfamiliar settings
- Perspective: objectively looking at a concept from all angles
- Empathy: looking at the feelings behind all angles of a concept
- Self-Knowledge: reflecting on what we already know about a concept, what we don’t know about a concept, what we may already believe about a concept, and most importantly, the why behind what we know, don’t know, and already believe.
Resisting The Expert Blind Spot
Analysis is hard. English teachers sometimes forget that when asking their students to write analytical essays. Because analysis is a skill that we use so frequently and so expertly, we sometimes struggle to help students develop their conceptual understanding of analysis and instead rely on didactic teaching methods that are neither efficient nor effective (44). Wiggins and McTighe call this the “Expert Blind Spot,” and define it as teachers’ beliefs that “if I cover it clearly, they will ‘get it’ and be able to call upon it in the future. The more I cover, therefore, the more they will learn, and the better they’ll do on the tests” (45). The trouble with this belief, however, is that it ignores the inconvenient fact that students don’t learn like that. Students learn by grappling with a concept in multiple contexts so they can build and refine their conceptual understanding in a safe environment. In order to resist the Expert Blind Spot, teachers need to provide students with multiple opportunities to practice applying the concept to new situations.
Strategies to Demystify Analysis for Students
When teaching students how to analyze a text, I rarely start with a text. The concept of analysis isn’t just applicable to reading, after all. Instead, I set my students up for success by starting small with concrete and abstract concepts, exploring those concepts with conceptual analogies, using abstract concepts as a foundation for writing thematic statements and level three questions, and by modeling literary analysis by writing analytical paragraphs as a class.
Strategy 1: Concrete vs. Abstract Concepts
Before students can analyze a text, they first must have a solid understanding of abstract concepts. I teach the differences between concrete and abstract concepts by starting with classroom items to represent concrete nouns, and emotions to represent abstract concepts. Students usually pick up on this pretty quickly, but when moving beyond classroom objects and basic emotions, they start to struggle again.
As further practice, I like to ask the kids whether air is abstract or concrete, they almost always say abstract. I will then have the entire class stand up, roll up their sleeves (if necessary), and flap their arms around quickly. Then, I’ll ask them what they feel, and they almost always reply, “Air!” It’s fun to watch their faces as they realize that “air” is not an abstract concept. I’ll ask them again whether air is concrete or abstract, and the second time the nearly always reply, “concrete!” with goofy smiles on their faces.
I will also ask the students whether war is abstract or concrete. Usually, this question divides my class. Half of the students will argue that it’s concrete while the other half will argue that it’s abstract. Every year, the concrete advocates will point out that you can see war because “there are explosions and gunshots and death and stuff.” I capitalize on this misunderstanding by using it as an opportunity to point out that these are all signs of war, but not war itself. After all, if a gas station explodes in the middle of the week, is that war? No! There could be many explanations as to why that gas station exploded.
The air and war examples illustrate to students that things aren’t always as they seem: if students are too hasty, the clues might mislead them to believe that they’re seeing one thing when they’re actually seeing another. This will help prepare students for the critical skill of piecing the clues together while reading, which is necessary for plot interpretation.
Strategy 2: Conceptual Analogies
I learned of this strategy from Kelly Gallagher’s book, Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. He presents the strategy as a way to help students “use metaphor to deepen comprehension” and to think “in metaphorical terms” (17). I have found, however, that this strategy also helps students to deepen their understanding of a concept, forge connections where there may not appear to be any, and to strengthen their writing skills – all of which are necessary to successfully analyze a text.
To help students write what I’ve dubbed Conceptual Analogies, you must first teach them the differences between concrete nouns and abstract concepts from Strategy 1. Review these terms by drawing a T-Chart on the board and having the students help you make one list of abstract nouns, and one list of concrete nouns. Then, give them the following template:
Abstract concept is like concrete noun because reason one, reason two, and reason three.
Before setting the students loose with the template, however, you must model how to use it. First of all, abstract concept is listed first because it is the subject of the analogy. Some students have a tendency to list the concrete noun first, which changes the meaning of the analogy altogether. Second, every reason must be worded so it applies to both the abstract concept and the concrete noun. Otherwise, the analogy is worthless. Finally, students need to express their reasons using language typical for describing the concrete noun, but if they are too specific the meaning will no longer apply to the abstract concept. Check out the example below written by one of Gallagher’s students:
Trust is like a video game because there are many levels to it, it takes practice, and it’s hard to repair once it’s broken. – Josh, 15 (Gallagher, 19)
As you can see, the analogy works because the words “levels” “practice,” “repair” and “broken” are applicable to both trust and video games.
After they’ve had sufficient modeling and practice with simpler conceptual analogies, I like to have my kids come up with a random abstract concept and a random concrete noun before challenging them to find connections between the two using conceptual analogies. The students always enjoy this activity. I even had my seventh graders replace the abstract concept with a character from Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl, and replace the concrete noun with a symbol from The Pearl as their semester final. Their analogy then turned into a closed thesis statement for a five-paragraph essay, and they had to pull evidence from the text to support the claims made in their analogy within the body of the essay.
Strategy 3: Writing Thematic Statements
While perusing the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying appendixes, I learned that the standards prioritize argumentative writing over expository and narrative writing (Appendix A, 24). It’s no wonder then, that the Common Core States Standards list the standards in order of importance. Argumentative writing is the first of the writing standards, using textual evidence to support claims is the first of the reading standards, using Standard English is the first of the language standards, and participating in collaborative discussions is the first of the speaking and listening standards.
Finding and analyzing multiple themes is the second of the reading standards, and I believe that it is equally important as the first. Think about it, in order for students to use textual evidence, they must have something to write about. The PARCC assessment will likely ask a question about theme every year. Every AP Literature essay requires students to analyze how various elements contribute to the meaning of the text as a whole, and the EOCs use prompts that are exceptionally similar to those used on past AP exams. Furthermore, the theme of a text targets interpretation, the second facet of understanding, which focuses on the meaning and significance of new concepts.
Yet every year, I’ve had students (from seventh grade to twelfth grade) who mistakenly believe that the theme of Harry Potter is good vs. evil. Every year, when I ask students to provide an example of a theme, they give me a birthday party theme – in other words, they recite a single word or short phrase that identifies a subject of a text but does not actually communicate the author’s message about the subject.
To combat this, I rely on my handy-dandy lesson on abstract concepts vs. concrete nouns. Then, I walk my students through four simple steps to determining a theme of a text. I’ve introduced, outlined, and explained those steps in the slides below. The most important pieces of the lesson are the thematic statement frames, which are basically templates for writing a strong thematic statement. I then spend the rest of the year hammering the idea that literary theme is the central message of a literary work by stressing the importance of thematic statements.
I’ve published a student-friendly blog post on writing thematic statements. You can check it out here, and you’re welcome to use it with your own students.
Strategy 4: Writing Level Three Questions
Another great way to approach textual analysis is to have students write their own level three questions about a text. I like to introduce this skill after teaching students how to write strong thematic statements because it’s a similar concept requiring similar skills. This is also a great way to prepare students for a Socratic seminar, but keep in mind that the students need practice writing strong level three questions first.
Level three questions are an excellent analysis tool because they challenge the students to consider the text from different perspectives while also forcing them to think about how the text connects to modern society. I always start this lesson with the statement, “The questions that you ask often communicate more about you than the answers you may give to other questions. Truly intelligent individuals are always asking strong questions because with new knowledge and new understandings always inspire more questions. It is impossible to know everything.”
Next, I will review the differences between Costa’s level one, level two, and level three questions with the students. If you are not already familiar with the differences between the levels, you can read all about them here. I will always review the differences with my students using their favorite tool for counting: their fingers:
- The answers to level one questions can always be found in one place in the text. When answering a level one question, students can use one finger to physically touch the answer on the page.
- When answering a level two question, students need to look in two or more places within the book to answer the question, and they must find a way to connect the two different events to each other within their answer.
- When answering a level three question, students need to look in two or more places within the book, and they also must look outside of the book. While their own thoughts and opinions count as being outside of the book, I ban questions like, “What do you think about…” and “Have you ever experienced…” and instead I require students to connect the text to society or to the human condition.
The image to the right outlines the steps to writing a strong level three question, and you can also read the full student-friendly blog post on writing level three questions here. Again, you’re welcome to use it with your own students.
Strategy 5: Modeling Analytical Writing
While the strategies above are exceptionally helpful in priming students for written analysis, they aren’t enough. Students also need to learn how to articulate their analytical thoughts and claims about a text in a way that is clear, concise, and well-organized. The trick is to keep students from making too many claims about plot summary and to teach them how to stretch their plot interpretations into full-blown analysis.
To do this, I teach my students that strong, analytical paragraphs have three things: a clear claim, textual evidence to support the claim, and analytical sentences that draw the connections for the reader. The core concept for students to understand is that once they’ve placed their words down on paper, they can no longer adjust the meaning of those words to meet the reader’s current understanding (or misunderstanding) of the claim.
That’s why students’ analytical sentences need to be worked and reworked so they are as clear as possible. This is a great opportunity to practice perspective, the fourth facet of understanding: will the analytical sentences effectively communicate their intended messages to readers who have and have not read the text? How about to readers who may have used the same textual evidence to support an opposing claim? Do the analytical sentences even align to the claim stated in the topic sentence? High school students will not naturally ask themselves these questions. They have to be taught to do so, and they need to see expert writers modeling the process.
To model analytical writing, I will write an analytical paragraph with the entire class. We always start with the eleven-sentence paragraph outline (I also have a student-friendly blog post on writing eleven-sentence paragraphs. Ta-da!), and we type the sentences for our paragraph directly into the outline. This reinforces the idea that every sentence in an analytical paragraph serves a specific purpose: to support the claim. Then, as a class, we work and rework individual sentences. Usually, students tell me what to write, and I type it on the board. Sometimes, I’ll have the students write possible sentences for our paragraphs with their partners, and then the class will vote on the best one to use, or the best ones to combine. I use this as an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind some of the decisions expert writers will make when adjusting ideas and revising sentences. Once the entire class is happy with every sentence on the completed outline, we’ll remove the scaffolding of the outline and “squish everything together.” We’ll add necessary transitions, and color code the resulting paragraph, assigning a specific color to each type of sentence so students can see the pattern.
Finally, I will read the paragraph aloud to the class, and the students leave with a sense of accomplishment, proud of the paragraph that they wrote together. I also publish these paragraph oto my class website so my students can refer back to them after class when writing paragraphs independently.
That’s All, Folks!
Before venturing on to the rest of your day, take a moment to revisit that definition to analysis you wrote down earlier. Has your understanding of analysis changed in some way? Before answering that question with a quick yes or no, quickly go through the six facets of your understanding of analysis. Have any of those changed for you?
Now, compose a kid-friendly definition of analysis. That way, when you explicitly explain to your students just what you expect them to do for an analytical essay, they understand what you mean by analytical instead of just chalking it up as some fancy pants teacher lingo that doesn’t matter at all.
Happy planning, and happy teaching!