Teaching Literary Analysis: Reading More, Not Less

As English teachers, we are conditioned to think that reading less more critically can get us the results we are looking for when it comes to analyzing and evaluating literature. “Less texts, more depth” is the rallying cry for those who support the ELA Common Core Standards. However, while the majority of research on extensive reading focuses on motivation and comprehension, there is research that tells us reading more is also as effective as intensive, close reading for developing the ability to analyze and evaluate literature.

But the purpose of this post is not to document the research and make claims about different approaches to teaching reading. Instead, as the 2014-2015 school year begins and teachers finalize their curriculum maps and lessons plans, I want to offer teachers extensive reading approaches that attempt to enhance students’ ability to analyze and evaluate.

When we want students to analyze specific elements in a text, we tend to implement close, analytical reading strategies, which means trudging through a single text for a few days, sometimes weeks. However, conventional wisdom should tell us that the more students see the specific element within literature, the easier time they’ll have evaluating and analyzing said element. If I want my students to analyze imagery in poetry, then I might want them to see a variety of ways imagery is utilized, instead of asking them to belabor the use of imagery in a single poem.

Let’s say I would like my students to analyze how Stephan Crane utilizes imagery to develop conflict in his poetry. A traditional approach might be the following lesson:

Closely read the poem “Supposing that I should have the courage” by Stephen Crane. Then, in groups of four, complete and discuss the questions that follow:

1. Draw a picture of what you see when you read the poem.
2. Compare drawings with your group and discuss the similarities and differences.
3. What associations do you make with the words “red sword,” “castle,” and “kingdom”?
4. How does the denotative meaning of the word “sinful” help convey meaning? (Use your phone to look up the word.)
5. How does the denotative meaning of the word “virtue” help convey meaning? (Use your phone to look up the word.)
6. What associations are made with the picture Crane is painting in this poem?
7. Considering everything you’ve discussed with your group, how does Crane utilize imagery to develop conflict in     “Supposing that I should have the courage”?

*I have included all the poems mentioned at the end of the post.

This lesson would end with groups sharing their discussions whole class, maybe putting them on butcher paper and facilitating a gallery walk, and closing with independent work on a separate poem by Crane.

But I think this approach, if done too often, leaves out opportunities for students to be exposed to more poetry and more uses of imagery. Here is an extensive approach to the same question:

 Read the following six poems by Stephen Crane. Then, in groups of four, discuss how Crane utilizes imagery to develop conflict in his poetry.

“Supposing that I should have the courage”
“Little Birds of the Night”
“A Slant of Sun on Dull Brown Walls”
“Content”
“A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;”
“I saw a man pursuing the horizon”

**Don’t forget, these poems are all included at the end.

Again, this lesson might end with a whole class discussion, and an assessment of student learning would need to be implemented. But having students read good poetry that demonstrates the use of imagery versus questioning the use of imagery in a single poem is at the heart of what makes the extensive approach more effective. Moreover, when I teach literature extensively, I find that students enjoy the time in class more.  Above all, students are exposed to more texts and are given more opportunities to see how great writers craft their work.

As a profession, we don’t seem to give enough credit to the act of reading great literature as a way for honing critical thinking and analytical skills. Instead, we feel it is necessary to stop and point out the elements and give the students “text-dependent questions” to grapple with every ten minutes. So next time you want to teach students how to analyze specific elements within literature, try having them spend the class time reading many texts instead of questioning the text.

 

McConn

***Below, I’ve also included another lesson that shows the differences in approaches using William Carlos Williams because, well, he’s one of my favorites.

Crane’s Poems

Supposing that I should have the courage

Supposing that I should have the courage
To let a red sword of virtue
Plunge into my heart,
Letting to the weeds of the ground
My sinful blood,
What can you offer me?
A gardened castle?
A flowery kingdom?

What? A hope?
Then hence with your red sword of virtue.

Little Birds of the Night

LITTLE birds of the night
Aye, they have much to tell
Perching there in rows
Blinking at me with their serious eyes
Recounting of flowers they have seen and loved
Of meadows and groves of the distance
And pale sands at the foot of the sea
And breezes that fly in the leaves.
They are vast in experience
These little birds that come in the night

A Slant of Sun on Dull Brown Walls

A slant of sun on dull brown walls,
A forgotten sky of bashful blue.

Toward God a mighty hymn,
A song of collisions and cries,
Rumbling wheels, hoof-beats, bells,
Welcomes, farewells, love-calls, final moans,
Voices of joy, idiocy, warning, despair,
The unknown appeals of brutes,
The chanting of flowers,
The screams of cut trees,
The senseless babble of hens and wise men –
A cluttered incoherency that says at the stars:
‘O God, save us!’

Content

A youth in apparel that glittered
Went to walk in grim forest.
There he met an assassin
Attired all in garb of old days;
He, scowling through the thickets,
And dagger poised quivering,
Rushed upon the youth.
‘Sir,’ said this latter,
‘I am enchanted, believe me,
To die, thus,
In this medieval fashion,
According to the best legends;
Ah, what joy!’
Then took he the wound, smiling,
And died, content.

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it.
And eventually he achieved it –
It was clay.

Now this is the strange part:
When the man went to the earth
And looked again,
Lo, there was the ball of gold.
Now this is the strange part:
It was a ball of gold.
Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.

I saw a man pursuing the horizon

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never –“

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

 

William Carlos Williams Lesson

Intensive Approach

 Read the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. Then, in groups of four, complete and discuss the questions that follow:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

  1. Draw a picture of what you see when you read the poem.
  2. Compare drawings with your group and discuss the similarities and differences.
  3. What associations do you make with the colors used in the poem?
  4. How does the denotative meaning of the word “depends” help convey meaning? (Use your phone to look up the word.)
  5. How does the denotative meaning of the word “glazed” help convey meaning? (Use your phone to look up the word.)
  6. What associations are made with the picture Williams is painting in this poem?
  7. Considering everything you’ve discussed with your group, how does Williams utilize imagery to show the importance of the ordinary in “The Red Wheelbarrow”?

Extensive Approach

Read the following six poems by William Carlos Williams. Then, in groups of four, discuss how Williams utilizes imagery to show the importance of the ordinary in his poetry.

 The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

The Term

A rumpled sheet
Of brown paper
About the length

And apparent bulk
Of a man was
Rolling with the

Wind slowly over
And over in
The street as

A car drove down
Upon it and
Crushed it to

The ground. Unlike
A man it rose
Again rolling

With the wind over
And over to be as
It was before.

The Thinker

My wife’s new pink slippers
have gay pompons.
There is not a spot or stain
on their satin toes or their sides.
All night they lie together
under her bed’s edge.
Shivering I catch sight of them
and smile, in the morning.
Later I watch them
descending the stair,
hurrying through the doors
and round the table,
moving stiffly
with a shake of their gay pompons!
And I talk to them
in my secret mind
out of pure happiness.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

To A Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

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