Essay & Literature Response Instruction

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

It's one thing to read a piece of literature; it's another to respond to it. In this lesson we will identify and apply knowledge of assessment and data-driven instructional practices to promote students' skill in creating and presenting responses to literature that make personal, cultural, textual, and thematic connections.

Meaningful Responses to Literature

How do we know if our students are getting anything out of reading the literature we select in class? On top of that, how do we teach them to respond to literature in valuable and meaningful ways? Let's take a look at some formal and informal assessment choices that promote successful literary responses.


Most teachers think of essays and literature responses as formal assessments, but to get our students to the point of formal writing, we must give our students time to reflect. Informal reflections, or journal entries, are a great way to work through content while brainstorming ideas for writing.

Ask your students questions such as, If you were Atticus Finch, would you take on Tom Robinson as a client? How would you react if you were stranded on the island like the boys in Lord of the Flies? Would you rather live in District 12 or the Capitol in The Hunger Games?

Questions like these help our students interact with the text and make personal connections. They give students the opportunity to bring literature to life, which will give them a deeper insight with regards to the culture presented in the story and overall thematic connections. Give students time to write, but make sure the answers are being discussed in class. It's important for students to hear differing opinions and work through those differences together.


Open Responses

For an open response, the teacher selects any passage from a fictional or nonfictional work and provides the students with a question that requires text-based evidence from the passage. Here, we see the personal connection negated, but cultural, textual and thematic connections are tested. This is not a full essay, merely a snapshot of one particular aspect. This type of writing shouldn't be more than 2-3 paragraphs. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Thesis Statement: The most important part of an open response is the thesis statement. Spending time on thesis statements will help students organize their thoughts and write logical arguments. We need to teach our students to figure out what they are trying to say and then write their explanations. Give the students a prompt and have them work independently on creating a thesis statement. Next, put a variety of student answers on the board and discuss which thesis statements work and why. Practicing this step is key; the thesis statement is the crux of the written response.
  • Body Paragraphs: Depending on the prompt, the body paragraphs should include two main points with textual evidence woven in. When creating the prompts, think about what devices you are teaching in class, along with vocabulary words and historical connections. Teacher instruction should connect the thesis statement to the textual evidence. This is also a great time to teach proper citation.
  • Prompts: Topics are unlimited. From historical connections to literary devices, your prompt depends on the selected passage. For example, a common theme in Greek antiquity is the concept of hubris. Odysseus and other characters from the epic poem, The Odyssey, exhibit hubris throughout their journey. Present a passage that displays several instances of hubris, such as Odysseus' interaction with the Cyclops, and give the students a prompt like this:

Explain how hubris is demonstrated in the passages above. Support your answer with textual evidence and specific examples.

The student must understand the passage, understand the concept of hubris, and explain their answer using evidence from the passage.

Moving away from culture, you could use the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet to analyze literary devices:

Explain how figurative language is used to express Romeo's feelings for Juliet. Use textual evidence to support your answer.

Here the student must understand the passage and figurative language. Oxymoron, symbolism and the motif of light and dark are more great examples that connect to several parts of the play.

Long Composition

The long composition is standard on most state and national exams, composed of an introduction, thesis statement, three main points and conclusion. It asks students to look at a work as a whole, analyze it, and make a judgement regarding its universal message.

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