Literary Analysis Skills for ESL Students

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you'll explore how to use various techniques and strategies to introduce literary analysis to your ESL students and help them move toward mastering literary analysis skills.

Literary Analysis Skills

Often, English as a second language (ESL) students find themselves in regular education English or language arts classes. Here, they're expected to master the same standards and content as their English-speaking peers with no modifications. Part of that English content includes literary analysis, a set of challenging skills even for native speakers of English. Whether you're an ESL instructor or English classroom teacher, you can implement strategies and techniques to help your ESL students conquer literary analysis.

Getting Started

Literary analysis skills require practice like the sport skills found in softball or basketball. The best coaches break down and introduce those skills into steps and then provide opportunities to refine performance, an approach that can also be used in literary analysis.

Your first step is to determine the reading level of your ESL students. If you're an English language arts teacher, your school's ESL teacher can provide these reading levels.

Consider the skills you want students to master. Studying the style and form of different genres requires an examination of structure, language, and theme. Because you want to expose your ESL students to several genres, collect multiple examples for each genre you plan to teach. These genres should include poetry, plays, and prose, or paragraph writing such as books and short stories.


Your ESL students need a grasp of the academic language of literary analysis. Just as you determined their reading level in English, you want to determine their prior knowledge. Individual conferencing is an effective way to find out how much your students already know.

For example, Lisa has five ESL students in her regular education English classroom. In conferencing with them, she learns that one student is non-literate in her native language but is acquiring reading skills in English and three have been in ESL classes for two years but have worked mostly on basic reading skills. The fifth student, a recent immigrant, experienced a classroom environment based on constant lecturing. Lisa knows she has to frontload, or pre-teach, the vocabulary and break down the academic work of analysis.

Lisa begins with direct instruction in vocabulary, such as plot, structure, imagery, theme, and other literary terms, in a small group. She gives students a graphic organizer with the words and simplified definitions, an opportunity for students to provide examples or sketch images to help them remember the words. Lisa then leads her ESL students through a genre preview, presenting the poems, short stories, plays, and books she selected. The small group discusses how the texts are alike and different, which introduces them to both style and form.

Lisa includes a couple of children's picture books with an appropriate level of literary merit for her ESL learners. She knows her ESL students can access these texts more easily for analysis and uses them as a springboard for the grade level genre texts.

Skills Breakdown

Again in a small group, Lisa reads the picture books and poems aloud. Over several days, her ESL students engage in a guided exploration of four areas of analysis: structure, language, theme, and style.


Lisa shows her students a traditional plot map and leads them in mapping the plot events of one picture book. They examine passages from the book and discuss how paragraphs are put together.

Lisa points out dialogue in the text and explains how it is structured differently and uses quotation marks to set it apart from other text. She also gives students excerpts from the short stories to compare to the text in the picture book.

Finally, Lisa's ESL students compare the poems to the picture book and short story passages. They compare and contrast the various genre structures in small group discussions.

Plot structure map
Plot structure map


Once her ESL students are familiar with these different genres and their structures, Lisa focuses on authors' use of language. Lisa gives students examples of figurative language such as similes, metaphors, and personification. Students locate the figurative language in their poems and excerpts, then state the literal and figurative meaning. Lisa's non-literate student sketches out drawings of these meanings while her other students write their interpretations in English or their home language for translation into English.

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