Teaching Various Text Types & Literary Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Teaching students about literary analysis requires a clear understanding of how texts differ and how various types of text can be approached. This lesson will provide a general pattern for helping students with the process of analyzing literature.

The World of Fiction

The possibilities for student experience in the world of fiction are many and varied. Broad categories include poetry, short stories, novels, and scripts for the stage and screen. In addition, there are genres of fiction that are like sub-categories of those listed above.

Poetry might be in traditional form, free verse, or hybrid forms like prose poems. In an academic setting, you might be asking students to study the work of one poet or several individual poems that are linked thematically. You might also focus on one time period or culture, like the poetry of Restoration England or Native American poetry. Due to the use of poetic strategies like metaphor, imagery, and synesthesia (mixing sensory images), poetry can be difficult for students to work with at first.

Novels might be formatted in various ways that affect how students approach them. Frame stories are a bit like a sandwich with one story told in the context of another fictional situation. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a famous frame story, as is Mary Shelley's classic horror tale, Frankenstein. Another interesting formatting technique is the epistolary novel, which tells a story using letters, diary entries, and/or other fictional written documents.

Basis for an Epistolary Novel
letters and other documents

A classic epistolary novel is Bram Stoker's Dracula. A contemporary epistolary novel that students generally enjoy reading is Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

Although play scripts are quite different from prose fiction in some ways, both forms tell a complete story featuring well-developed characters and a plot line that students can follow. Sometimes plays can be easier to read because this format confines the story to dialogue and action without the descriptive detail used in prose.

Script Format
script format

On the other hand, reading a script can sometimes prove confusing because students have to use their imagination to fill in the background information that isn't expressly given.

Start with Short Stories

If you are approaching the idea of responding to literature with a group of students, the short story is probably a good beginning. Short stories are written in a prose format and use the basic elements of setting, character, and plot that students find familiar. If students are able to explain the theme of a short story, they are just a step away from literary analysis. For example, in the short story, ''Everyday Use'' by Alice Walker, the theme of heritage is easy for students to spot. Once you explain that theme is the overall impression or message that the author wants the reader to consider, explaining literary criticism should follow smoothly.

Looking Through a Lens

One way to get students to understand how to apply literary theories to their own ideas about a story is to equate a theory with a lens in a camera. When you look through a camera lens, you will see the scene before you in a particular way. If you change the lens, your view of the scene will change accordingly.

Theories that are more understandable for students are: Marxist, Postcolonial, and Reader Response. Marxist theory focuses on power and economics, Postcolonial on how oppressed groups deal with the aftermath of oppression, and Reader Response on the re-creation of a text according to the individual reader. These three are usually readily explained to students and possible for them to use in their own analysis.

Getting Started

You might first want to practice applying these three theories to the same story as a class discussion. Let's say your class has read ''The Monkey's Paw'' by W.W. Jacobs. After you have looked at the plot and possible themes, you might ask the class to think about how power operates in the story. The monkey's paw itself represents the power to change things that we don't like. When the father in the story uses this power, the outcome is negative. What might this say about the idea of power in general?

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