Use these 17 essential questions to guide your students through literary analysis regardless of what they’re reading. The best part? You can recycle and reuse these questions, again and again, all year long.
The key to teaching literary analysis lies in having the right tools to move beyond a solid foundation of comprehension. In other words, it’s time to help your students grab their literary excavator and dig a little deeper.
Teaching Literary Analysis to Secondary Students
Yes, it’s important to ask students for details aboutwhat they read. However, in the secondary classroom, it’s time to prepare them to analyze what they read. Yet, whether they’re afraid of being “wrong” or simply don’t know where to begin, literary analysis tends to intimidate students.
It doesn’t matter if we’re assigning students one of our favorite novels or a must-read from the literary canon; there’s nothing worse than when students’ analysis falls flat. (Bor-ing.) Instead, we want them to be able to understand how to read between the lines. To break down the text into smaller pieces and examine how each works on its own and as part of the bigger picture– I mean, story.
We don’t just want them to think about what they’re reading but think deeply about it. We want them to take part in lively conversations and well-supported critical responses. We want them to question, analyze, and understand the author’s choices and their implications.
In other words, we don’t just want them to read the text. We want them to engage with the text.
But how exactly do we help them get there?
The First Step: Asking The Essential Questions
Literary analysis is like any other skill– it takes practice. Even the brightest of students need to learn the how-tos behind analyzing a text before mastering the art. And if you’re looking to avoid reading countless literary analysis flops– we all know how painful those can be– you know you want to teach it well.
So, before asking students to showcase their knowledge in assessment form (aka the feared and fretted literary analysis essay), we must teach them how to read and analyze a text. Luckily, with the right approach, teaching literary analysis does not have to be so dreadful. (And neither do those papers.)
It all begins by asking the right questions to guide students through their literary analysis. These questions will help students dig deeper into a piece of literature as they think, discuss, and even write about the text at hand. In fact, you might just be surprised how much deeper your students can analyze a piece of literature with these 17 essential questions.
17 Essential Questions To Guide Your Students Through Literary Analysis
Whether you’re asking your students to analyze a novel, play, short story, or poem, these 17 essential questions can be a big help.
These questions serve as a springboard for students to dig deeper into the author’s choices regarding elements such as theme, character, plot, conflict, and setting. They’ll help them move beyond comprehending and summarizing a piece of literature and toward analyzing and evaluating it.
Essential Questions About Theme
There are many ways authors reveal and develop a text’s theme. Students can better identify, understand, and analyze the theme(s) with the right questions as a guide.
- What is the main subject of this text? (Psst… I always remind students that this should apply to the world beyond the text itself.)
- What is the author’s commentary/main message regarding said subject?
- Are there any instances of symbolism, repetition, juxtaposition, or irony that develop or enhance this message?
Essential Questions About Character
Once the students identify the characters, understanding them is an essential element of literary analysis. Use the following questions to help students move beyond the basics of identifying characters and, instead, seeing them as essential elements to a story.
- What does the character say and think?
- How does the character act?
- How does the character interact with other characters in the story?
- What are the characters’ motivations and values and how are they revealed throughout the story?
- How do the characters in the story develop or enhance the theme?
Essential Questions About Plot and Conflict
There’s much more to plot than simply identifying what is happening in the story. It can also serve as a way to develop the story. Therefore, students can use the following questions to analyze plot effectively.
- Is the plot revealed in chronological order, or does it begin in medias res, meaning in the middle? Why did the author choose to tell the story this way?
- What is the story’s main conflict?
- How is the conflict revealed, developed, and resolved?
- How does the conflict of the story develop or enhance the theme?
Essential Questions About Setting
Once students identify the time and place of a piece of literature– the setting– they can begin to analyze the broader role the setting serves in the text. Let’s just say it wasn’t a coincidence that Fitzgerald chose New York City and its suburbs for The Great Gatsby or that Miller set The Crucible in Salem 1692. The following questions can help students dive deeper into the story’s setting.
- Does the setting change? If so, what impact does that have on the characters?
- How does the setting affect the story’s plot?
- How does the setting affect the story’s conflict?
- How does the setting of the story develop or enhance the theme?
A Question To Get Students To See The Bigger Picture
Before saying “that’s a wrap” on literary analysis, we can’t forget to encourage students to understand that text in a broader context. In fact, this “bigger picture” thinking is what allows literary classics to remain relevant today!
Therefore, push students to see the bigger picture and analyze the author’s intentions by asking them the following question.
- How might this text serve as a mirror or window (or both) to the reader and/or modern society? (Similarly, you can also ask them to consider the significance of the piece during the time it was written.)
A Final Word On Teaching Literary Analysis
First step? Learning how to analyze a text. Next up? Writing an accompanying essay. Luckily, answers to any of the questions above (with supportive textual evidence, of course) will provide students with the foundation they need to tackle the analytical essay.
The best part about these questions? They can be used over and over again so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Simply apply them to various texts throughout the year, and voila! You have a go-to resource for teaching literary analysis.
You can tweak the questions here and there to fit each text better or simply leave them as is! Either way, your students will walk away from the school year with a solid understanding of literary analysis. (Goal accomplished.)