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Teaching Symbolism and Allegory

    teaching allegory and symbolism

    Helping Students to Understand the Difference

    Teaching symbolism and allegory can be a challenge. Keep reading to learn tips for teaching symbolism and allegory in a way that is relevant and approachable for students. Additionally, learn my trick for helping students understand the differences between the two.

    There’s no denying that teaching symbolism and allegory can be a challenge. The truth is, students are often overwhelmed by the abundance of figurative language and implied meanings. Why? Because they don’t fully understand it. They aren’t quite aware or, perhaps, appreciative, of the power of prose.

    And while you might not be able to make them see its beauty or significance, it’s worth reconsidering your approach.

    Laying the Foundation for Teaching Symbolism and Allegory

    I’ll admit, I love teaching figurative language. Afterall, it’s part of what makes literature so rich. From Auggie’s astronaut helmet in Wonder to the conch shell in Lord of the Flies, it’s hard to find good literature without symbolism. Pair a good symbol with a strong allegory and I’m all in.

    My students, however, needed some convincing– and some still do.

    Our students aren’t always as inherently excited by these things as we are. And in some cases, it’s because they don’t truly understand these higher-level concepts. Afterall, some students are still struggling with basic comprehension. Others might even be struggling with reading foundations.

    Oftentimes, we’re so excited to jump into these concepts that we jump right in, forgetting that our students might need to begin by dipping their toes into the water first.  So, before you even think about introducing the terms symbolism and allegory, start by laying the foundation for the idea.

    Teaching Symbolism

    Introduce the idea.

    When you think about it, symbols are all around us. From traffic signs to emojis, we rely on symbols to relay various meanings. In a way, symbols are like a secret code, with one thing representing another. (My students love when I explain it that way!)

    To introduce the idea, tape, draw, or project a well-known symbol on the board. To begin class, invite students to come up to the board and write down words or phrases that come to mind when they see said symbol. For The Statue of Liberty, for example, students are quick to think of words like America, Freedom, and Liberty. This is where you can begin your transition, explaining that symbols are everywhere, whether we’re looking in life or in literature. Regardless, a symbol is something that is used to relay a message, represent an idea or theme.

    Connect it to literature.

    A yellow triangle on the road is more than a yellow triangle on the road. It’s a way to tell people to SLOW DOWN, right? In literature, symbolism follows the same rule of taking a literal person, place, or thing and representing something beyond the literal meaning. Therefore, in literature, symbolism is a way for authors to represent abstract ideas, like themes.

    Help students succeed.

    However, defining the term isn’t enough. Help students put their newfound knowledge to use by giving them tips for identifying symbolism on their own. I always tell my students that symbols are often recurring. So, their natural observations can help pick out a symbol from the crowd. Have them keep track of recurring ideas, objects, places, or things. Then they can look at their list and further determine if the repeated element is a symbol that stands for something more abstract.

    But that’s the next challenge for students. Figuring out what the heck these symbols mean. Luckily, symbols are often surrounded by context clues that hint at their underlying meaning. You can guide students with questions to help them uncover that meaning. For example, every time Auggie puts on his helmet, how does he feel? What does he say? How does he act? What is happening in the story when that symbol makes an appearance?

    Teaching Allegory

    Introduce the idea.

    Many students are introduced to allegories at a very young age– they just don’t know it. Chances are, they grew up being told stories to teach them the value of honesty, bravery, determination, and so on, all thanks to fables like The Boy Who Cried Wolf to The Little Engine That Could.

    Remind students of their familiarity with allegories by bringing these childhood classics into the secondary classroom. Like with symbolism, you don’t have to call these stories allegories to start. Let students understand the concept behind the idea with a familiar story first. Then, you can put the fancy name to it. Split your students into groups, each having a popular fable. (In addition to the ones mentioned above, I also love The Rabbit and the Hare and Paul Bunyan.) Have each group read through the fable before presenting its underlying lesson to the class. Then, you can congratulate them on their first allegory analysis.

    Connect it to literature.

    Much like symbolism, the purpose of an allegory is to represent an idea. It, too, is a creative extension of something literal. Allegory is all about double meaning. On one level, you have the story’s characters and plot line. On the other, you have an underlying social or political message you are trying to decipher. And, to further complicate things, allegories are often rich in symbolism. However, you can explain the relationship to students like this: an allegory is a story a collection of symbols comes together to tell.

    Help students succeed.

    Again, a definition isn’t enough to help students succeed, especially those who struggle to grasp abstract concepts.And that’s exactly why I strive to provide students with as much concrete support as I can. When it comes to identifying and understanding allegory, encourage students to turn to history for clues. Look into the background of the author. Learn about the historical period during which the book was written. Were there any societal or political tensions or shifts? Remember, allegories are often used to disguise controversial commentary or relay a moral lesson.

    Even when we tell students a piece of literature is an allegory, we can provide them with guiding questions to help them unpack the allegory on their own. The biggest questions I encourage students to answer are: what is the subject of the story and what message is the author trying to relay about the subject of the story? Similarly, they can turn to characters, settings, and symbols. What do these things represent? How do they add to the overall message of the story?

    Symbolism and Allegory: Similar, But Different.

    Is The Great Gatsby really about the tragic love affair between Gatsby and Daisy? Or is it shining a light on the dangers of disillusionment during a time when materialism became a cornerstone of the American Dream at the height of the roaring twenties?

    Or could it be… both?

    Thanks to the intertwining nature of symbolism and allegory, it can be! (And it usually is.)

    But that’s where it can get confusing for students. They’re basically the same thing, they argue. And they’re not totally wrong.

    When it comes to teaching symbolism and allegory, I like to explain to students that the two concepts are alike but different. A symbol might appear throughout a literary work and its symbolism uses one object to stand for another within a narrative. Allegories are about the overall message the story is conveying and the symbols it uses to do so. So, while allegories often rely on symbolism, they are not the same thing.

    Long story short, while a symbol is found within a piece of literature, an allegory refers to the piece of literature as a whole.

    My trick to explaining the difference.

    Just to play it safe, I turn to another wondrous literary device– the simile. I tell students to think of the relationship between allegory and symbolism like Matryoshka, or nesting dolls. The largest doll is the overarching allegory. As for the smaller dolls inside? Those are the symbols that help propel the allegory forward. Then, I watch as the light bulbs go off.

    Teaching Allegory and Symbolism and Making It Relevant

    Oftentimes, students who have difficulty grasping or applying allegory or symbolism struggle to understand its importance. What’s the point? They argue.

    But perhaps it isn’t that they don’t want to get it. What if, instead, it’s that they don’t get it. In other words, how many of your reluctant learners show resistance as a defense mechanism? Unfortunately, it’s likely more than you think.

    Teaching allegory and symbolism can be challenging because both are representative of the abstract. So, help students grasp the concept of representing the abstract with a fun game of Crack the Code.

    This is a fun warm-up activity to use before diving in and teaching allegory and symbolism. And while there are many ways you can play this game, my favorite is with emojis. There are a ton of ideas you can pull from online, or you can create your own! Either way. The idea is the same. Create a handout with emoji messages that students have to “decode”. They can be a single emoji or a string of emojis together to represent more complex ideas. Want to wamp up the fun? Turn this game into a competition! See who can decode the most symbols in 60 seconds or who can decode them all first. There’s only one catch– They have to be able to justify their answers!

    After students decode the meaning of the symbols, you can have a discussion around how symbols, like emojis, can be representative of bigger things, like emotions. Some students might even have different ideas for the same symbols– and what a fun conversation that can be! (This is also a great opportunity to explain and explore the difference between abstract and concrete things.)

    Teaching Allegory and Symbolism and Explaining Why

    Why can’t we just keep it “simple”?

    Ah, the battle cry of secondary English students. Another symbol? They whine. Why can’t the book just be a book? Can’t we just read it without overanalyzing every little thing? Sound familiar?

    That’s why I make a point to explain the why behind symbolism and allegories in literature.

    A Way To Explore Controversial Topics

    Think about George Orwell’s classic novel, Animal Farm, a satirical allegory making a statement about government power and political corruption. Such topics can be seen as risky and taboo to write about and criticize so publicly. So, Orwell expresses his thoughts in the form of overworked animals rebelling against their farmer. Similarly, Arthur Miller knew he couldn’t outright criticize the absurdity of McCarthyism and the political hysteria of the 1950s. Instead, he uses the Salem witch trial and a community overrun by hysteria as his disguise in The Crucible.

    Due to the distance between the root subject and the allegorical world, authors are able to explore such controversial issues (especially regarding politics, society, and human nature) more freely. How so? Well, the subject matter of an allegory is never outright stated or referenced. Instead, it’s implied. How? Well, through the use of good storytelling, strong parallels, and, of course, rich symbols. The result? The ability to address these topics in a way that is more comfortable and easier to digest and discuss among readers.  

    Increase Understanding Of Abstract Concepts

     It’s common for students to struggle to fully grasp abstract concepts. Abstract ideas revolving around ideas such as power and identity can be hard to put into words. Luckily, there are several authors who possess this skill. Therefore, symbols and allegories can help an author express abstract ideas through more concrete vehicles. For example, while the conch shell might literally be what the boy in Lord of the Flies use to establish who is speaking, it symbolizes civilization and order on a grander scheme.


    Therefore, symbols and allegories allow for an author to use their literature to make statements that transcend the pages of the literature itself. As a result, readers are able to deepen both their understanding of the literary work and its abstract concepts. In the classroom, this provides a great opportunity for rich discussions and written responses.

    Teaching Allegory and Symbolism with Children’s Literature

    The difficulties in teaching symbolism and allegory are further complicated with texts that students struggle to understand or simply cannot relate to.

    So, before you go diving into rich and complex texts like Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby, or The Crucible, think about taking a step back. Whether you’re introducing allegory or symbolism for the first time or get the feeling your students need a refresher, consider using my secret weapon: children’s literature. (Yup. You read that right.)

    My favorite? The Lorax. (And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t show the movie from time to time.)

    The Importance of Keeping an Open Mind When Teaching Allegory and Symbolism

    Teaching allegory and symbolism is challenging enough. And understanding these concepts is a big accomplishment for students. Keep an open mind when students are analyzing a text and sharing their ideas and interpretations. While there are some answers that we can agree are downright bogus, there are many fair interpretations that could take place. In fact, there have been times when my students come up with an idea or interpretation that I never thought of on my own. Therefore, it’s imperative we create a safe space for students to share their ideas as they continue to grow and practice analyzing literature. Afterall, the goal is to get students to engage in critical thought, not to fit them into a box.

    At the end of the day, I’m on a mission to make all these abstract concepts more attainable for our students. And after reading this post, I’m hoping you’ll join me.

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