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I have been trying to sell resources on Teachers Pay Teachers, and I admit to
stalking checking out some of the top sellers.
Many of them sell handouts or posters or worksheets that teach students to identify literary elements.
In my opinion, this type of lesson is a complete waste of time.
There is no standardized test—not the new SAT or the PARCC test or the AP Literature or AP Language—where students are required to define literary terms. And there is no place on any of these tests where students are required to spot them either.
What they have to know is how those elements work to create meaning. This means that if they don’t know the difference between personification and anthropomorphism, but they understand the effect of the phrase on the reader and how that effect helps the author make her point, then they are all set.
Literary elements are not there to add decoration or fanciness to a text—they are there to create meaning and to convey that meaning to a reader.
I understand that it is very easy to test for literary element definitions—so easy, in fact, that it can be done with a multiple choice quiz. But even though that might be a nice break for an already over-worked English teacher, it’s not what I want my students to learn.
It takes time to teach students how literature works, but when broken down into steps, it is not such a big mystery.
This is the process that I use to teach my students to understand how literary elements create meaning in a text.
First, I ask them to notice whatever they can. They might annotate a text or just circle or underline or take notes in any way they want. The important thing is for them to see what pops out as being important or interestingly written before they are even thinking about why these pieces are important. I encourage them to go with their gut here, and just find what they can. If they happen to realize that the phrase that they especially like is a metaphor or if they recognize that the word that pops out at them is paradoxical, that’s fine. But they don’t need to identify these elements, just find the special parts.
Then I ask them to think about how those special words or phrases affect the reader. What associations do they have with the chosen words? What images are created by the vivid descriptions? What emotions are evoked by the circled or underlined sentences? How do the author’s choices make them feel? What do they think of when they read these pieces to which their attention has been drawn?
Now it’s time to think about main ideas. Students are usually very practiced in this, though sometimes it takes a little pushing to get them to find the whole idea of a text. They will have a main idea when they can answer this question: What point is the author making about people or the world in general?
Then they bring it all together. Those emotions that they felt and those associations that were created helped them to understand the meaning in the text. In other words, the reason why the author chose such a unique word for second line of the first stanza or such a vivid metaphor to describe the way he felt in the third line of the first stanza was to convey his idea to the reader. So maybe if the main point is that kids who are abused by their parents often make excuses for the abuser, then the paradoxical feelings of sadness and happiness created by the image of dancing in the first stanza help create that meaning. Or if the main idea is that love is sweeter and more intense when it won’t last long, then the image at the end of the poem of the warm dying fire helps the reader feel the way that the speaker does.
It’s definitely not as easy to teach your students to think about how meaning is created. But it is so much more important than teaching them to memorize and identify.
Ultimately, when you teach them to discuss and write about how literary elements create meaning in a text, you are teaching them to think for themselves. And what could be more important or a better use of class time than that?