Starting the School Year with Literary Analysis Writing- Why I Do It, and Why You Should Too!

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Whenever I start planning for a new school year, I think about the critical skills my students will need throughout that school year and beyond. I have found that it is important that I start by creating a knowledge base for these essential skills for three reasons:

1. I do not want to correct the same issue all year in their writing.

2. I want to provide multiple practice opportunities for the skills that we know are so critical in reading and writing.

3. Finally, by repeating critical skills throughout the year, I can provide multiple re-teaching opportunities to hone these skills.

It is for these three reasons that I start my secondary English classes with my literary analysis unit.  I frequently ask students to show their understanding of the various texts we read through a literary analysis paragraph or essay. I prefer this method of assessment over the traditional standardized, multiple choice tests to assess reading. Within a literary analysis, students are required to think deeply about a given text, then make inferences and provide evidence to support that inference. Not only does the skill of drafting a quality literary analysis response support students in high school English classes, but will essentially define much of their English coursework in college.

So, after those first few weeks of getting-to-know-you activities, setting the procedures, and writing pre-assessments are complete, we finally get started with this first writing unit. I do preload this unit with a citing evidence mini-lesson for my 8th and 9th grade students, or for any students who struggled with this skill on some of my writing pre-assessments. Then we begin reviewing the skills for inferring about a given piece of text. I love introducing this poster, which you can download for free by clicking on the image, at this point in the process. Determining that commentary or inference statement is often the most difficult part of any literary analysis. After exploring some commentary topics, we review the importance of including cited evidence from the text to prove that inference statement. Then within their explanation, I share with them that it is their job to prove the inference statement, and to prove how the evidence supports that statement.

I follow this direct instruction lesson with an “assess the analysis” activity. Students are broken into groups and given three literary analysis response paragraphs, each of which vary in depth and complexity. We then discuss the rubric that I will use to assess their literary analysis work for the entire school year. Working with their partners, students become the teacher and assess the paragraphs. We come back as a group to discuss the merits of each paragraph, and discuss what the highest scoring paragraph had within it, and what the other paragraphs were lacking.

Finally, we begin to practice writing our own analyses of literature. For the first several assessments, I will ask a direct question of the text. This will guide students into drafting an inference or commentary statement within that topic sentence. By the end of the year, however, I can simply ask students to draft a literary analysis on a piece of text, and expect that they create their own inference statement.

For example, within my American Literature class, I ask students to read “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. I then ask them to write a literary analysis response based on the following question:  

 The two lessons I use to teach both literary analysis and citing evidence can be found by clicking on the images below!

Liz is a collaborator on teachwriting.org and the founder of Teach BeTween the Lines. She has been teaching for over twelve years; she has loved growing young minds through literature and the art of crafting the written word. She is currently working on her doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota, and holds an M.A. in Education from St. Mary’s University, Minnesota. She loves to write short stories in her free time, especially in those cold Minnesota winters. She is supported by a wonderful family made better by the addition of her two beautiful children.