Teaching Literature to Literal Thinkers in High School

Teaching Literature to literal thinkers in high school is quite the challenge.
You know those kids — things are very sharply defined for them.  They like the concrete…the concise…the literal. Perhaps they excel at things like science and math. They are big on academic subjects where a formula can be mastered or set of facts can be memorized, but things like creative writing or literary analysis are awkward endeavors.

literal thinkers in high school

Teaching Literature to Literal Thinkers in High School

For literal thinkers in high school, Literature is often a stretch because there’s way too much room for personal interpretation.  They just want to figure out what the “right” answer is, put it on their homework, and move on. There simply aren’t enough “right” answers once the literature teacher has moved beyond basic comprehension questions and dug into the deeper levels of the book.

How can we help kids like these explore literature in our homeschools? Literal thinkers can rapidly grow discouraged in high school literature classes. Here are some strategies that we’ve found to be helpful.

Literal thinkers need a reason to try to think in a way that feels odd. Help them recognize that many other people in the world are wired to read things in a different way than they naturally do, and you can equip them to respect differences among individuals and attempt to meet others on their homefield.  Explain that thinking in a different way about the book they’re reading will make it possible to engage in conversation with other readers who think much more figuratively and with greater inference. It’s a good people skill! And if building a good people skill is not reason enough, if necessary, make it very practical — “Entering into this conversation about the book is necessary to get full credit on your transcript for literature this year.”
Give them the “HOW?” —
Understanding why it’s a good idea to try is usually not enough. Concrete thinkers are NOT being intentionally difficult when they say, “I don’t see any of that when I read it.”  They need specific strategies to help them read beyond the literal comprehension level. Take this example from Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.

The Good Earth Literature Study Guide

Asking, “What does the taking of the pair of pearls show us about Wang-Lung’s relationship with his wife?” is likely to overwhelm a student who sees things in a concrete way.

Pearls? Show us something? Wait, the guy and his wife…WHAT??

Break the process down into bite-sized pieces. Start with literal (to build confidence). “The wife has a pair of pearls that are important to her. Where did she get them?”

Follow that with a slightly more abstract idea that you attach to the concrete. “So what do you remember life being like, what was going on around O-lan and her husband at the time she got the pearls?”

Build on the “right” answers given so far. “Yes, the revolution ended a horrible famine their family had just survived! It really looked like there was no way they would survive, but they did, and then the revolution broke out in the city, and they stole the pearls before running for the country.”

Now tie it together a bit. “So if you were the wife, those pearls would stir up memories of…what do you think? A hard time, surely, but a time when you and your husband came out alive against all odds. You would probably remember that time with a sense of real connectedness to your husband, don’t you think? A sort of ‘you and me against the world’ kind of memory, yes?”

Your literal thinkers are now poised for a connection they wouldn’t otherwise have made. “If looking at the pearls made O-lan remember that victorious time with her husband, a time when together they actually won, and now he takes her pearls away to give them as a gift to another woman he wants to take as a concubine, the pain O-lan feels would be about much more than the loss of two valuable jewels, right?” And now the big symbolic question can be asked.

“What does the taking of the pair of pearls show us about Wang-Lung’s relationship with his wife?” Now even a literal thinking student can intelligently explore the idea that this is a husband who has ceased to care about his partnership with his wife, that Wang Lung is wounding O-lan on the deepest level possible, showing her that her most valued possession — full of memory of a time when she was victorious and her husband was by her side — are worth nothing to him but their monetary value that will impress another woman he has found and desires. The taking of the pearls shows that he cares nothing for his wife, and that he does not remember all they have built together over years of marriage.

Asking leading questions is not only okay, it’s really wise when you are working with literal thinkers, especially early in their high school literature careers.  Usually it is important to AVOID asking too many leading questions, because we want to encourage teens to think about things on their own and explore the conclusions they can reach rather than simply parroting back a conclusion WE have reached in the past. But if you are teaching a child who is a literal thinker, an early component of their learning will be learning to think in an abstract or symbolic way that is counter-intuitive and learning to build confidence in their ability to “play this game that has weird rules.” You are helping them train their brains to function in a way that is awkward for them naturally, and they need lots of non-threatening practice.

Don’t give them “NO” as feedback —
If they try to think in a way that feels unnatural to them anyway, and you respond by looking at them weirdly and saying, “No, that’s not what it means at all,” you have just sunk the ship before it’s even left the dock.
Instead, find ways to answer positively. “Yes, that’s a piece of it. Can we take that a step further?  What if I ALSO asked you….?”  Or even, “Wow, that’s different than what I was thinking myself, but I can totally see your point.  I guess what I was getting at from my perspective was…fill in the blank…What do you think about that? Does that seem to make sense?”

Some literal thinkers find it easier to learn literary elements by watching movies. Click here for more information about our Cinema Studies for Literature Learning Guides.


What techniques have you found to help literal thinkers in high school succeed?

World Literature

Our American Literature, British Literature, World Literature, and Great Christian Writers Literature Study Guide Bundles (for a full year of no overkill, no busywork learning) as well as our C. S. Lewis study guides to accompany Narnia and The Space Trilogy are designed to be adaptable to various learning styles, for use with literal, concrete thinkers as well as poetic souls.

Individual guides for each book title included in the bundles are also available in the ebookstore, downloading immediately to your device after purchase.

Click here for excerpts from our wide selection of literature study guide titles.

7Sisters email subscribers receive periodic practical encouragement, special offers and NO SPAM EVER.

Sign Up for 7SistersHomeschool.com Emails

Teaching Literature to Literal Thinkers in High School

Sabrina Justison

20+ year homeschool mom and curriculum developer for 7SistersHomeschool.com. Fred's wife. Writing, drama, music, blogs, kids, shoes, coffee, & books in varying orders on various days. He is God, He is good & He loves me.

4 Replies to “Teaching Literature to Literal Thinkers in High School”

  1. We’ve started to watch synopsis videos before reading the piece of literature. We’ve been using John Green’s discussions on YouTube. So far we’ve done Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s learning to see books(which he’s loved since age 3) through another lens.

  2. Hey, Alicia! For kids on the spectrum it’s an extra-tough battle, isn’t it?

    One thing has helped me put things in perspective is recognizing that a student may be able to work hard going through the literary analysis process with me while not APPEARING to gain much ground from the experience…and then I am surprised to find that in his own time and his own way he grabs hold of the “Why” that makes literary analysis matter to him. UNTIL that personal connection happens, it may appear that we are making little-to-no progress, but the foundation is being laid and strengthened over time.

    For many spectrum kids, there is a greater genuine need for right and wrong answers. When a student with autism can define “Right Answer” as “An answer that I arrived at that can be supported but may not be definitive for everyone who thinks about it,” discussing literature becomes easier.

    It sounds like you are on the right track for practicing the dissection of the book alongside your son. If a book (or character, or a chapter in a story) particularly grabs his interest, try dissecting a passage alongside him, and then see if you can concretely support a different way of looking at the same passage and articulate that “other view” to him.

    That may open us a chance to talk about how it’s impossible to determine which is the “RIGHT” way of understanding it, and explore which interpretation seems more concrete to your son. It may be helpful to imagine what kinds of people might be most likely to interpret it differently.

  3. Thank you for this post! My oldest is one of those literal thinkers (he’s on the Autism Spectrum) and we are having a heck of a time with Literature! Right now I have to read the book right along side him and help him dissect and understand everything. Do you have any other suggestions on this? Is this kind of the first stage and then the thinking begins to develop? What has been your experience? Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *