Literary analysis is an important skill to practice in homeschool high school, but it can be hard to decipher. So…what questions should you ask your high school literature student?
What Questions Should You Ask Your High School Literature Student
You assign the reading of well-respected books, you want your teen to learn to understand what they are reading, and you want them to be able to write in response to these books, but how do you actually help your student PRACTICE literary analysis, the thinking process that leads to a deep understanding of a text and the ability to write in response to it?
The key to literary analysis is asking good questions, and once you understand what makes a good question, you will be delighted at the progress your teen will make in analyzing literature! Explore the context, ideas, devices, and impact of a piece of writing with some great conversation shaped by excellent questions.
* Explore the CONTEXT.
Each piece of writing exists within a context that must be explored as a foundation for further analysis of the piece. Many novels and short stories were written to explore social issues, particular times or geographical locations, or political ideals. For example:
– Child Labor. Exploitation of the poor and the horrors of child labor can be found in the writing of Charles Dickens, who was a powerful voice of advocacy for poor children endangered by factory work in Victorian England. Indian professor of English Dr. Anindita Dutta explains Dickens’ impact for positive change in this brief and engaging paper .
– Black History. A list of recommended books found here for February’s Black History Month (on the Toledo Lucas County Public Library website) showcases writing intended to educate readers about the challenges faced by people of color in the United States. Or check out this Black History Month list of short stories and poems recommended at What So Proudly We Hail.
– The Russian Revolution. The magazine of the Historical Writers’ Association offers this list of novels that explore the events surrounding the Russian Revolution in the early years of the 20th century.
Questions that point your teen to the author’s motivation for and goal in writing a novel, short story, poem, or essay will be good ones for practicing literary analysis. Instead of asking “What happened?” or “Who did it?” questions that only address a basic comprehension of the literature, ask questions that help students think about the reasons behind the writing.
SO…What questions should you ask your high school literature student about the CONTEXT of a piece of writing?
- How might someone think of the world differently after reading this piece? Did reading it cause you to think in a new way?
- Is this the kind of story that would be likely to inspire/challenge/anger/empower a people group? Who? How?
- What audience do you think the author might have envisioned when writing this?
* Explore the IDEAS.
Literature contains ideas; the main idea in a piece of literature is often called a theme. Those main ideas, or themes, may be illustrated in characters having particular experiences, or expressed in images or symbols or allegory, or stated directly as an obvious lesson for the reader. Helping teens identify the themes in a piece of writing will grow naturally out of an understanding of the context with use of a few good questions.
Common themes in literature are things like these (among many, many others!):
- Good vs. Evil
- The power of perseverance
- Man vs. Nature
- Coming of Age
- The strength of community
Analyzing a novel or short story will allow your teen to discover the basic elements of fiction writing: theme, plot, characters, and setting. (If you are unfamiliar with these terms, Texas A&M University offers a great at-a-glance explanation of these fiction writing elements here.) Ask good questions about these elements and the ideas they communicate to the reader (in light of the context your teen has already explored).
SO…What questions should you ask your high school literature student about the IDEAS in a piece of writing?
- First of all, do you notice some big ideas that the author is trying to pass along to his/her readers? Can you think of a big “take-away” when you turn the final page?
- Secondly, which characters really lived that idea in a striking way? Why did you choose them? Can you give an example of the theme in their lives?
- Thirdly, would the theme have come across as clearly if the story had taken place in a different time period/location? If not, why?
- And finally, think about a really pivotal moment in the plot, and ask yourself how the “take-away” for the reader would have been different if the plot had gone in another direction.
If all of this feels a bit too big to navigate by yourself, that’s okay! Use a literature study guide to help you have great conversations about literature. There are so many 7Sisters guides to choose from! Be sure to use curriculum (like ours!) that avoids busywork; teens can spot busywork from a mile away, and they have zero tolerance for it! If you’ve never used a guide from your homeschooling big sisters before, Vicki’s explanation here of how to use a 7Sisters literature study guide is the perfect starting place for you.
* Explore the DEVICES.
Literary devices provide the shapes and sparkles and styles that give the piece extra power and create interest. The Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab) is a terrific resource for understanding literary terms of all kinds, their list is a great place to start if you want to better understand devices like these:
- dramatic foils
Good questions related to literary devices are questions about the ways these devices help to deliver the theme powerfully to the reader. Just noticing that a device was used is not really very helpful (e.g. Who are the dramatic foils in the story?); instead, point out its use, then ask WHY that use of the device is more effective than if it had been left out (e.g. Positioning the rich man and the man in poverty as foils helped us constantly remember that “money makes the world go ’round,” making all the difference in outcomes for people, rather than each man’s hard work, dedication, or integrity. How tragic!)
SO…What questions should you ask your high school literature student about the DEVICES in a piece of writing?
- Can you think of a moment in the piece when the __________ (pick a literary device) really grabbed your attention? How did that device drive the theme home, or help you connect to a character, or create suspense for you as the plot unfolded?
- In addition, this author really likes to use _________. Why do you think he/she might have chosen to do that, in light of the themes we’ve explored in this piece? How do you think he/she might have hoped the use of that device would impact the reader?
* Explore the IMPACT.
Whether or not your teen liked the piece, whether he or she was moved by it or left cold, inspired or annoyed by it MATTERS. Teens need to be given space and freedom to express their own reaction to an assigned piece of reading. When their opinion is not solicited, only their intellectual analysis, they are less motivated to write well in response to what they have read and thought. Even an opinion like, “It was stupid,” is helpful if we follow it up with the question, “Why?”
SO…What questions should you ask your high school literature student about the IMPACT of a piece of writing?
- Did you like it? Why?
- Also, would you recommend it to another reader? What type of person do you think should read this? Why?
In short, when you stop thinking of literary analysis as a daunting endeavor, and instead consider having a conversation with your teens where you ask some really GOOD QUESTIONS about the book they’ve just read, homeschooling high school gets so much better! You can DO this, homeschool parent!!
Want an in-depth resource to help you teach literature to your high school student? Here you go!
“Helping Students Create Relationships with the Books They Read” is the idea behind the workshop TEACHING LITERATURE: BEYOND COMPREHENSION TO SO MUCH MORE! by Sabrina Justison. Get the PDF, just $2.99 for immediate download!
Listen in to The Homeschool HighSchool Podcast for a fun, helpful episode about Helping Literal Thinkers with Literary Analysis if your teen is one who likes to keep things concrete, and blankly says, “I don’t know!” for example, when you ask questions about the books they’ve just read. For help in choosing your literature curriculum, check out this post!