How to Teach Your Students to Analyze Literary Devices

Are your students literary train-spotters? Do their text annotations mostly consist of the names of poetic devices? Do they have random sentences in their literary analysis essays where they mention that a quotation they’ve used contains a metaphor, without saying anything about how it works or why the author put it there?

It’s one of the eternal English teacher problems – after intensive practice, our students eventually learn to identify the different types of figurative language, but they still can’t analyse those devices. Unfortunately, simply mentioning the name of a language feature does nothing to add depth to a student’s argument or understanding. Not only does this lead to worse essays and assignments, but it also reinforces students’ suspicions that annotating and close reading texts for language is a pointless, meaningless endeavour.

This problem is exacerbated, I think, by the many lesson plans and activities for teaching figurative language that focus solely on understanding what each language feature is, rather than on how and why they’re used. Students spend hours every year looking at examples and definitions of metaphor, alliteration, simile, personification and the rest without getting concrete guidance on how to uncover the layers of meaning behind those devices. Then, suddenly, they’re being asked to talk about the effect and purpose of the techniques they’ve identified, and they have no idea where to start. To make matters worse, it seems like their teacher (and some of their peers) can just do it, coming up with original interpretations on the spot. In this scenario, students can be forgiven for thinking that they just don’t have a talent for literary analysis and may as well go straight to the SparkNotes.

How do we solve this problem and help our students succeed in – maybe even enjoy – analysing language? Through explicit, replicable strategies that students can apply to any language they come across, and careful scaffolding to allow every student to master those strategies. Here’s my step-by-step guide to teaching students to analyse figurative language and other literary devices:

The teaching of language features often begins with the teacher handing out a huge, multi-page table with all of the devices they expect their students to learn and use in their analysis. The table probably includes the name of the language technique, a definition, and an example. The problem is that students are then faced with a huge number of apparently unrelated terms and definitions to master. It’s overwhelming, and this makes it hard for them to see the underlying patterns and commonalities.

Instead, try introducing just a few devices – no more than five – at a time. Choose related devices. For instance, I begin with introducing imagery devices – simile, metaphor, and personification. Then I do sound devices – assonance, consonance, alliteration, sibilance, and onomatopoeia. Whatever groupings you choose, they key is that they should be devices that have similar types of effects and can be analysed in similar ways.

Once you’ve chosen the devices you’re going to teach, give your students the name of each technique, a definition, an example, and a sentence or two about the general effect of that device. That last one is crucial – we want to centre the meaning of each device right from the start.

Now is also the time to do some quick practice identifying and distinguishing between the different techniques. To reduce the cognitive load burden, we do want to make sure that students can easily distinguish between a simile and a metaphor before we ask them to learn how to analyze them. Throw a few examples on the board and ask students to identify each one. When you’re confident they know what each technique is, your students are ready to move on to step two.

Step Two: Show them what to look for
analyzing sound devices worksheet

Using the general effects you provided for each technique in step one, give your students 2-4 things they should consider when deciding on the effect of the example in front of them. For some examples, your entire list may be relevant; for others, perhaps only one of those effects is in play. In any case, these effects will be specific to the category of literary devices you’re teaching – while there is definitely some overlap, we generally need to analyse imagery very differently to how we analyse sound devices or syntax. As an example, this is what I tell my students to look for when we’re working on sound devices:

  • How they highlight links between related words
  • How they affect the mood of the text
  • How they enhance the effects of other language features, particularly imagery

Introduce one of these effects at a time, providing examples and explanations for each. Then, give students some highly-scaffolded individual practice with that effect. Since students are just getting started, I like to bold the parts of the quotation that actually show the poetic device in action, and I give them sentence templates to show them how to write about this specific effect. Providing this level of scaffolding means that all of your students should be able to experience success in analysing language from the start. When they’re writing about how sound devices enhance imagery, for instance, I give the following sentence frames:

  • The ________________ in these lines echoes the sound of ____________________, which contributes to the ____________________ mood in this part of the text.
  • [Author] uses _______________ in this line to imitate the sound of ______________, emphasizing _________________________________________________.

Worried that telling your students what to look for will inhibit their creativity or stop them seeing things that don’t fit into the template? Don’t be. Remember, this is just step one, and you only need to do a few examples with this level of scaffolding. If you have very able students who are proposing good interpretations that don’t fit the pattern, go ahead and encourage them! But make sure that they also grasp the common effects that they’ll draw on again and again. Meanwhile, your students who have always been mystified by the meaning behind authors’ language choices will have gained a concrete starting point.

Step Three: Practice identifying good analyses

This is a great activity that sets your students up for success while also providing a valuable formative assessment opportunity. Many students struggle to produce a good analysis simply because they don’t know what a good analysis looks like.

Take some time to discuss what makes an analysis good. I like to highlight that a good analysis should be specific about which techniques are used and where, why the author has used those techniques, the effects of the techniques on the reader, and the ideas that techniques draw our attention to.

Then, give your students an example of a language feature and two short analyses of it, where one is clearly better than the other (these analysis pairs are included in my language analysis activities for imagery and sound devices to save you having to write your own!) Make sure that they’re both around the same length – we don’t want it to be too easy! Ask them to choose which analysis they think is better and justify their choice. The second part is crucial, because it demands that students articulate for themselves what a good analysis requires. You can add further rigor here by having students debate about any examples they disagree on – get them to hash it out by providing their own reasoning, rather than telling them which one you think is best.

If your students struggle with this task, I recommend doing some more practice with steps two and three before moving on. Again, if they can’t identify a good analysis, they’re unlikely to produce one.

Step Four: Independent practice

Once your students have practiced successfully identifying each technique, writing about the technique’s common effects using sentence templates, and identifying what makes an analysis a good one, they’re ready to try out analysing some techniques on their own. I still recommend giving them short examples to analyse at this stage, so that they’re focused on perfecting the skill of analysing this type of literary device, and not on all the other components of making sense of a text. This does mean that their analyses will be missing the relevance of the device to the wider text – but they’ll be well-prepared to bring that in when they get to step five.

Here, we can keep things simple – give them a quotation of a few sentences or less than contains at least one of the language features you’ve been working on. I usually leave off the bolding at this stage to give students more flexibility about what devices they want to focus on, but you can bold the techniques if you think your own learners need that additional support.

Have students write a few sentences analysing each quotation, using all the strategies you’ve taught them. Some may go back to the sentence templates from earlier, while others will be ready to branch out. Some might need to check back on the examples they’ve seen already, or double-check the kinds of effects related to that technique. But all of them should have the knowledge in place to be able to produce an analysis. Since you’ve already practiced evaluating analyses, this will also provide a great opportunity for self- or peer-assessment. Give plenty of practice at this stage, and repeat it often – as a starter or bell-ringer activity, or as some review in amongst going through the process again with a new set of literary devices. Then, when they’re adept at analysing devices in isolation, you can move onto step five and start exploring how those skills can be applied in the context of longer texts.

Step Five: Analyze language in context

This is the final step, and it’s important not to rush it. Chances are, this is what your goal was when you started introducing all these figurative language devices – you want your students to use their analysis of these devices to draw more meaning from the texts you’re studying as a class.

At this stage, it’s important to ask your students to expand on their analysis by commenting on how the language contributes to the theme or the author’s purpose in creating the text. If you’re working with essential questions, discuss how language contributes to the answers offered by the text. This linking between the micro effect of a single language feature and the macro effect of the text as a whole is the last step in creating meaningful language analysis that feels like it’s actually worth doing.

If the text your students are studying in your class right now is particularly long or complex, consider easing students into this step by practicing with a short story or poem. This allows them to start thinking on a whole-text level without needing to first master an entire complex novel. If you use devices in your classroom, my short story digital close reading activities provide a great opportunity to practice both language analysis and other ways of making meaning from a text.

Conclusion

So that’s that – five steps that will take your students from being mystified and demotivated to intelligent analysts of authors’ language choices. If you like the sound of this strategy but think that all the resources and planning sounds like a lot of work, you’d be right! Lucky for you, you can get my worksheet sets for teaching students to analyze imagery and sound devices in my Teachers Pay Teachers store! Resources for teaching diction, rhetorical devices, and structure are also in the works, so keep an eye on my store and social media for those. I’d also love to hear in the comments below about your favourite ways to support your students in analyzing language in your ELA classroom!

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