June Harmon. Chapter Three: Teaching Textual Analysis. University of Virginia, 1992.

Questions to Ask as You Prepare Your Syllabus and Daily Schedule

What is the size of the class?

·       The size of the class can influence who talks, how often students speak, and how much of and how closely a text is covered

Where does the text fall in your agenda for the semester?

·       The text's placement in the semester can determine how much time you have to discuss the text and how it relates to previous assignments and forthcoming reading.

What is the text to demonstrate in terms of its own specific charm, the author's career, the genre's demands, the course's expectations, and literary history?

·       A full understanding of the text and its related material will help you have an overview of fruitful discussion topics. With the text's being familiar, you will be able to pursue students' interests and direct them in profitable, exciting directions.

In what ways will the text encourage the students to read, write, think? What have the students been asked to do in preparation for discussion of the text?

·       When students have involved themselves in the text through a pre-discussion assignment, they are better prepared to talk about the text. At least some part of the text is familiar to them.

·       Suggested pre-discussion work includes assigning a specific passage for discussion ahead of time, distributing questions or topics in advance to focus open discussion of a passage, assigning group presentations of analyzed passages, requiring submissions or position papers that analyze the text.


Questions to Ask as You Teach the Text in Class

How do you integrate looking directly at the text and discussing it?

·       Looking at the text may seem to drain the energy from a lively discussion. Keep the energy high by having students read the passage aloud. Pause to discuss the juicy parts of the passage, turning back to the text to reinforce ideas raised in discussion.

·       Ask students to recall one detail from the passage just read aloud and explore why it is memorable, confusing, . . . Arrange for the student on the reader's left or right to respond to the passage just read aloud and work from this dialogue. In other words, get your students in the habit of moving from a concentrated, quiet look at the text to a freer, faster-paced discussion and back again.

How do you balance discussion of passage-specific issues with larger textual concerns and the course's agenda?

·       Having developed the course's syllabus, you well know the reasons a text is on the reading list and a passage is worth careful in-class analysis. Keep these ideas in mind as you direct class discussion. Introduce focusing topics for discussion as you move into a text or passage, ask a student to connect the passage at hand with recurring ideas of the semester and pressing concerns of the specific text, ask for additional textual examples that demonstrate the bigger ideas of the semester and text explored in the initially discussed passage. In other words, allow time not only to analyze a passage, but also to develop the discussion in terms of ideas relevant to the text as a whole and the semester's goals.

How much text can be examined at one time?

·       Keep your agenda in mind: pick enough text to illustrate the power of the specific work and the objectives of the course; yet recall that analyzing a passage in discussion takes a great deal of time. Be selective and do not be surprised if one discussion period does not cover more than a couple of passages. Especially as the class begins a new text, the discussion will move slowly, as students become acquainted with the text's linguistic and narrative demands. In addition, as class discussion takes on its own life, be ready to move on to other passages that students introduce to support their own interests and observations.


How do you work from a variety of observations to some kind of coherence?

·       Jot down issues that come up in class discussion and ask the class to reach some conclusions about the entire text and the course's concerns.

·       Leave time for summary work as you finish studying a text. Recall those ideas that escape a coherent view, as these observations will illuminate the genius of a specific text.


How do you respond to a bizarre interpretation of a passage? Think of the response as a new, challenging text you are reading for the first time.

·       Focus on the most energetic, puzzling part of the response; some tone or detail behind the response will be worth discussing, even if the discussion eventually contradicts or disregards the initial response.

·       Ask the student what in the text demonstrates this reading. If the student starts to retreat, you can ask what in the text best illustrates the point, as if the text were replete with examples.

·       Encourage the class to consider how the response can or cannot be accommodated by the text.


How do you encourage resistant students to engage in textual analysis?

·       Students can resist textual analysis for complicated, endless reasons. First, try to make the text feel relevant to the student: how is the student's experience of the world played out in the dynamics of the text? Some students feel that textual analysis violates a work that they love. Assure them that the text can accommodate many interpretations and that the text will remain in the form that they love, despite the onslaught of literary criticism.


How do you escape discussions that remain on a purely narrative level?

·       Many students are new readers who need to be introduced to the idea of metaphor, formalism, generic conventions and literary history. In the beginning of the semester, talk about how to read critically, with an eye to more than plot.


How do you help students who have a difficult time comprehending the language of older texts?

·       Invite students to your office and have them read the texts aloud. You will be familiarizing the students to the sound of the language and forcing them to concentrate on a passage. Many students simply need to slow their reading pace for older texts.

·       Recommend their viewing videos or listening to recordings of the older texts, so they can acquire an ear for the diction.


How do you handle silence as a response to your questions for discussion?

·       Students are more likely to form opinions about a passage once they have sympathized with the characters and thought about the demands of the situation described in the passage. Ask questions that immerse the students in the passage before delving into formalist or historical concerns.


How do you respond to pure plot summary?

·       Plot summary can a be useful tool for working on reading comprehension. You can also develop an analytical discussion from a summarizing answer by exploring what has been left out of the paraphrase.


Techniques to Consider as You Teach Textual Analysis



I. Reading a passage aloud with strategic breaks and discussion

·       involves less ready readers in the passage's scenario by presenting the text in small, digestible chunks

·       prevents the students who are not reading aloud from drifting off by involving them in the periodic discussion

·       allows you to respond to the students' responses. By asking why a student seems amused, bored, confused during the reading, you encourage students to explore their own reactions

·       centers discussion usually on plot and character. Discussing the passage as a whole frees the class to discuss:


generic conventions

--how does this passage influence the entire work? style

--what is the tone of the passage? historical period

--what are some distinguishing tropes and syntax?

--what are some telling habits of dress, manner, and activity

--what are the gender roles?

--what are the class/economic conditions? the text's ideology

--what do we notice about issue A, B, or C?

--what modern equivalents can compare to an older text?

II. Announcing your agenda for and interests in a text gives a class a sense of one possible direction for discussion frees the class from wondering what you want to hear and can encourage them to pursue other issues. This agenda must be accompanied by your willingness to move on to other ideas that interest the class.



Assigning students to find and discuss one or two passages that demonstrate issues raised in class discussion

·       encourages students to attend what goes on in discussion

·       reinforces the habit of providing substantial textual evidence to support an argument.

Papers remind students that papers are written forms of textual analysis that require, like good analytical discussion, opinion substantiated by textual evidence.


Offer paper topic lists and conferences to help students focus and develop a thesis.


Urge students to ask themselves why they think their theses are valid, what in the text provokes their responses.


As an example of good student literary analysis, distribute and discuss excerpts from the students' own position papers or submissions that explore a passage fully, thoughtfully, cleverly.


Require students to hand in theses, outlines, introductory paragraphs before the final draft of the paper is due.

Sample Paper Assignment:

Used early in the semester, this assignment helps to establish a critical vocabulary for composition and to warm students up to lively prose.

Having read George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" and E. L. Doctorow's "The 'Clear Sound of Honest Words'," compare Baker's "Little Red Riding Hood Revisited" to the Grimms Brothers' "Little Red Cap." Think about detail, precise wording, and subtle stylistic maneuvers Baker honors by producing such wretchedness in their absence. Now it's your turn. Read the delicate, frightening Grimms tale "Jorinda and Joringle." Study the sensual detail, the clear word choice, and the cleverly crafted sentences. After admiring this prose, turn your back on it. Rewrite "Jorinda and Joringle" in the manner of Baker's parody, in the type of prose Baker, Orwell, and Doctorow caution us against.