HOW I READ A TEXT, by Marjorie Raley

While it may seem unnecessary and perhaps is for many of them, you might give your LT students a hand-out to help them perform as students of literature--as readers, interpreters, critics, and participants in a discussion. The elements of this sheet can be integrated into the classroom as well as the essay.


Words, Images, Themes

1. Write notes in the margins: (a) jot down a note about what you see in the text so you can find it again, (b) respond to something by commenting on or questioning it.

2. Underline words that are unusual or are repeated. Look up crucial (to you) words in the OED.

3. Underline things, images, metaphors that seem interesting or important. "Seem" is key here--you think something's up. This element may reveal a theme or an aspect of a character. (e.g., the language of disease and illness in All's Well, eating and cannibalism in Coriolanus, imagery of children and nursing in MacBeth, Yorick's skull, etc.).

4. Mark in the margins any ambiguities, inconsistencies, or troublesome places. You'll want to investigate these later.

5. Note repetition of words, images, events or situations. You'll want to compare instances.

6. On the inside or back cover of the book, list various themes or images that come up more than once and relevant page numbers under each of these headings. For example, The Winter's Tale could have headings "Art and Nature," "Acting Metaphors," "Service," "Jealousy," "morals of the story," etc.


7. Make a flow-chart of (a) Characters and their relationships to each other. Include literal and spiritual kinships (e.g. foils). (b) Locations or settings. How do these relate? (c) Events that recur with crucial differences.


8. Genre: do you know anything about the form (e.g. sonnet, etc.) or the genre (novel, tragedy, etc.) to help put this instance of it into context? Forms and genres have conventions that writers use or alter to make meaning.

9. Consider (look up if necessary) the historical and cultural information embedded in the text. You might also find the text's own historical/cultural context, including author's biography, of use.

10. Does the text have sources you can compare it to? Is there more than one version you could compare?



1. The most fundamental question to ask is WHY. The second most fundamental question to ask is HOW. Analysis is asking why and how.

2. Comparison questions--get at likenesses, differences, and significance of these.

3. Devil's Advocate questions. What if this element weren't here or were done in a different way?

4. Questions about function. What does this do? How does it contribute to a larger theme or aspect of the work?

5. Special helps: Contexts. Consider author's choices by examining and comparing to source materials, the conventions of his form or genre, or the historical/cultural context.

6. Use available resources to further your understanding and interpretation. E.g. dictionaries, encyclopedias, sources, etc. Always ask your instructor if you need a reference.