Scaffolding Literary Analysis Skills

Over the 19 years I’ve been teaching English, it was only in the past 6 years teaching AP Literature and Composition that I began to realize just how challenging it is to understand the complex endeavor of literary analysis.

Every year, I’d be disappointed with the vast majority of theme statements in students’ essays. If you teach English, you know the kind I mean: “Of Mice and Men is a book about the importance of friendship” or “The Great Gatsby shows the American Dream.” The students often just repeated ideas they’d heard in class without exploring their own ideas about the complexity of the text, and I finally figured out why. I was asking them to bite off way more than they could chew and needed to figure out a way to scaffold practice of the many skills necessary for independently analyzing a text.

And then I happened upon an amazing community of educators, most of whom I met on Twitter chats, including #aplitchat and #aplangchat, who opened my eyes to new ways to approach student learning. I’ve written often about them and their profound effect on my teaching but my particular hero this time was Julie Adams who shared her AP Language rhetorical analysis Quote of the Week activity with me. I used it in my AP Language class and it was so effective that I quickly saw the possibilities for my AP Literature classroom. Julie was kind enough to give me permission to share them with you all!

For each day of the week, I lead off with the instructions I give to students and then follow with some of my teaching notes.

Monday: I have a quote on the board with the following instructions: “Copy the quote and then respond to it in any way you wish. The objective here is to brainstorm ideas and see where the text leads you, so just keep freewriting your thoughts until the time is up.”

I usually give students about 10-15 minutes for this at the beginning of the year, increasing the time up to 30 minutes when they’ve become accustomed to generating their own ideas. This is often difficult for students who are used to being told what to look for and you may need to prompt them with ways to approach the text. I tell them they can write questions they have about the text, connections they make with it and past experiences or reading, opinions or emotional reactions, meanings they derive, etc. I let them know that they can just comment on part of the quote if that is what moves them. The objective is that they start taking ownership of the making of meaning and this is the first step.

Tuesday: Today, we’re going to focus on single words in the text and how they affect meaning. Pull two or three words from the quote that you think are significant. Write about why you think they are significant and what denotations and connotations each word has for you.

Students generally take 10-15 minutes to find some words and comment on their denotation, connotation, and significance. It may be necessary to do a mini-lesson on denotation and connotation the first time you have students do this part of the activity.

Wednesday: What significant moves do you see the writer making in the quote – tone shifts, patterns, literary strategies or devices, etc.? Write examples of one or two literary techniques, label them, and explain their effect on meaning in the quote.

This is the step where my students often get stumped, depending on their experience with literary analysis. If they struggle the first few time, I might give them a device or let a classmate identify a device and then have them speculate on the effect on meaning.

You’re probably able to see by now how each of these steps is a great opportunity for formative assessment with follow up mini-lessons to help your students with growth areas in their analysis skills.

Thursday: What in the outside world or other texts can you connect to this quote? Give examples of outside connections you find to this quote and explain how those connections might contribute to your understanding of the quote’s meaning.

This is an opportunity for students to connect the quote to their lives, if they haven’t already. Each day, our discussion comes back to finding meaning in the poem and responding to that meaning.

Friday: Write an organized analysis of the quote. Include a statement that identifies a theme, claim, or meaning of the quote and then support your assertion using evidence from the quote and other sources.

This step can be as formal or informal as you like. I begin by making it a casual, yet organized summation of the week and eventually move to having students type it up and go through the revision process with it. It affords many opportunities for mini-lessons, including ones on determining theme, thesis statement writing, integrating evidence, organizing an argument, etc.

I choose the quotes from many sources, including Google searches for relevant topics, quotes that I pull from whole class texts, and quotes students have found in the texts they are reading.

The power of this activity comes from breaking down the many steps of literary analysis and revisiting the same text multiple times from different angles. A crucial part of the activity is the class discussion after each step. Students learn so much from articulating their own ideas and listening to others.

If you try this activity, I’d love to hear how it goes and any quotes that have been particularly effective for your classes.



Jori Krulder is a veteran AP teacher who teaches in paradise – literally – Paradise, California. In addition to teaching, she enjoys long bike rides, a good cup of coffee, and spending time with her family.


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11 thoughts on “Scaffolding Literary Analysis Skills

  1. Thank you for posting this! I am going to try it this week with a quote from Sherman Alexie’s memoir for my AP Lang class.

      • Again, thank you for this activity! It went really well and the students will do it again next week. I had them turn in all 5 days worth of writing and it was a pleasant surprise to see how well they analyzed the quote and came to some quality analytical points without parroting the class discussions.

  2. This sounds like a great activity in that it’s exactly what my students need! I fear my AP Lit students would struggle with spending an entire week with one quote, not truly understanding the difference between each day’s question. Is there an example quote you could provide that students could really delve into?

    • I usually draw my quotes from a text we are studying in class or a theme or essential question we are exploring. It’s easy to google “Quotes _________ (topic or text title)” and find complex quotes to study. Here’s one I use when we read Elie Wiesel’s Night: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
      ― Elie Wiesel, Night

  3. How long are your classes? I only have 42 minutes so I am thinking I would need to modify this if I do it. I love the ideas though!

  4. I love this idea. Any thoughts on how to adapt this to A/B day classes? (84 minutes)

    Daren, which quotation are you using?

    Thanks for the ideas.

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