In some parts of the English-speaking world, reading falls somewhere below gouging one's eyes out with a blunt instrument on the list of favourite things to do. Reading literary texts comes in several notches below that.

Statistics bear that out: the number of students who don't want to read literature is growing. The internet and educational materials are full of articles on how to motivate students to read classic literature. There is an equal number of articles targeted to students that explain why they should read literature.

All of this begs the question: why do people, students in particular, hate it so much?

For one, it is often perceived as dull and dry. What does a tale, play or poem, written more than a century ago, have to do with life today? And, with our world being so very different from back then, how can we relate to literature written a century or more ago?

The answer to both of those questions lies in reading the texts. Not just reading them but analysing them, putting them into context with today's world and drawing conclusions that add to your understanding of what it means to be human.

In short, literature reading assignments are not just another tactic the teaching profession devised to torture reluctant learners.

To get the most out of English literature, you have to break it into its component parts, figure out what the writer is trying to say and how s/he is saying it. And then, put everything back together to get the most complete picture possible.

Let Superprof lay out those steps for you...

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Get Familiar with the Literary Work

It should be obvious that you have to read the texts to write about them with any authority but, for those who despise any written text, you would be surprised at the ways around reading literature and poetry - be it Shakespeare or Shelley.

Why bother reading literature when it's all been made into films?

Watching a film and reading the book it originated from are two different things
Watching a play does not give you the same story as reading its script. Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Of course, we're being facetious in saying it may be a film industry standard to make their finished products deviate as much as possible from their source material. Still, have you ever heard people say "The book is so much better than the film!"? There's a reason for that: most often, it's the truth.

Trouble is, when you watch someone's interpretation of a literary work, your own perceptions of it will be skewed. You will, in fact, be interpreting an interpretation.

The same applies to any other shortcut you might take to avoid reading the original work: your knowledge of it will be based on what those sources - CliffNotes, SparkNotes and even BBC Bitesize present you with.

All of that aside, why would you cheat yourself out of the richest parts of English literature? By reading the text, you will recognise - and possibly identify with elements that cannot be duplicated in any other form. Those elements are vital to your ability to analyse any literary work.

Let's take a close look at them.

Voice

One of the greatest advantages of reading literary texts is becoming intimately familiar with the one telling the story.

If it is written in the first person, the storyteller is an active participant but, if the tale is told in the third person, the narrator is relating events that happened to others.

If the writing is in the third person, ask yourself if you can trust that narrator. Using a dishonest narrator to tell a story is a writing technique designed to make narration itself a plotline. On the other hand, you might get the feeling that even the narrator doesn't know what will happen next; this technique works to keep the reader in suspense.

Also, consider what tone the writing takes. Is it light-hearted and humorous, as in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, or more ominous, as in William Golding's Lord of the Flies?

By considering which voice and tone the author uses, you can better feel what s/he wants to convey.

Your turn to talk: what revision tips can you offer to other students revising for their English Literature exams?

Structure

Virtually every written work has a structure. Novels have chapters, plays have acts and scenes; poetry has verses or stanzas. Furthermore, within each chapter, act and scene, there are paragraphs and dialogue that keep each segment from wandering aimlessly on.

How literary texts are structured is important. Chapters function as compartments, moving the story along in discrete nuggets while allowing for short breaks in the action. The best ones are cliff-hangers: they make you want to find out what will happen next and others serve as scene-changers, often switching between plotlines.

Why did the author choose that structure to tell that story? Answering this question should be a part of your analysis; it will disclose whether s/he meant to tell the story in chronological order versus jumping back and forth through time.

Group study for English literature is a good idea but write about your own ideas, not group ideas
Analysing literary texts in your study group is a good idea but be sure your ideas shine through when you write your essay. Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Literary Devices and Other Uses of Language

How the writer gets the story across is another major factor of analysis. For instance, short sentences may indicate danger or a lack of feeling while longer, flowery prose might signal complex emotions.

The best writers paint pictures with words. They do that by planting visuals that come alive in our imagination, for instance: "He ran like the wind to get to her sooner." Similes allow us to draw on our imagination and knowledge of the world to create for ourselves the picture the writer wanted us to have.

Other such devices include:

  • metaphors: basically, something standing for something else
  • listing - 'the merchant, the banker, the lawyer and tax collector...'
  • personification: assigning a human characteristic to something
  • alliteration: several words in a row that start with the same sound
  • sibilance: same as alliteration but with soft consonants
  • repetition - 'she tried and tried, and tried again...'

The best way to get everything out of the literary texts you read is to read them twice. The first time, just for the impact it makes on you and the second to tease out all of these elements. That is, if you have the time...

Of course, once you get used to analysing English literature, you might find yourself able to note various elements while still enjoying the story.

Did you know that most readers rank some of the most well-known English literature texts as their favourite reading material?

Consider Your Essay Question

Usually, when students are assigned to read literature, they will have to write an essay. Sometimes, your writing assignment will contain instructions - an essay question that asks about specific elements. Other times, usually in undergraduate English literature courses, students have to come up with something to write about on their own.

If You Are Given a Prompt

If you're responding to an essay question, consider it carefully. What does it ask for?

Generally, essay questions want you to write about two or three aspects of the work: themes, elements, characteristics and/or others. That makes your work so much easier!

You only need to follow the order the questions come in. If it asks about themes first, write about them first. Remember, though, to not answer them curtly; you should incorporate the question into your answer.

Also, discover how best to structure your English literature essay...

If You Get to Choose Your Own Thesis

If it's left to you to decide what to write about, consider which aspects of the work spoke to you the loudest and/or lingered the longest. You may also consider which elements the author used and their effectiveness or their use of tone and language to give their writing depth.

Whether you're given an essay question or not: your teachers don't want a summary or a review of the work, they want an analysis - an argumentative essay. That entails you having arguments and the evidence to prove them.

Responding to an essay question helps to focus our thinking, which is one reason why we study English literature, to begin with.

Building a mind map to catalogue evidence is a good idea
It's a good idea to build a mind map as your search texts for evidence to support your ideas. Photo by alevision.co on Unsplash

Finding Evidence

Earlier, we recommended reading the work twice before analysing it. On the first read, you may have already highlighted some elements so, on your second go-'round, you'll search for evidence to support your arguments.

You may catalogue your evidence in a number of ways: by marking the text with highlighters - a different colour for each element, preferably, or by taking notes.

Some students like to draw a table on poster board, dedicating a column or row each to structure, literary devices and techniques, the tone and narrative type and so on. They may include actual passages or simply list page numbers that point to the element in question.

If you choose this method of evidence collection, be sure to leave a space for quotations, as you will likely include a few well-chosen phrases from the text in your essay.

These days, more students are shifting to mind maps to build their evidence stash.

Mind maps are easy to create; you can either draw them by hand or use mind mapping software. And then, it's just a matter of populating your map. Fill in the elements and write in the corresponding information. And then, come time to write your analysis, everything you need is laid out in front of you.

Conducting a literary analysis is more than reading texts and writing about them. These analyses train you to organise your ideas and thought processes, sift through information and, ultimately, build critical thinking skills... all while fostering creativity.

Did you know that university students often cite their introduction to English literature as the start of their applying critical thinking to everyday situations?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.