Originally Sent: 10/2/2014
October 2, 2014
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Analyzing Literature: Developing Discerning Readers
As we head into October, we hope your school year has kicked into full gear! You may be adjusting to your new routine, and your teen may be juggling many new courses and outside activities. Take each day one step at a time, and remember to breathe in God’s grace. It will be a lifeline for you.
Teaching high school English may be a snap for some of you, or it may be frustrating at best. We would like to give you some tips for teaching your teens an important academic skill: how to analyze literature.
Quality versus Quantity
Analyzing literature is a distinguishing feature of high school English courses, and many homeschool parents struggle to teach this. Some homeschooling mothers have asked us where to find the golden list of literature appropriate for each high school grade. They reason that if their children read all the books on that list, then that covers literature for the high school years.
See this blog for several suggested reading lists. As parents know teens best, please preview book lists and keep in mind your teen’s maturity level and your family values. While we are truly impressed by the number of books some homeschooling students read, remember that a voracious reader is not necessarily a discerning reader. Teaching teens to analyze literature turns them into discerning readers that God will use to reach this generation.
Many mature Christians have already developed skills for analyzing literature; skills they have learned while doing Bible studies. Let’s begin there.
The Bible is Great Literature
Through the Bible, God sent a message of judgment, love, and salvation for a world suffering from selfishness, pride, and rebellion. Through the work of various authors, God wove this message throughout Scripture using biographies, laws, ceremonies, sacrifices, histories, songs, poems, proverbs, prophecies, testimonies, sermons, parables, symbols, letters, and visions. As with all great literature, the Bible reveals timeless truths through conflicts, characters, motives, problems, symbols, themes, and a dramatic climax.
We do not expect our children to read the Bible on their own without any discussions or conversations because they would miss the truths woven throughout 66 books. Neither should we expect them to do the same with secular literature. If you have studied the Bible inductively, you have learned invaluable literature analysis skills because this method stresses observation, interpretation, and application skills by asking who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. If these skills work so well in studying Scripture, they are just as powerful in unmasking the message within secular literature. Additionally, analyzing Scripture yields God’s timeless truth, and it helps us understand what is true in other literature.
First consider the hallmarks of great secular literature. The stories are often depressing. Themes can be dark. Some characters suffer. In other words, great books reveal the author’s view of humanity without God. The clearer the reflection of truth, the more ardently critics consider the book great. Throughout time, authors have mimicked the biblical model and found ways to arrange conflicts, develop characters, incorporate symbols, construct motifs, and foreshadow events to tell us stories that warn, challenge, anger, or prod us. Being made in the image of God, authors have produced stories, plays, novels, poetry, and short stories that contain deep meanings. As a homeschooling parent, your goal is to teach teens to understand the author’s truth woven into the story.
Authors write to their contemporaries even if the story is set in the past. In Bible study, we set a book within its historical setting because that clarifies the issues addressed. Understanding the author’s historical context will help illuminate the message.
Most authors use a literary device called foreshadowing, which gives readers a hint about later developments. Foreshadowing often occurs in book titles, character conversations, strange events, or mysterious actions. The Old Testament has foreshadowing figures, images, and prophecy of the coming Christ that were not fully understood until His death and resurrection. Likewise, readers cannot fully understand foreshadowing events until the book’s climax. Teach your teens to notice suspicious events, mysterious conversations, or peculiar titles because they have been deliberately placed.
While the Bible tells the stories of real people, Christ also taught in parables using symbolic characters. Secular authors do the same. They take great pride in creating characters, and some remain unchanged throughout the story whiles others change. The unchanged characters create a foil or mirror in which to evaluate the changing characters. Notice the direction of change—for better or worse—because a change spotlights an important message. For example, the change in the prodigal son contrasts with the untouched older brother, and understanding the choices each son makes adds to the parable’s meaning.
Scripture abounds in symbols. The apostle Paul likens sin to slavery and salvation to freedom. Symbols are images, ideas, sounds, or words that represent something else. Motifs are images, ideas, sounds, or words that appear repeatedly. If temperature or allusions to hot or cold appear often, then take notice because this is not coincidental. Discussing motifs brings central messages into focus. Sacrifice is a biblical motif.
The Bible has a long story line that includes many sub-plots. In the same way, secular authors develop plots by escalating misunderstandings, promoting philosophies, creating mysteries, forcing conflicts, crafting dilemmas, and resolving conflicts that argue a point-of-view, which we call themes.
Today’s novels have cliff-hanger chapter endings, which tempt readers to keep going. We have developed readers who demand fast-paced books, and once they know the end, often they will never re-read the story. Many consumers consider the coveted surprise ending to be the most entertaining part of a book. Great literature is not known for its cliff-hanger chapters or surprise endings. Whole chapters may be devoted to dialogue. When the plot moves slowly, the author has something important to reveal so pay attention.
Just as the fullest understanding of the Bible rests on viewing every aspect through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so the fullest understanding of literature comes when we view each aspect of characterization, foreshadowing, symbols, motifs, plot, and themes through the story’s climax. This lens yields the author’s truth with startling clarity. Now begins the interesting discussion of agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s truth. Please do not miss this discussion because it bears such good fruit. Search Scripture to determine whether God agrees or disagrees with the author. When competing truths stand side-by-side, students clearly see differences, and this sharpens discernment.
Today, our culture advocates the idea that all choices are morally equal. Fortunately, this is never true in a great book because characters live with the consequences of their decisions. Chapters one and two of Romans give a grim summary of how we all stand before God without Christ Jesus. Look for these truths in great literature. Every story has a redemption theme that “saves” the hero. Once you decipher the authors redemption message, decide whether you agree or not. By mentoring your teens to do the same, God will bless them with wisdom.
Order of Literature Study
There are five levels of literature, and the comprehension difficulty rises as time, language, and culture distances the reader from the author.
1. Beginning students: Pick short novels, plays, and short stories from a range of authors. Look for ways to view selected plays because the visual aspect is an important part of the genre. Consider attending local performances or viewing library videos.
2. American Literature: Students will find American authors easier to understand because of the shared history and culture. Click here to find names of respected authors. We have less than 200 years of modern American literature, so there are far fewer serious authors. Begin studying poetry at this level. Being the highest literary form, poetry requires more analysis to understand.
3. British literature: This literature spans the Middle Ages to the present day and poses both cultural and historical challenges for modern students. Click here to find names of respected authors. Fortunately, we share the same language, but students will benefit from understanding the history around an author’s life.
4. World literature: The course material usually focuses on European authors, so students need cultural and historical background on the country, government, religion, and cultures. Click here to find names of respected authors. Poetry doesn’t generally translate well.
5. Ancient World Literature: Translations of ancient literature pose the most challenge for modern students because we do not share the same customs, religions, myths, philosophies, governments, or cultures. Click here to find names of respected authors. Consider adding one of the Great Courses lectures to help your teen better understand ancient literature. Many public libraries own some of these lectures or have access through interlibrary loans.
We trust that these literary analysis techniques give you a good basis for helping your teens dissect a book rather than just read it superficially. You are developing observant readers, who dig deeply for the author’s meaning and purpose.
Join us next month as we offer ideas for job shadowing opportunities for your teen.
Anxious to dive into our next books,
Carol Becker and Diane Kummer
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