Elementary teachers focus on building reading skills so students can understand vocabulary and remember key plot points. High school teachers prepare students for college, AP exams and the SATs, where they will need to think critically and analyze ideas. Middle school teachers are stuck in between. They are responsible for the delicate transition away from basic comprehension skills into analysis — and that’s no easy task.
Regardless of whether you teach advanced students or introductory learners, you can incorporate analytical reading into your lesson plans. Follow these steps to give your students the skills they need.
Your Students Can Handle This
The first thing to know is that your middle school students can handle analytical reading and creative thinking. Even younger students have the social-emotional development to ask questions about a text and consider different themes related to the material.
Teachers Amanda Morin and Ginny Osewalt created a guide that breaks down the different literary skills for different age groups. By kindergarten, kids should be able to retell a story and ask and answer who, what, where, when, why, and how questions about it. At six, they should be able to connect stories to their own experiences, and by the time they reach the age of 10, they should be able to make inferences and compare different texts.
All of this is to say that your middle schoolers can handle more advanced forms of thinking and literary analysis that go beyond summation. In fact, the media they consume and the digital lives they live might make them even more prepared to handle analytical concepts.
“Analyses of news events, political proposals, new technologies, and entertainment options flood our digital lives,” writes high school English teacher Allison Berryhill. “Analytical dexterity is essential for participating in this world of arguments.”
If your students follow news online (or engage with the media their parents follow), they might already have the skills to learn about something and analyze why it’s important or any biases that come with it.
Critical, Analytical Reading is a Skill
The first step when teaching middle school students to become more analytical is to approach critical reading and thinking as a skill. Even the fastest readers with the largest vocabularies might lack critical reading comprehension.
“When we need to get beyond facts/information and into analysis or interpretation (as we often do in academic writing), we need to be critical thinkers/readers,” says Julia Lane, a writing services coordinator at Simon Fraser University. “Critical thinkers/readers engage not only with what a text says, but also with how it presents that information and the context in which it was written (including the perspective it was written from).”
Many students will need to slow down as they start thinking critically and using analytical skills. They may need to reread the text and realize their reading skills aren’t as strong as they thought.
“Many students think of reading as something that is relatively easy, and they expect the text to do most of the work,” writes Joshua White, director of curriculum at test prep resource Summit Educational Group. “However, critical reading takes effort. It requires attention, with the mind processing what’s on the page and engaging with the information. It requires learners to do something with their comprehension of the material, not simply to translate the characters into words.”
As with anything else, developing critical reading skills takes time. However, if your students approach this with a growth mindset, they can relearn how to read.
Keep Reading Out Loud to Students
The first way to get kids to think critically about the text is to eliminate reading as a skill. When kids don’t have to worry about pronunciation or sentence structure, they can focus on the ideas surrounding the material.
“There is a reason why almost every single elementary school lesson begins with a book: stories catch our attention and then bring us together!” writes teacher Jenna Smith. “Long before people could read and write, they told stories. Stories are the glue of any culture/community/religion/family.”
Reading to your students can make a story less intimidating. It can also rope your students in so they want to keep reading at home. After you read a chapter, take time to discuss some ideas and concepts related to the material. This way students can practice analytical thinking in a low-pressure setting.
“A daily read-aloud is an easy place to incorporate word analysis practice,” writes Alyssa, a former elementary teacher and school librarian, at her blog Alyssa Teaches. “As you read a chapter book or mentor text, you can model how you stop at an unfamiliar word and infer its meaning using different clues and strategies.”
Once you’ve done a couple of examples of this, your students can try this out for themselves. Even older students enjoy being read to and it allows them to hear how new words are pronounced, especially if it’s their first time seeing them.
Define The Terms
Vocabulary is an important part of literature, but you may need to spend more time focusing on analytical terms before you can move on to the words in the text.
Ryan Collins, a high school English teacher, starts with the basic definitions of terms used to interpret different stories. He spends time defining words like “juxtapose,” “underscore” and “evoke” so students can become familiar with them. Then he takes popular media that students are likely to engage with and uses those vocabulary words. Instead of asking students to identify and analyze concepts in “To Kill a Mockingbird” right away, he starts by asking students to find these concepts in a piece of art or a popular song on the radio.
Once students see these analytical concepts in action outside of the classroom, they can better identify them in literature. They will understand what you mean when you ask them to identify a metaphor or subtext.
In fact, you may spend the first few weeks of the year showcasing how you approach material and analyze it. This empowers students to mimic your processes on their own.
“Students need to see demonstrations of how questioning is used to construct meaning from texts,” writes the team at Generation Ready. “These demonstrations need to be explicit, visible and clear, and it is important that they occur in the context of meaningful reading.”
Help Students Gather Evidence
With the right vocabulary in hand, teachers and students can move forward in the analytical processes of making claims and defending them with evidence. Students will learn how to come up with a statement and pull information that reinforces their ideas.
“Teaching text evidence to kids alters their way of thinking when reading a text,” the team at KidsKonnect writes. “This helps children to see beyond the words they read and understand the narrative and information value the text carries. When they are guided to search for evidence, children learn to filter information, as well as critically approach literature.”
There are many ways to help students move through the ideation and evidence-gathering processes. Teacher Elizabeth Taylor uses the ISEE method for teaching literary analysis. This acronym uses four parts to explore the text:
- Inference, or an idea based on what they read.
- Summary of the text so far.
- Evidence backing up their idea or theory.
- Explanation of the theory in greater detail.
These four steps allow students to base their analyses on their ideas or theories, rather than focusing on the summaries and then adding inferences after.
Add Supporting Ideas to Their Theirs
Some students may have a hard time understanding the concept of connecting evidence to ideas. They may be tempted to pull a statement from the book and assign an idea to it, basically summarizing what they read. With a few lesson plans, you can help students put their ideas first, and then assign evidence to support them.
“One of the issues when it comes to citing evidence in a literary analysis essay is finding relevant support,” writes teacher Melissa Kruse. “Sometimes, it seems like the lines students select from literature are completely disconnected from what they are writing. That may be because they don’t truly understand how their thesis connects to their main points or how their main points connect to the evidence.”
She suggests using post-it notes with different claims and lines from the text. This allows students to identify and defend ideas, and highlights how one connects to the other.
Another strategy is to challenge students to make controversial statements or ideas, then defend them. This creates a debate-like environment where students have to research the text to support their ideas. “When students have to consider a controversial question and use texts they’ve read to defend their point of view, reading comprehension is off the charts,” says literacy coach Tony Zani.
Reteach Students How to Read
Once your students have a grasp on analytical terms and critical reading, it’s time to reteach them to read. Help them follow processes that they can use through high school and college, no matter how dense the material is.
Lee G. Hornbrook, a writing coach, uses the SQ3R method for critical reading: survey, question, read, recite, review. In this process, students look at the text and get an idea of the length, style of writing, and font. They will ask questions about the text before they read it. After reading without distractions, they will recite the main points of the text out loud and then review the text. This method slows down the reading process, but it can increase comprehension and recall.
Reinforce With the Same Processes
As you develop lesson plans that click with your students, repeat them throughout the year. It’s okay to use similar formats with different texts so students can build on what they learned and practice their analytical thinking.
“When I’m teaching a piece of fiction, I like to have set questions I can use throughout the year to ask my students,” says high school teacher Christina at The Daring English Teacher. “As students answer the same question about various texts throughout the year, they improve their analytical skills and begin to form a better understanding of how literature analysis works.”
Christina shares a few of her top analytical reading questions, including:
- How do the characters in the story develop or enhance the theme?
- How does the setting affect the conflict?
- What motivates the antagonist to act?
Asking the same questions for different texts also helps students who are behind catch up. If they missed a concept in a previous book, they can learn to identify it in the next.
Completing the same tasks also allows you to introduce new ideas slowly. You can build one more task or idea onto each passage or book you work through.
“Have younger students write about only one facet of the literature they read,” writes Matthew Lynch at The Edvocate. “Older students can incorporate multiple aspects. Teachers seeking to differentiate instruction can adjust the number of topics to be addressed in the analysis.”
Students will use analytical reading throughout their lives. While they might not write essays on what they read, they will need to know how to question information and how to pick up on different themes in the media they consume.