I have been passionate about literary theory since I took a literary theory class as an undergrad. As a high school teacher, I knew I wanted my students to have the same experience with critical lenses. Therefore, for my dissertation study during my Ph.D. program, I set out to make literary criticism and literary theory assessible to secondary English students. The result is a multiple perspectives analysis strategy called literary lenses.
Literary lenses can empower students to see life from new perspectives. Therefore, it can help them strengthen their reading and writing abilities. So let’s jump into the how and why to teach literary theory secondary ELA students.
What are Literary Lenses?
Before we delve into the how and why, let’s start with a little background. Maybe, you had a specific literary theory class in college. Maybe, it was intertwined into your classes. Or, maybe, you’ve never even heard of literary theory. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be an expert in literary theory to teach literary lenses.
In order to define literary theory, we need to start with a broader term: critical reading. Critical reading is the activity involved in reading for a deep understanding. The skills necessary for critical reading involve reflecting, close reading, and questioning to name a few. In other words, critical reading challenges students to move past surface-level interpretations.
Taking it one step further, literary criticism is a type of critical reading activity. It involves studying, interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating a work of literature. Since these are the skills we strive to teach our students, you’re already teaching literary criticism to some degree. Over the years (literally since Plato’s time), scholars have argued over the best way to analyze literature. This bring us to literary theory.
Literary theory is all of the different focuses that scholars and teachers use to analyze literature. For example, some schools of literary theory focus on the author’s life. Others focus on the reader’s reaction to the text. Each school of literary theory provides a different, yet intriguing guide to arrive at a meaning of the text.
The final step gets us to literary lenses. With a focus on secondary English students, literary lenses take the ideas of literary theory and focus it directly on students’ active learning actions. The outcome is high student engagement in critical reading and thinking!
I use the term literary lenses to help students focus on “seeing” from a different perspective, or lens. The connection between looking through glasses or a camera makes a great metaphor to understand the concept. You can see how I use my classroom decor to re-enforce this visual metaphor here. Pairing the term lens with descriptive perspective titles makes the lenses assessible for students.
The Benefits of Literary Lenses in the ELA Classroom
Now that we know what literary lenses are, let’s answer why should we teach them to our students? First and foremost, it works. Deborah Appleman, author of the book Critical Encounters, says, “Literary theory provides readers with the tools to uncover the often-invisible workings of the text.” Similarly, Beth Wilson in an article for the English Journal explains, “Literary theory is an effective addition to students’ kits because looking through varying lenses reveals the systems that affect text production of all kinds, from 17th-century plays to 21st-century pop lyrics.” For extensive research support, check out my dissertation on this topic.
Empowering students to analyze content independently can be a very difficult task. Yet, these reading skill sets are vital for students to be prepared to grapple with difficult content in college, solve problems in the real world, and succeed on standardized tests. Encouraging students to see new perspectives not only empowers them to dig deeper, but it also helps them build empathy, a challenging concept to “teach.”
Literary Lenses in the ELA Classroom
So, now you might be thinking, this all sounds good, but how can we make it work in our English classrooms? The key is creating active learning tasks to engage students with different lenses.
Let’s look at some examples:
- Reader lens focuses on the reader to arrive at a meaning of the text. So, for this activity, students could complete a free-write response. Click here to read an article all about using reader lens in the ELA Classroom.
- Psychological lens, derived from Psychoanalytical Theory, analyzes the psychological state of characters. A role play for “diagnosing” a character’s internal conflicts would work great for this lens.
- Historical lens uses the historical background of the work or the author to find meaning in the text. Students could research the historical period and then participate in a panel discussion about what they learned.
For more lenses, check out my Literary Lenses Workbook, which includes background on 13 literary lenses. Each lens has an engaging complementary activity too.
Planning Literary Lenses Activities
In a traditional reading unit, you might start by reading a story. Then, you might give study guide questions, and finally review them as a class before giving them a test. I can speak from experience here because this is how I used to teach reading units. However, when I started creating multiple perspectives units, I noticed a significant change in student engagement and analysis!
I created a free Literary Lenses Starter Kit that will walk you step-by-step through the process of creating a unit. Sign up below to get your free starter kit!
Literary Lenses Bundle
To save you time planning (because let’s face it, all teachers need more time), I created a literary lenses bundle with all of my favorite literary lenses resources. This no-prep literary lenses bundle has all of the resources you need to start teaching literary lenses in your classroom.
This bundle includes my Literary Lenses Workbook, Novel Study, Literature Circles, Classroom Posters, Interactive Bulletin Board, Poetry Stations, and First Day of School Stations.
Sources and Further Reading
For more research on critical lenses in secondary ELA, check out the following sources: