If you teach any form of close reading, you are using a formal lens of literary analysis. Formal lens in the secondary classroom most likely uses the principles of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism. In this post, I’m going to explain how you can use a formal lens to engage your ELA students in close reading.
Ultimately, the goal is to use a formal lens as one of many literary lenses. Check out this article about what are literary lenses and why you should use them in your classroom. But, before students can dive into multiple perspectives, it’s important that they have a solid understanding of the text. Therefore, a formal lens is a great access point to drive home comprehension before students attempt other literary lenses.
New Criticism Theory Background
To begin, we have to start with Formalism, a school of literary criticism that relies on the work’s form to find meaning. Formalism influences scholars and academics to develop a new literary theory: New Criticism, a school of literary theory that was popular from the 1930s to the 1960s.
New Criticism focuses on the text as its own entity. This means the historical, social, political, or cultural contexts have little importance with New Criticism. Conversely, science had an effect on New Critics, who believed that the structure of a work can be analyzed scientifically. Using this scientific approach, New Criticism asserts that the role of the critic is to identify the main idea to which all the other parts of the text point.
Since New Criticism stems from Formalism, I usually use the term “formal” for this lens in my classroom. Because critical lenses is an overall name for literary lenses, this title helps to clear up any confusion that students might have with the term critical. This lens is also one of the most common lenses in the classroom; therefore, using the term formal reminds students of the traditional role in the classroom.
Formal Lens in the Classroom
Close Reading in ELA
In the ELA classroom, close reading is a valuable skill that teaches students to read carefully, slowly, and purposefully. At the surface level, close reading helps students understand what they read. It also prepares students to make connections to other literary lenses for analysis. These skills don’t necessarily come naturally. Even in a secondary English classroom, students can benefit from the following strategies to support their close reading efforts:
1. Set the purpose
One of the most valuable ways to engage students with close reading is to help guide their close reading with a set purpose. With a distinct focus for their reading, students will read with a purpose, and therefore, have an easier time with close reading. An example could be to direct students to focus on symbolism and meaning. Or, you could ask students to close read with a focus on character development. No matter the focus, providing the purpose upfront will engage students in reflective thinking as they read to engage with the purpose.
Obviously, students need structured directions, but sometimes, they simply aren’t enough. To clear up any confusion, I like performing a think aloud, otherwise known as modeling. First, I select a short passage. Then, I read through the piece, stopping throughout to talk through my thinking process as I read. I like to connect this think aloud to a distinct purpose.
3. Active reading options
Along with the think aloud, I like to model annotation strategies that support my close reading. Providing students with strategies for annotation is another great way to encourage them to reflect as they’re reading. Visual notes, two-column notes, sticky notes, Cornell notes, and writing on the passage are a few of my students’ favorite strategies for annotation.
To read more about how I teach close reading and annotation, check out this blog post.
Formal Lens Close Reading Activities
Once you have received close reading activities with students, then there are several in-class activities that can help engage students in their formal analysis:
Multiple Read Throughs
Just as students benefit from multiple lenses of analysis, multiple read throughs supports students listening, reading, and ultimately comprehension strategies. Below you will find several examples of way to provide multiple read throughs of a text. To begin, the teacher can read aloud through the text. Then, choose one or more of the following options. The student
- reads to teacher
- reads silently
- listens to an audiobook
- reads aloud to partner
- reads aloud to recording
- listens to their recording
Choosing two or more of these options can help make the text accessible to students who prefer different reading/learning opportunities, while providing several close reading opportunities.
Text-Dependent Close Reading Analysis
Text-dependent analysis provides students with a series of questions that correspond to their reading. For example, you could provide a multiple choice question set or a set of open-ended questions to be completed as their read. I like to review the questions with students beforehand (if the section is short enough to do so). Then, I provide students with questions that specifically correspond to a particular page number, section, or paragraph. This practice is more structured than other strategies, and it provides a study guide to review or use for other activities. Additionally, this is a great test preparation strategy, as text-dependent analysis is often on standardized tests.
Instruct students to identify key concepts from the text and put them on a note card. These keys could be literary devices, difficult words, or other text focal points. Then, as they read, they can record their keys on a note card or piece of paper. Instruct the students to research and present at least one of the keys in the story to the class. As a class, analyze the significance of the word choice to the story.
Upping the Engagement With Formal Lens
Formal lens is linked to a traditional study of literature. Therefore, it’s one of the most accessible lenses to text to your students. I personally like to use this lens as an access point to set the stage for other lenses. Once students have an understanding of the text through a formal lens, you challenge students to analyze with a variety of diverse perspectives. For example, this novel study uses formal lens focusing on mood, tone, symbolism, characterization, and vocabulary as one of six literary lenses to analyze a text.
One of the main reasons I use the term lens is because it helps students assume a role to “see” the analysis. In fact, some of my favorite ways to use this lens is through role play. For example, I love using this fun twist on literature circles with a roleplay for formal analysis. You can read more about how I facilitate literature circles here. To get a feel for what I mean, download my free literary lenses novel roles.
Finally, if you’re looking to teach students about all of the different lenses, check out my Literary Lenses Workbook. This workbook includes student-ready 12 different lens activities that can be applied to any text.