We all want our English students to have deeper, more meaningful discussions about their reading, and literature lenses provide a framework for textual analysis. Teaching students to think about texts through the literary criticism lenses helps students to do this independent of our constant scaffolding and guidance.
That’s what we call a win win in the teaching biz.
Today I’m going to dive into how bringing literary criticism and the idea of reading through the critical lenses associated with literary criticism can help deepen the experiences of your student readers.
Let’s jump in!
What is Literary Criticism?
Okay, so what is literary criticism anyway?
You may remember this term from those ginormous Norton Anthologies we had to read in college (or “back in the day” as my students so kindly refer to it…🙃).
Simply put, literary criticism is the reader’s text-based interpretation of an author’s deeper meaning in a work of fiction. Literary criticism is the way we analyze, evaluate, judge, and talk about literature.
At its most sophisticated, literary criticism is the way you discussed The Grapes of Wrath in your American Lit. survey course, and at its most practical, literary criticism is the way you share your frustrations about the gratuitous descriptions of nature in Where the Crawdads Sing over a cold glass of Pinot with your book club gals.
Literary criticism is what we hope students do as they read their independent reading books, book club books, and study whole class texts. We want learners to pick up on the nuanced way the author creates the theme or the way that the setting impacts the behavior of the characters or the use of dialogue to create the mood and to do all of this by citing examples from the text to support how their thinking was shaped, all of this discussion is literary criticism.
Types of Literature Lenses
Literary lenses allow readers to focus on particular elements of a text when reading. When readers put on these figurative critical lenses, they can hone in on patterns that emerge.
It’s sort of like when you’re watching an episode of House Hunters and are absolutely ready to throw the remote at the wall because no matter what a house looks like, the prospective buyers can’t get past the fact that the walls are painted gray. They can only see through the lens of not wanting to have to paint the whole house (and hey, who really can blame them?) because that’s what they’re choosing to focus on.
Similarly, readers make the choice to read through certain lenses in order to see things from a certain perspective.
This allows us to ignore other moves happening in a work of literature and really zero-in on specified elements. These elements are dictated by the type of literary lens a reader is choosing to read through.
There are many different literary lenses, but they can be categorized into four main types:
- Traditional literary criticism
- Sociological criticism
- Psychological criticism
- Criticism of specific ideas/ways of thinking
It often helps to read through multiple lenses and we usually do this pretty naturally.
For example, it can be difficult to extrapolate the sociological and psychological lenses. Oftentimes a character may behave in a way because of how their society has influenced their psychological thought patterns, and so looking at a text from multiple perspectives allows the reader a richer reading experience.
Sometimes we read through certain lenses based on our prior experiences (e.g., text to text, text to self, text to world connections) which is known as “reader response theory,” but readers can also be trained to view a text through the different types of literary lenses.
Literary Lenses List
Use this handy-dandy literary lenses list (say that four times fast) to help you plan mini-lessons on how to intentionally read through the literature lenses.
- Gender/queer theory
- Moral criticism
- Formalism/new criticism
- Reader response/personal mirrors
Critical Lenses for Poetry Analysis
Poetry makes for quick and easy but meaningful scaffolding when teaching students to read through literature lenses. Take a look at this excerpt from “Oil” by Fatima Asghar:
I’m young & no one around
knows where my parents are from.
A map on our wall & I circle all
the places I want to be. My auntie,
not-blood but could be,
runs the oil through my scalp.
Her fingers play the strands of my hair.
The house smells like badam.
My uncle, not-blood but could be,
soaks them in a bowl of water.
My auntie says my people might
be Afghani. I draw a ship on the map.
I write Afghani under its hull. I count
all the oceans, blood & not-blood,
all the people I could be,
the whole map, my mirror.
This short excerpt can be read through a multitude of literature lenses, but perhaps the three that students would most easily identify are Formalism, Feminism, Historical/Biographical/Cultural.
Encourage students to start with the lenses they feel most comfortable with or feel the most obvious when they read.
When reading this excerpt through the Feminist lens, encourage students to answer these questions as they read:
- How are female roles portrayed?
- How do women and men behave? Is this in accordance with socially accepted gender norms or does it seem to contradict those norms?
- Is the narrator male or female? What helps you to determine this?
When reading this excerpt through the Historical/Biographical/Cultural lens, encourage students to answer these questions as they read:
- How do the events in the text reflect the time period in which this text was written?
- Can you identify any important “shifts” or cultural changes?
- What words standout as representations of a particular time in history, significant to the author’s life experiences, or culturally significant?
When reading this excerpt through the Formalist lens, encourage students to answer these questions as they read:
- How does the structure of the text contribute to the meaning?
- How does the author use imagery to develop the reader’s understanding?
- What connections between details can you make? Why do you suppose the author chose to include those details?
Getting students to feel confident applying the literature lenses as they read will require a great deal of modeling and the gradual release model may feel slower than ever, but hang in there!
Poetry reading and analysis allows you to model reading through one lens to start then layering on another and another until eventually you can take off the training wheels!
Challenge students to ask themselves questions associated with the literature lenses every time they read!
AP Literature Lenses
The Advanced Placement (AP) Literature and Composition course exists to challenge students to see literature as a pursuit to better understand humanity. The College Board asserts that students should understand how literature shapes and is shaped by society.
Using AP literature lenses gives students an anchor of sorts to connect themselves to while they explore these complex ideas in rich literary works.
Each FRQ on the AP Lit. test requires students to demonstrate a deep understanding of a passage or a complete work. This understanding moves well beyond the DOK 1 questions and demands them to assert their understanding of how an author used literary techniques and devices to shape meaning and reveal a truth, assumption, or behavior essential to the human experience.
In order to do that, students would benefit greatly from routine experience practicing reading texts using AP literature lenses.
A fun way I’ve seen an AP teacher teach this idea is having students study the lenses independently and then in “literature lens groups,” they’re tasked with identifying and analyzing ideas through their assigned lenses as the class watches Shrek. I love how accessible the teacher made this abstract concept, even more an advanced course!
There are so many ways to introduce literature lenses into your classroom. Children’s books are a particularly fun way to engage the gradual release of responsibility for student readers. My high schoolers always think it’s cheesy to be reading The Giving Tree until we start having in-depth discussions about the elements of feminist critical theory represented in the book and then their minds are blown.
Another great way to practice reading using literature lenses in the classroom is to use hexagonal thinking. You know I’m a huge fan of this retrieval and connection strategy, and it can be a real challenge for students to connect together elements of an assigned or self-selected text to represent elements of one or more of the literature lenses.
As you can tell, my mind is absolutely racing with possibilities for bringing in this concept to my classroom. Have you done anything like this in your classrooms? I’d love to hear more in the comment section below!
Hey, if you loved this post, you’ll want to download a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading.
I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m excited to share some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.