Go Beyond Literal Meaning

For students to understand the significance or meaning of a text — what the text is trying to say about people and the world in which we live — they have to be able to dig deeper than the surface-level, literal meanings of the words on the page.

Part of being able to go beyond literal meaning is becoming familiar with literary tropes and schemes, something that students can develop with a lot of careful reading and thought. And part of it is practicing the four tasks below.

Interpreting figurative language

Authors use figurative language for many reasons. One of these reasons is that it helps authors make their points with more emotional impact than would be possible with strictly literal language.

Of course, your students probably know the old standbys metaphor and simile pretty well — they're two of the most common examples of figurative language, and it's usually fairly easy to identify them when they show up in a text.

Writers can convey and reinforce meaning through other figurative constructs, however, and students should be aware of these and their possible effects on texts:

  • personification
  • hyperbole
  • allusion
  • pun
  • symbolism
  • idiom
  • alliteration

Making inferences

The ability to make inferences based on evidence from the text is key to being able to identify themes and main ideas. It's also key to extracting information that the text might not explicitly present — a character's motivations, for example. Students who can infer a character's motivations are better equipped to evaluate whether a novel's action arises organically from its characters or is shoehorned in by a clumsy author.

One way for students to practice making inferences is for them to offer speculation on what's going to happen in future chapters of the book they're reading. Students need to be able to support this speculation with evidence from the text — they need to support their ideas with facts.

Identifying themes/main ideas

Learning to identify themes and main ideas is a great way for students to dig beneath the surfaces of texts. Most texts don't come right out and state their moral; instead, literary texts require the reader to determine themes and main ideas through careful examination of the events they depict.

Extracting these ideas from some texts, however, is harder than others. If your students struggle with identifying main ideas and themes, they may need some practice with easier, shorter texts — short stories are great for this purpose.

As part of their practice with these shorter/easier texts, students should be encouraged to locate portions of the text that help develop or reveal a theme or main idea. Once they cite that portion of a text, they can explain how the text cited develops a theme or main idea.

Scaffolding this exercise can go at least two ways:

  1. Tell students the theme or main idea and ask them to identify passages in the text that develop/reveal it
  2. Highlight several passages from the text that develop/reveal the main idea or theme and ask students to identify that main idea or theme

With some practice, students can start to apply their knowledge to longer/more complex texts.​

Identifying subtext

Subtext is what lies underneath the words — what is not said or done in the text, but is implied. Subtexts aren't always the result of conscious effort; authors may unintentionally introduce subtext. Conrad may or may not have intended to introduce a racist subtext to his anti-Imperialist treatise Heart of Darkness, but it can be extrapolated from the text nonetheless.

The trouble with subtext is that it can come into play in a variety of ways, and students may not always have the knowledge they need to see the subtext. For example, if students don't learn about the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and the brutal dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, they're going get less out of Animal Farm than they should. I've heard stories of students who thought that Swift's Modest Proposal was an honest proposal and not a satirical piece. Historical context can help to reveal subtext and should be taught whenever possible.

To identify subtexts, students need to pay very close attention to the text; even seemingly picayune details can reveal an attitude or opinion buried in the work.


How do you teach your students to look more deeply into texts? Let us know in the comments.