Using literary theory in your classroom is a great way to help your students examine literature from different critical perspectives. Studying literature through multiple lenses can also really get your students engaged in what they're reading as they relate literature to the world around them.

But how do you get started, especially if you've never taught literary theory before?

Well, it's not as hard as you might think—at least, it doesn't have to be.

The Six Literary Theories

Before you introduce literary theory to your classroom, it’s important to understand the basics of the six core literary lenses:

The Formalist approach focuses less on interpreting a text’s meaning and more on analyzing how that meaning is communicated through literary techniques and devices.

The Feminist theory explores how gender is portrayed in literature and focuses on the power dynamics between male and female characters, whether female characters are as well-developed as the male characters, or whether there is deliberate or unintentional sexism throughout the book.

The Marxist theory is based on examining a piece of literature to see how it reveals class conflict, the differences between economic groups, and the difference between the material and spiritual.

The Mythological /Archetypal approach is based on the idea that every story is a retelling or reflection on one of the basic stories from the “collective unconscious,” or the combined knowledge of humankind, such as The Bible and the ancient Greek and Roman myths.

The New Historicism approach analyzes a piece of literature within its historical context, looking at both the author’s personal history and the cultural climate and events of the era in which the text was written.

The Psychological/Freudian theory examines the text’s symbols, characters, and author from the perspective of classical psychology—seeking to understand the hidden meanings and motivations of a work.

Literary theories emerged as ways to explain different people’s views and responses to literature. Rather than insisting that one view is the best or correct view, literary theory attempts to find value in all views that are based on a careful study of a text.

Start the Discussion

So, what do you do first? It's not a bad idea to give your students a survey that asks them what they personally think is important to keep in mind when reading literature. How does literature reflect society and cultural values? Is there a single “correct” interpretation of a book’s themes or meaning?

You'll want to structure this survey so that it asks multiple questions about each of the six literary theories. The answers you receive from your students will help you learn which theories they most identify with. Once you know this, you can tailor classroom activities and assignments to their preferences—and help them understand that other viewpoints are also valid.

Teaching students how to understand and respect other viewpoints—even if they don't agree with them—is one of the goals of teaching literary theory. A student doesn't have to become a proponent of a theory in order to do well in your classroom—they just have to understand how it works and show that they can use it to analyze literature.

Putting Literary Theory into Practice

Now that you know which students have an affinity for which theories, it's time to explore literary theory in a real-world context.

In an informal discussion, have your students explore the idea of what a book “means.” Ask specifically about the most recent book that you read together in class. When discussing the concept of “meaning,” try to introduce one or two potential literary theories as possible interpretations of the text.

At this stage, it might also help you to examine a simple story using one or all of the theories (for example, our Introduction to Literary Theory interactive presentation examines Cinderella from all six theories).

Studying literary theory has a reputation of being "only for advanced students," but this reputation is undeserved. Literary theory is for everyone. With a little work, a little practice, and a little patience, you can teach it to any class you like.