Words don’t always mean exactly what they say. To understand the significance of what they’re reading, students must be able to dig deeper than the surface-level literal meanings of words.

Part of that ability is becoming familiar with literary tropes and schemes, something that students can develop with careful reading and analysis. Practicing the following four tasks will help students achieve that goal.

1. Interpreting Figurative Language

Using figurative language allows writers to communicate ideas in more effective ways and with more impact than if they were restricted to using language literally.

Your students probably know the old standbys metaphor and simile pretty well—they’re two of the most common types of figurative language, and it’s usually fairly easy to identify them.

Writers can also convey and reinforce meaning through other figurative constructs, and students should be aware of them and how they work. Personification, hyperbole, allusion, epithet, and other devices are just some of the tools at a writer’s disposal.

2. 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 an unskilled author.

One way students can practice making inferences is to speculate on what’s going to happen in future chapters of the book they’re reading. To do this effectively, students must be able to support their ideas with evidence from the text.

3. Identifying Themes and Main Ideas

Learning to identify themes and main ideas is a great way for students to dig beneath the surface of a text. Usually, the message the author wants to deliver is not stated directly. Readers must determine themes and main ideas through careful examination of the events and other elements in the story.

However, extracting these ideas can be daunting. If your students struggle with identifying themes and main ideas, they may need some practice with easier or shorter texts. Short stories are great for this purpose.

To facilitate practice with shorter texts, have students work with passages in the story that help develop or reveal a theme or main idea, and then ask them to explain how the passage achieves that.

There are two main ways to scaffold this exercise:

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

With practice, students can apply their knowledge to longer and more complex works.

4. Identifying Subtext

The subtext is what lies beneath the words—what is implied rather than said or done. To identify subtexts, students need to pay very close attention to the text. Even seemingly trivial details can reveal an attitude or opinion buried in the work.

Subtexts aren’t always the result of conscious effort; authors may unintentionally introduce it. Joseph 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 challenge 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 it. For example, if students haven’t learned about the events of the Bolshevik Revolution and the brutal dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, they’re going to get less out of Animal Farm than they should. I’ve heard stories of students who thought that Jonathan Swift’s "A Modest Proposal" was an honest proposal and not a satirical piece. Historical context can help to reveal subtext and should be taught whenever possible.

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