How to Teach Literary Techniques
Literary techniques make literature, literature. Without them, we’d be left with words and facts. Many literary devices take the reader away from reality in order to understand it better. It’s easy for students to get intimidated by the academic jargon … metonymy, onomatopoeia, juxtaposition, apostrophe, trochee, cacophony, chiasmus. I have a thousand-page book filled with literary techniques and terms. The terms are often long and awkward sounding, and not words you’d exchange in everyday conversation. But they are at the heart and soul of all communication, including songs, speeches, debates, essays, movies, and memes. Our students should be able to not only identify literary devices, but understand their purpose, their power to transform, to inspire. One need only read “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors” by James McPherson to see how figurative language can inspire action. There’s a whole set of terms associated with poetry, novels and short stories, rhetoric, and even grammatical structures.
It can feel overwhelming, but there is an easy way to teach literary techniques. I start the year with a PowerPoint that contains the fifteen most commonly used literary techniques – their definitions and an example. At the secondary level, there’s no reason to cover techniques that they might encounter only a handful of times. After receiving a list of definitions for reference, they practice identifying techniques with a partner and create a word wall so throughout the year they can remind themselves of a definition by simply looking at the wall. I then show examples of analytical sentences that quote and interpret the use of a specific technique. The point is not to say, hey, there’s a personification, it’s to show what extra layer of meaning reveals itself by thinking about why it’s there. The discussion should always revolve around what we learn about the character or situation as a result of looking closely at say, the arrangement of phrases and the significance of their order.
After this introductory exercise and a unit on poetry, we interpret techniques throughout the year as they come up, and only if identifying the technique will lead to a deeper understanding of the character or situation. Other than that, the point of learning literary techniques is not mere interpretation, it is the newfound ability that students have to use figurative language in their own personal narratives, poems, short stories, and creative nonfiction. The end goal of education is to forge new worlds, not get stuck in old ones.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers