4: Attending to Literary Devices

Literary devices include a wide variety of techniques employed by an author to add depth and create a sense of verisimilitude in a work of literature, often fiction.  Because literary devices, such as flashbacks or metaphors, provide a framework for a work of literature or for a segment of a work the readers who know a literary device is in use can also use that knowledge to engage with the text.  A list of common literary devices can be found in Figure 4.1. This knowledge, in turn, provides a framework a reader may use to determine the important attributes of the text and make predictions that are increasingly accurate.

Figure 4.1   Literary Terms that Lead to Better Predictions

Metaphors.  Because an author employs metaphor to draw attention to both the meaning conveyed and to attributes of the larger story, metaphors, as literary devices, may also help direct students’ attention to important elements of a poem, short story, or novel.  Sandburg’s famous poem mourning the loss of Abraham Lincoln is an extended metaphor. When the poet writes in

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The reader’s attention is focused on a difficult journey and the leader who guided the passengers safely home.  In this poem, the vehicle of the metaphor is a ship in a storm-tossed sea and the tenor of the poem is the grief felt at the loss of a beloved leader.    

Similes.  Like metaphors, similes compare two unlike objects.  And like metaphors, knowledge of how similes are employed in a written work can assist the reader by directing attention.  Similes differ from metaphors in that the comparison is stated directly.  In Sandburg’s poem, prior knowledge must be employed to infer that the poem is about Lincoln. In Robert Burns’ famous line, “O My luve’s like a red, red rose” there is no question what is being compared.

Foreshadowing. Literary devices that are presented in literature which lay the groundwork for later events are known as foreshadowing.  In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches in Act I, Scene 1 chant:

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

The reader learns in scene iii that the witches are very talented at causing confusion. Witch 2 tells Macbeth’s companion, Banquo, that he is, “Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.” Banquo’s role in the tragedy of Macbeth is foreshadowed and the savvy reader knows to pay attention to this character.

Flashbacks.  This literary device presents events that occurred chronologically before the opening scene or main timeline of the narration.  Flashbacks provide important information that is critical to understanding the events of the story to come and the nature of the characters that populate the story.  Able readers of literature pay attention any time the timeline skips backward because it will provide significant detail that can inform predictions about the motivation of characters and the subsequent events of the story.  Methods of taking the reader along during the flashback include “recollections of characters, narration by the characters, dream sequences, and reveries” (Holman & Harmon, 1992, p. 197).

In his own words: Jason Lefevre, The Salisbury School, Salisbury, Connecticut

Norman MacLean uses the fishing streams of his childhood to contemplate the emotions he feels about his deceased brother. This is an example of a “spot of time” in Norman MacLean’s life. MacLean chooses to write about his brother’s death more than thirty years after the murder happens, after life’s experiences have shaped his thoughts about his brother’s life and death.

I will ask my students to predict what they think the novella A River Runs Through It is about based on the information I have given them and the title of the novella. I have already put my students in pairs and asked them to read and clarify what they think they are reading. When Norman’s brother gambles incessantly, do they think this is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen? My students seem to do a good job of predicting the more obvious points of a piece, but they have trouble with the thematic objectives of the author. I will need to help my students understand the role of fishing as a family to the novella. As I clarify some of the more obscure points of the novella, other areas of the story will become easier for my students to understand.

Learning to Predict

  1. Students need to know what the literary device is and how it is employed. This should not be a guessing game for students.  Learners need assistance in determining what the relevant attributes are for a given problem (Gick & Holyoak, 1983; Holyoak and Thagard, 1995).  If a teacher wants students to identify a relevant metaphor, then students’ attention needs to be explicitly drawn to that metaphor.  Sending students on a protracted search for a metaphor that the teacher already has in mind frequently ends in frustration for both the teacher and the students.
  2. Once students recognize a particular literary device in a work of literature, they are then in a position to use that knowledge to make predictions about what might happen and how that contributes to other aspects of literary experience. In The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), the main character wonders early in the story what it is like to be inside a burning ember as he lights a cigarette.  Teachers can help students as novice readers to recognize this as foreshadowing events that occur later in the work, which add depth to the story and assist savvy readers to know something about that character, Ponyboy.   Later in the novel, Ponyboy does end up inside a burning church saving some children from the flames.  This event is pivotal as the plot develops.
  3. Students can be encouraged to make a note of these literary devices as they are encountered and when the teacher or a peer points them out using a literature response journal. In this way, students become more conversant with vocabulary of literary devices and the concepts those terms represent.

Applications and Examples

Secondary Classroom. Jason Lefevre wants his high school students to use literary devices to enrich their experience with the novella, A River Runs Through It (Maclean, 1976).  He writes about teaching students of “spots of time,” a term given to any moment in one’s life that has occurred in the past and has not been fully understood as to the influential qualities this moment has on the person’s life.  In this example, Mr. Lefevre uses questions to point out elements of the plot that may foreshadow future events in the story.

Norman Maclean uses the fishing streams of his childhood to contemplate the emotions he feels about his deceased brother. This is an example of a “spot of time” in Norman Maclean’s life. Maclean chooses to write about his brother’s death more than thirty years after the murder happens, after life’s experiences have shaped his thoughts about his brother’s life and death.

Mr. Lefevre asks his students to predict what they think the novella A River Runs Through It is about based on the information he has given them and the title of the novella. Mr. Lefevre’s students are comfortable working in pairs and he asks them to read and clarify what they think they are reading. When Norman’s brother gambles incessantly, do they think this is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen? Mr. Lefevre’s students seem to do a good job of predicting the more obvious points of a piece, but they have trouble with the thematic objectives of the author. He guides his students to understand the role of fishing as a family to the novella. As he clarifies some of the more obscure points of the novella, other areas of the story will become easier for the students to understand.

Figure 4.2

Profiles, Cognitive Strategies, and Instructional Routines
Profile Description Cognitive Strategies Instructional Routines
1.        Literalists Look for all answers to all types of questions to be stated in the text. Accessing background and prior knowledge, making inferences, making connections, making and asking for clarifications. KWL, QAR, DR-TA, reciprocal teaching
2.       Fuzzy Thinkers Provide vague, ambiguous, or trite responses. Visualizing, summarizing, attending to text features, generating questions, making and asking for clarifications. Reciprocal teaching, graphic organizers, anticipation guides
3.        Left Fielders Generate unpredictable ideas that seem to have no real connection to the text. Summarizing, Making inferences. Metacognitive double-entry journals, guided reading and summarizing procedure.
4.        Quiz Contestants Provide answers that are logically correct but disconnected from the text. Making textually-implicit inferences, generating questions. QAR, reciprocal teaching, Metacognitive double-entry journals.
5.        Politicians Use slogans or platitudes that sound meaningful but are not text connected. Generating and responding to questions. QAR, anticipation guides, cliffhanger
6.        Dodgers Change the question and then respond to the new one. Responding to questions, making textually-implicit inferences, attending to text features. QAR, hot seat
7.        Authors Create their own story lines and story details. Visualizing, summarizing, attending to literary devices. QAR, guided reading and summarizing procedure, KWL.
8.        Minimalists Provide no elaboration of responses, resulting from lack of confidence or fear of failure. Summarizing, visualizing, making inferences, accessing background and prior knowledge. Think aloud, hot seat, reciprocal teaching.

 

Source: Adapted from Applegate, M. D., Quinn, K. B., & Applegate, A. J. (2006).  Profiles in comprehension.  The Reading Teacher, 60, 48-57.

Elementary Classroom. Importantly, literary devices are not the sole realm of secondary school English teachers.  Authors use literary devices all of the time, across texts that people of all ages read.  During her small group reading instruction, Ms. Allen asked her fifth-grade students to notice the author’s use of color as a symbol in the book Rose Blanche (illustrated by Innocenti, 1985).  Noticing the colors the illustrator used in the text allowed students to develop their sense of symbolism and to better understand the subtle transitions the author was making as the story progressed. As Tino noted while reading this text, “Oh, the sky changed to grey here.  That’s not a good sign.  I think that some things are gonna happen that are even worse than the trucks in the streets and the soldiers being strict.”

Figure 4.2 In his own words: Jason Lefevre, The Salisbury School, Salisbury, Connecticut

Norman MacLean uses the fishing streams of his childhood to contemplate the emotions he feels about his deceased brother. This is an example of a “spot of time” in Norman MacLean’s life. MacLean chooses to write about his brother’s death more than thirty years after the murder happens, after life’s experiences have shaped his thoughts about his brother’s life and death.

I will ask my students to predict what they think the novella A River Runs Through It is about based on the information I have given them and the title of the novella. I have already put my students in pairs and asked them to read and clarify what they think they are reading. When Norman’s brother gambles incessantly, do they think this is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen? My students seem to do a good job of predicting the more obvious points of a piece, but they have trouble with the thematic objectives of the author. I will need to help my students understand the role of fishing as a family to the novella. As I clarify some of the more obscure points of the novella, other areas of the story will become easier for my students to understand.

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