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A High School Student’s Guide to Critically Reading Literature

written by: Stephanie Torreno • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 1/5/2012

Students read many types of literature throughout high school. To appreciate a variety of literature and to complete assignments involving these works, students need to understand how to read critically. Learn how to read literature critically to evaluate and interpret an author’s work.

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    Read the Work More Than Once

    'When assigned literature to read, you should first read the work from beginning to end. Even if you do not understand parts of the work, reading it completely will let you become familiar with the work’s language and structure. Reading the entire piece will also give you an initial reaction to the work.

    During the second reading, you should write notes in the margins or on a separate piece of paper. Write down how characters, settings, and specific events made you think and feel. Make notes about the plot, the main characters, the setting and changes of scenes, and important descriptions or descriptive passages.

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    Form a Reading Group

    Plays and poems should be read aloud. If you will not be reading an assigned play in class, form a group of classmates to read it together. Since poetry is a spoken art form, reading it aloud, even to yourself, allows you to hear the sounds and rhythms of words, phrases, and lines. Reading it with others will help you visualize the poem’s images and understand the ideas.

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    Look for Meaning and Images in Poetry

    When reading a poem, you should look at the title first. Then, read to see how the topic, the setting, and the speaker contribute to the meaning. Read the end of the poem to see where it goes. Divide the poem into parts to see how it is organized and how it proceeds.

    Pay attention to the tone of the poem, or the attitude toward its subject with the kind of words used. As you begin to understand where the poem is going, try to look for various elements of the poem and how they work to create its meaning. This often includes figurative language, which paints images and symbols to represent things in the natural world.

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    See the Differences in Reality in Fiction

    In literature, readers must pay attention to plot, or the events that take place to create meaning. The plot takes place in the setting, which also adds to the meaning of the story. When reading, ask yourself how the setting adds to the different situations and important events of the story.

    In most plots, characters are introduced and usually depict traits of human nature. Characters may represent only a few traits, or they may represent very complex conflicts and emotions. A character can be the narrator, or a person (or more than one person) who tells the story. The narrator or narrators will see events from a certain perspective and have attitudes toward the events and other characters. This is called point of view, and this perspective is a key issue in figuring out the meaning of the work. Fiction will have figurative language, too, which will be used to describe and understand characters.

    Fiction attempts to represent reality in some way. Often, reality is represented in different ways through symbols and codes of human meaning and systems. Fiction, for example, may represent every day events and stick closely to place and time. Then again, fiction may represent moral or spiritual aspects through symbols, characters, or improbable events. Authors use fiction to offer a complex understanding of the world. As you read fiction, try to notice the differences and similarities between the world the author creates and the world you inhabit.

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    Read Critically for Further Understanding

    Reading literature critically adds to your understanding and enjoyment of the story or work. When you learn how to read literature in this way, you should not just think about the story itself. You should think about the way the author wrote it and any other meanings that may exist.