Teaching Symbolism: How to Get More out of Literature

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We read Of Mice and Men as a class. Everyone liked it. I couldn’t wait to read the literary analysis essays about it. After the fourteenth consecutive D-, I realized nobody understood the broader meaning of the novel. I had failed in teaching symbolism. As a punishment, I hanged myself in effigy from the ceiling. I used a rolling chair. It darted out from under me. I fell on my head, received a third degree concussion, and lay unconscious. When I awoke, John Steinbeck stood over me, called me Lennie, pulled out a gun, and shot me, not with a bullet, but with a teaching symbolism lesson plan and strategies.

I share it with you.

Teaching Symbolism Background Information

Discuss the following concepts. Take notes where applicable:

Symbolism allows people to communicate beyond the limits of language.

Humans use symbolism all the time. Words themselves are mere symbols for something else.

A symbol is a person, place, or object that stands for something beyond itself.

National, religious, and cultural symbols have standard interpretations as well as a personal significance for each individual. For example, the American flag symbolizes the United States of America. The personal significance, however, varies. A U.S. army veteran cherishes its meaning. A terrorist, on the other hand, finds it despicable. A green piece of paper with George Washington’s picture on it symbolizes one dollar. A billionaire considers it chump change. A beggar considers it an elusive treasure.

This is an excellent exercise for teaching symbolism:

  1. Choose a well known religious, national, or cultural symbol
  2. write a (half) paragraph analyzing its meaning. Include the standard meaning along with a personal interpretation and a personal interpretation from someone else.
  3. The personal nature of the assignment makes it excellent for a paragraph challenge.

A literary symbol gains its meaning from the context of a literary work and often changes as the work develops.

Strategies and Procedures for Teaching Symbolism in Literature

Strategy: Look for references to concrete objects and analyze whether they could be symbols. Pay special attention to objects named in the title.

**Procedure:**Make a two-column chart. In the left column, write down the concrete object. In the right column, write what it may symbolize.

Strategy: Pay special attention to objects or places accompanied by a lengthy description, repetition, or special placement.

**Procedure:**Analyze the title. List objects mentioned more than once. List objects that appear at crucial moments.

Determine whether a place, object, or character is essential to the theme of a literary work.

Extension Activity: Write a literary symbol analysis. It should include the following:

  • A topic sentence that names the literary work and the symbol.

  • Possible interpretations for the symbol.

  • The symbol’s effect on the work as a whole.

  • The author’s purpose in using the symbol.

This post is part of the series: Language Arts lesson Plans

Check out these language arts lesson plans.

  1. Literature Lesson Plan: Teaching Symbolism
  2. Write an Eyewitness Account to Make Teaching Point of View Fun
  3. Lesson Plan: Stereotype Characters Activity
  4. Lesson Plan: Analyzing Humor in Literature
  5. Strategies for Analyzing Shakespeare’s Literary Devices