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Curricula and Learning Links - Language Arts

The Purpose of Studying Literature

Why should students study literature? A homeschooling mother asked this question on's message boards. She understood the benefits of reading literature: increased vocabulary, appreciation of complex sentence structure, and the sense of understanding one can develop from literature's timeless themes. But, she did not see the point of analyzing the literature, its plot, characters, setting, and so on. The following discussion ensued.

I agreed until last year. Then I become convicted that the process of analyzing itself was the point. I do agree that we can over do the technique and actually make our students hate literature instead of love it. By taking apart a story or a character, we get to see the inner workings of the piece. I think it is similar to dissection in biology. A little goes a long way. Hopefully, literature gives our kids a chance to experience situations they wouldn't encounter every day. But they do get a chance to say that fellow in the book acted with integrity. Next time I've faced with a situation, I'll act with integrity. By analyzing and studying a piece, they experience the concepts and story on a deeper level. We do this a lot with movies, even TV shows. It is a process of learning to look a little deeper, find the hidden symbols, and 'get' the story more. Read a bunch, and dissect a few. It's about learning to think.- Deb McTexas

As someone who used to teach it professionally, I'd argue there's a pretty good reason. Think of it as a brain exercise. When you take something that is a whole and learn to break it down into its summary parts, you're learning to reason and think outside of just what you see right in front of your face.

Exploring how plot, characterization, setting, etc. all influence the theme of a work has the same impact on your brain as working out a puzzle. You're learning to reason. Think about what a lawyer or detective does--- they get all the pieces of the puzzle (the crime scene, the evidence, etc.) and put it together to get to the whole; they must then break that whole (the crime) down into its pieces to make it more understandable for their audience.

I also used to point out to my students that sometimes there are benefits to learning something just for the sake of learning. If we only learned that which we thought was going to help us in our job somewhere down the line, we'd have pretty bland lives because you'd basically have to drop TV, movies, music, most books, games, etc. - ShelleyM

There are distinct differences between bad writing and good writing and between good writing and great writing. Most people, however, have little notion of the difference. Studying literature ought to help us be discerning.

Studying literature should also make us more insightful, analytical readers. I find, for example, my knowledge of literary forms and techniques helps me make sense of the Bible. It also gives me an appreciation for its beauty.

Far too many people think of literary study as some sort of dispassionate, ultra-rational diagnosis akin to frog dissection. That's not it. Good teachers of literature do not rob a work of its beauty and power, but leads young readers into a greater appreciation of it. I guess what I'm saying is that your objection to literary study is really only an objection to bad literary study.

Because I love literature, I can't help doing literary analysis. When I love a book, it is natural for me to want to understand why I love it. Why did the conclusion of [a particular book] have such a profound affect on me? That gets me thinking--and talking, sometimes writing--about character and prose style, plot, setting, theme and an author's perspective, and (in this case) about race and culture and history.

When a kid says, "I read that. It was boring." He is engaging in literary analysis. Bad literary analysis. Our job is to help him to read for more than titillation. To guide him into the great joy and intellectual pleasure of books. Brian in VA

Additional Reading

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster

An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis