Teaching Symbolism for Literary Analysis

Teaching symbolism: ideas for making it meaningful to secondary students.

Teaching symbolism for literary analysis… students may have difficulty understanding all of its implications.

A favorite literary term? Symbolism is a strong contender for me. When I teach The Great Gatsby, I must remind myself not to spend too much of a lesson mapping out characters and their colors. When I teach A Raisin in the Sun, I can’t (well, I probably COULD) spend a week discussing Mama’s plant. Not everyone is as excited as I am, and we must move to other ideas! One of the greatest parts of symbolism is the way it connects to other pieces of the story, and that is what our standards ask us to achieve.

Another great part of symbolism discussion is the varying interpretations students have. Because symbolism is largely open to interpretation, it can be difficult to find agreement, especially with older students looking to quarrel for the sake of quarreling. I learn about my student and the applications from their lives that they apply to literature. Our symbolism class discussions are often some of our best discussions.

Students can really get involved with symbolism, and that is wonderful. Once they grasp the concept, they enjoy reading more. An understanding of the literary term symbolism greatly improves students’ approaches to English class. If you need ideas to start your symbolism discussions, here are a few methods for teaching symbolism for literary analysis.

The literary term symbolism - might overwhelm secondary students because the possibilities for analysis are endless. Follow a few of these tricks when teaching symbolism.

Explain colors.

Symbolism in literature is there though, especially concerning colors. Authors purposely place colors in literature for a deeper understanding of characters, setting, etc. When students associate colors with another component, they have a better connection to their reading. Ask students to search for “color psychology wheel.” They will find lots of explanations of colors and hidden meanings. Using those can become a fun conversation when students disagree with explanations.

To prompt students to find these colors, show students how colors portray meaning. I use a car commercial: This Santa commercial for Mercedes-Benz caught my attention the other day. As Santa rolls out the cars, the road is labeled “nice” on one side, “naughty” on the other. Red cars are for naughty, white for nice, of course. White is pure and clean, while red is blood and dangerous. It’s a quick clip to introduce the literary term ‘symbolism’ or to emphasize colors and meaning in literature.

I additionally review the setting of a story with colors. Students map out each setting and then review what each color is associated with a certain setting. Then, they can draw conclusions. What is the author illustrating by associating gray with a certain location? black? blue?

Finally, another alternative to start a discussion about symbolism is by asking students where they have heard of colors with expressions. Brainstorm a list with them: feeling blue, green with envy, white as a ghost, feeling sunny. How do colors symbolize a message in expressions?

Explain everyday gestures.

Our gestures symbolize a message. Don’t let students use their middle fingers, but yes, that gesture symbolizes something.

In our culture, we use the “ok” symbol, “thumbs up” symbol, and the “winding finger” for goofy or silly. Other cultures use different gestures. When politicians or diplomats travel, they are briefed about the culture’s expectations for gestures.

When students especially struggle with symbolism, this is the trick I use for connecting symbolism to prior knowledge. Students use symbolism in their lives. We just have to find it.

Explain common symbols.

When I don’t introduce symbols with colors, I ask students to tell me what symbols are associated with common objects or ideas. I’m in America, so I often mention:

  • Freedom (the flag)
  • Teachers (an apple)
  • Peace (a dove or olive branch)
  • Wisdom (owl)

And on! Building off students’ prior knowledge and proving to them that they do already understand (at least part of) symbols nicely begins discussions. At the start of each school year, images float around the Internet and on advertising. What are they? Why symbols are associated with school?

Explain intangible symbols.

Sometimes, symbols are abstract with intangible symbols. The smell of pine, for example, often symbolizes winter or winter holidays. Bleach or chlorine symbolizes pool water and summer.

Love is often symbolized by intangible items: hearts, pulse, a complete circle.

Explain weather.

The symbol of weather is often foreshadowing or highlighting emotions of characters or pieces of the plot. To start this discussion, ask students what emotions an author conveys in literature. They might say:

  • love
  • hope
  • sadness
  • anger
  • excitement
  • foreboding

The list is not super important, but try to get several emotions for a nice discussion. Then ask students to identify which piece of weather makes sense with an emotion. Before long, students will be applying symbolism and reimagining ideas for their own writing.

Would you like a PDF with these ideas in one spot? You can gain access by clicking on this image:

I often talk about symbolism if I see an example during First Chapter Friday. Students don’t always need a huge lesson; they need realistic examples. When you can tie the concept of symbolism to prior knowledge, students will be ready for literary analysis. Try one of these approaches for teaching symbolism for literary analysis.