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Literary Criticism Essay Prompt For High School

This post on how to approach the PARCC Literary Analysis Writing Task offers new material developed by Sarah Tantillo. Also see her 2nd post in this series: teaching Compare and Contrast. For more prep ideas, visit her TLC Blog.

By Sarah Tantillo

As we all strive to help our students meet and exceed the Common Core Standards, one reality we also have to prepare them for is the standardized assessments they will face.

Depending on what state you live in, your students might take the PARCC, the SBAC, or something else. In my home state of New Jersey, we’re gearing up for the PARCC, so I’ve been developing materials to support teachers in that arena. Even if your students are taking a different assessment, I think you’ll find the writing instructional process described here of use.

In addition to reading comprehension questions (some traditional multiple-choice, some using newfangled drag-and-drop or other tech-enabled formats), the PARCC includes three writing tasks:

(1)    Narrative Writing based on a literary text, typically along the lines of “continue this story”: for more information, click here.

(2)    Research Writing based on two pieces of nonfiction and a video, often involving either historical or scientific content: for more information, click here.

(3)    Literary Analysis Writing, which typically requires students to compare and contrast two pieces of literature that deal with a common theme. This post explains how to prepare students for Literary Analysis Writing.

Here are the materials you will need for this lesson series:

Day 1: Focus on Unpacking the Prompt

1. Show students Sample Writing Prompt #1 and note that it appears in two parts (preliminary language and a later elaboration).

2. Show Sample Exemplary Response #1 so that students can see what the final product should look like.

3. Show students the Generic Template for the literary analysis writing task for your grade level, noting that the language is predictable, so once they’ve seen a few of these, they will become more comfortable with the task.

Here is a generic template for grade 6 PARCC literary analysis writing task (pulled from the practice test found at: http://parcc.pearson.com/practice-tests/english/):

4. Cross-reference the template with Sample Writing Prompt #1 so they can see where the generic language is. (Later, you might want to give them practice in writing their own prompts, using texts you’ve selected.)

5. Make this pitch to students: It’s important to unpack the prompt and turn it into a clear QUESTION so that we can annotate the text as we go and save time because then we won’t have to re-read each of the texts 4 times. Here is the question I derived from the 6th grade prompt above:

“How do these two texts develop the theme of freedom? In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different?” (Note: For more information on why and how to turn writing prompts into questions, see my blog post here.)

6. Then model how to turn Sample Writing Prompt #2 into a question. If time permits, dive into annotating the First Text for Prompt #2.

Day 2: Focus on How to Annotate Texts

Remind students that we annotated the prompt so that we can annotate the text as we go and save time because then we won’t have to re-read each of the texts 4 times. Then model how to annotate the First Text for Prompt #2. I recommend two steps, which can be done either at the same time or first one then the other:

Step #1: Electronically highlight the arguments/main ideas/topic sentences and relevant evidence. The online PARCC assessment includes a highlighting tool with four color choices. I recommend blue/green for arguments (“Go forward with your argument; go green.”) and yellow for relevant evidence (because it’s bright and easy to see when skimming). Make the pitch that highlighting will enable students to skim quickly and find information they need to review when writing, so they won’t have to read every word of every text multiple times.

Step #2: The Literary Analysis Writing Tasks typically require students to compare and contrast two different texts. The secret truth about Venn diagrams is that they were designed for mathematicians who wanted to discuss set theory, not for essay writers who wanted to organize ideas. So I’ve created an organizer (below) that is more user-friendly for writers.

After students have taken notes on both texts (in the “Key points” boxes), they should go over their notes and put checkmarks next to any items that both texts have in common. Then they can identify key differences and jot a few notes in those bottom boxes. On a blank piece of paper, they should create this chart:

Day 3: More Annotation Practice

Invite students to help you annotate the Second Text for Response #2 and take notes on the 2-column chart. Day 2 was about modeling (“I Do”). Now you can move into the “We Do” phase.

Day 4: Finish the Notes

Go through the notes and invite students to put checkmarks next to items that both texts have in common. Then model how to add notes about important differences. Give students some guidance on how to determine “what’s important.” Depending on how much time you have, you may be able to move into “Day 5” work.

Days 5-6: Move from Notes to Writing

1. As you begin modeling how to write based on the notes, revisit Sample Exemplary Writing Response #1 and explain how the parts of that essay work:

  • Intro: 1-2 sentences (Address the prompt by restating it and give a thesis.)
  • Body 1: Contrast
  • Body 2: Contrast
  • Body 3: Compare
  • Conclusion: Punchy ending: Ultimately, what conclusion or conclusions do they come to about the theme?

Invite students to help you explain how each part of the essay functions and let them critique the piece in relation to the PARCC Writing Rubric: What score would they give it, and why?

2. Then you have several options: (1) Hand out your pre-created Sample Exemplary Response #2 and invite students to explain how it accomplishes the task and meets the criteria for the PARCC Writing Rubric. (2) Conduct the writing process as a “write-aloud,” inviting students to help you compose. (3) Let students try to write their own.

Subsequent Days

What you do next will depend on your last decision. One thing is for certain: a major next step is to give students a fresh prompt and texts and let them work through the entire process on their own.

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Sarah Tantillo writes frequently for MiddleWeb about literacy and the Common Core. She is the author of Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action and The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction. Sarah consults with schools on literacy instruction, curriculum development, data-driven instruction, and school culture-building. Sarah has taught high school English and Humanities in both suburban and urban public schools, including the high-performing North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. Visit her website to learn about accessing a vast ELA resource base.


and using scissors and crayons to do it

Literary analysis is hard, and writing about it is even harder. I teach IB and Pre-IB and even these (mostly) keen and able students struggle to write effective analysis that flows from one idea to the next. I've written before about how I scaffold the steps they need to analyze . In that post, I wrote of the need to let kids learn a process and that it's ok for them to struggle.  This semester, we've spent a lot of time focused on the both the process and the struggle and now it's time to get more serious about writing about lit.

Today, I'd like to share with you the things I've been doing with my classes to teach them how to write good literary paragraphs and essays.

I've learned over the years that good instruction is not enough. If I want my kids to learn to write a certain way, I need to give them a model shows them what I expect. This works even better when I find ways for them to interact with the model, beyond just reading it.

This week, we were finishing up A Separate Peace. They had done some group presentations on the themes of the novel, and I wanted to wrap things up with a paragraph that analyzes character. They were instructed to choose one character-istic of Gene or Finny, and to illustrate multiple ways Knowles developed this characteristic. 

I wrote a sample literary paragraph; then, I blew each sentence of the paragraph up, and cut them into strips. Next, I clipped the strips together in random order. The students went into their usual groups and had to put the strips back into their proper order.

It was the first time I'd ever done this, and I loved how it worked. The kids were having great conversations:  this strip must come after that one because the transition refers back to that idea. I think this goes here because it develops the point made in that strip. I was so proud to hear them using the language and skills that I had taught them. 

For homework, I gave them another paragraph that modelled what I wanted them to do for their assignment on character and had them label the following: 
my assertion, plot used for context, plot used for evidence, analysis and transitions. Had I thought of it, I would have given them crayons to colour each of these things, but unfortunately I didn't have that brainwave until later. However, I did colour-code my answer key, which I projected on the screen for them when we went over their work.

This approach is quite a departure from what I used to do in the early years of my teaching. I always used mentor texts, but they would be on a handout with the student instructions and we would just read through them together. Now, I make sure they have several opportunities to work with the model before they write.


Last year, about this time, I wrote about using my To Kill a Mockingbird discussion stations, and I think it's time to write about them again -- and not just because that's what my class is doing! No, I want to tell you about them because I know that they are a really effective way to get the students engaged with the text. More importantly, the cards allow them to discuss many different issues associated with the text in a way that a few pre-reading writing prompts never could.

Yesterday, as I floated around between groups, I heard students who were highly engaged in their discussions; I even had to tell a few to turn the volume down a bit, because they were so excited about their debate.  The sweet thing is that they didn't even know they were discussing the novel. But, when they do have their first novel discussion today, they will be able to draw on the ideas they explored during these pre-reading stations.

So, that's what's working in Room 213. Have you tried anything this week that you were excited about? Please share in the comments :)

Happy teaching!

Room 213

Focusing on learning how to learn in secondary English classes.

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