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How to Get Students to Answer Questions About Literature

Posted by Emily Guthrie on Apr 29, 2014 7:20:18 AM

Today, I want to share with you some of my rules for answering questions about literature. Please leave a comment with any additions or questions you have!  Together we can make a master list and raise the bar in classrooms around the country!

 To get the answers you want to see, you must let students know how to answer

How to Answer Questions About Literature in This Class:

  • Always use complete sentences.  In addition to the typical grammar rules, this means always using proper capitalization, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Answer the question.  This sounds obvious, but when we get in a hurry or forget to pay careful attention, we can easily answer the question we want to answer instead of the one being asked.
  • Beware of sentences that begin with the following words: because, that, and so.  Only yield those powers if you can control them.
  • Generally, authors should be referred to by last name. You may not refer to them by first name only and you should avoid Mr. and Ms.
  • Know your audience.  If you are not directly speaking to me, avoid use of second person (you).  If you are referring to a play or speech, you probably want to discuss the audience.  If you are referring to a book or story, you may mean the reader or another character.
  • When discussing poetry, do not confuse the author and the speaker.
  • Always use precise vocabulary.  Instead of saying that something is good, try to say that it is significant or ethical or delicious.
  • Remove slang, clichés, and emoticons.
  • Use strong verbs. Avoid words like said, quoted, or this also shows...
  • Pay special attention to parallelism.
  • Avoid unnecessary cheerleading.  I know Harper Lee is awesome, but let’s stick to a more sophisticated analysis of her work.
  • When quoting, be sure select quotes that actually prove your point.
  • When quoting, select short phrases and smoothly embed them in your sentences. Generally avoid long or stand alone quotes.
  • When quoting, use an ellipsis (…) to omit words from the middle of a quote.
  • When quoting, use [brackets] to add words that clarify within the quote.
  • Generally, literature is referred to in the present tense.  It is important that tense stays consistent in your work.
  • English/Humanities courses abide by MLA format.  When in doubt, check The Owl @ Purdue.

Sample Question and Answers:

Sample Question:

How does Robert Browning use language to set a tone in his dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover”? Be sure to name that tone.

Strong Answers:

  • Browning creates a foreboding tone by personifying the “sullen wind” as it “tore the elm-tops down for spite” and “did its worst to vex the lake” (Browning 42).
    • Note the smoothly embedded quotes, strong verb and precise language. 
  • Browning sets an ominous tone as he describes the speaker’s “heart fit to break” and Porphyria’s struggle with “pride and vainer ties” (Browning 42).
    • Note the attention to the speaker and parallel construction.

Weak Answers:

  • Robert says, “sullen wind” as it “tore the elm-tops down for spite” and “did its worst to vex the lake” (Browning 42).
    • Do not refer to an author by first name.  Also, “says” in this case is a weak verb and the embedding is not smooth.
  • Browning sets a bad tone.
    • This answer lacks evidence and uses imprecise language. 
  • Browning gives you scary tone with “sullen wind” as it “tore the elm-tops down for spite” and “did its worst to vex the lake” (Browning 42).
    • “Gives” is a weak verb.  Take out you.  Embed quotes more smoothly.
  • Browning writes a beautiful poem by personifying the “sullen wind” as it “tore the elm-tops down for spite” and “did its worst to vex the lake” (Browning 42).
    • The cheerleading does not answer the question. 
  • Browning sets an ominous tone when “she put my arm about her waist” (Browning 42).
    • The embedded quote does not support the answer and if it did, it sill needs some work with brackets to clarify and smooth out the sentence. 

Click here for a word document with this info that you can modify to suit your classroom! (It should save to your downloads folder) Don't forget to leave your 2 cents in the comment box below and check back every week for more!

Topics: assessment, Literary Analysis/Reading Strategies, Literature, resources, teaching tips

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