Teaching Symbolism


Teaching Symbolism
by Tracee Orman

Symbols take many forms in literature and non-fiction: characters/people, objects, events, places, and more. Writers will often use symbols to introduce, convey, and reinforce a theme. And even though symbols are all around us and used daily to relay messages, students struggle with identifying, analyzing, and simply understanding symbols in literature.

To help our students, we can take a few simple steps before and during reading that will allow them to gain deeper meaning into the themes and the text overall.

We use symbolism every day. Emojis are probably the most widely used symbols for communicating various messages, emotions, and ideas. It helps to point out to students that they are already utilizing symbolism in this way. 

Ask students to remember the last emoji they posted on social media or in a text message. What did it imply to the recipient? Did it need context for its message to be clear? For example, a symbol such as a cake with candles 🎂 doesn’t really need context to understand it’s implying a birthday. But a bomb symbol 💣 would obviously need a frame of reference to understand its intended message. 

Explain to your students that symbols in literature come with many context clues that help readers understand the meanings.

Students love puzzles and games. Framing symbolism as a puzzle or mystery to be figured out can help with the buy-in. Tell them there are clues scattered throughout the text that will help them solve the mystery. 

Direct them to look closely at:
• the title of the work
• physical objects
• characters
• events
• places

They should also make note of any recurring images, items/objects, or past events. Repetition of any of these is a big clue that it’s a symbol. 

Download this FREE handout (also includes digital version for sharing on a secured site) to help guide your students while they are reading. It can be used with any novel, short story, play, or poem.

Once students have identified a symbol, they should look for context clues for the writer’s meaning. Sometimes the writer will imply the meaning and readers must infer it. Have your students look for the use of figurative language such as metaphors. Using the comparison, students can infer the meaning of the symbol. 

For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the author writes, "My father was particularly fond of mockingjays. When we went hunting, he would whistle or sing complicated songs to them and, after a polite pause, they’d always sing back. ...there’s something comforting about the little bird. It’s like having a piece of my father with me, protecting me.” (pages 43-44) Collins uses a comparison between the narrator’s father and the mockingjay pin. Students can infer that the mockingjay pin becomes of symbol of security in this moment.

It’s important to note, of course, that symbols can evolve and change throughout the text. In The Hunger Games, for instance, the mockingjay’s meaning will transform and deepen by the end of the novel and series. 

Symbols can take on different meanings for different readers, so it’s essential to keep an open mind when students are analyzing the text. There have been many, many times throughout the years where students have analyzed the text in ways I had not considered. Our ultimate goal should be to allow them to find that deeper meaning and understanding of the text rather than shoot it down because it’s not what’s on the answer key. 

If you are looking for more examples and details, I have a Google Slides presentation (it can be downloaded as a PowerPoint, as well) that covers everything here with detailed examples and a student handout. 

My Coffee Shop friends also have some excellent resources to help teach symbolism. Check them out here:

Symbolism and Allegory by Nouvelle ELA

Literary Analysis Flip Book by The Daring English Teacher

Thanks for reading, Friends!

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