R J Comeau - Curriculum Design & Research

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Teachers in the humanities are often seeking ways to help students deepen their analytical skills, in class discussions, projects and essays. For a student struggling to read a difficult passage, a competent summary can feel like analysis. Without coaching, text-to-self connections can languish on the surface, leaving deeper understanding untapped. This page reflects my 16 years of experience teaching high school seniors to think more deeply about our texts and themselves, through modeling, coaching, and direct instruction of analysis.

What analysis is

I explain to my high school students that analysis comes from a Greek word that means “to break apart.” Analysis, I tell them, helps us go beyond the surface to what’s hidden inside. It reveals deeper truths, structures, contradictions, and symmetries. It helps us make sense of a complex world, so we might live in it more wisely. In academic work, it helps us “go beyond the information given, into difficult terrain” (Perkins 1995). Analysis helps us see what others miss, and go places where others had not dreamt, or dared.  In sharing our analysis, we expand our vision, our collective courage, our community of knowledge, as it brings us further together than we could ever go alone.

What analysis isn’t

So, if analysis is revealing what’s hidden, it is not pointing out something that’s obvious, something that’s right on the surface for anyone to see. Drawing a line on what counts as analysis is a challenge for many teachers, who are happy if the students are participating at all. They fear hurting the feelings of a student who offers an effort at analysis that’s really just a summary of a text, or a cliché from common wisdom. However, if we take seriously our mission of preparing students for the demands of college and career, we must ask students to think harder, and do better than pointing out what’s obvious. In my experience, students are resilient, and rise to a challenge. When asked to do real analysis, and given the necessary coaching, they will do it. If they aren’t asked for the real thing, they generally won’t deliver, and they will not develop the skills to do so in the future.

Center it around a text

When asking for analysis from students, having a text to analyze is essential to the enterprise. The text will ground their analysis in specifics, and give opportunities for providing evidence to support their arguments. Conversations on topics ungrounded in texts tend to become unwieldy, undisciplined, unspecific, and un-evidenced. I’m not saying that there’s no place for discussions without texts, but when developing deeper analysis with students, having a text is essential. Texts need not and should not be solely print-based, though analytical reading ranks among the cardinal virtues for college success. Texts for analysis include films, media clips, art, photographs, buildings, physical objects, music, audio – almost anything can be a text if it can be read closely, if it has surface and depth, if it is something analysis can break apart to reveal something hidden.

Developing skills

Introducing high school students to deeper analysis can be done through modeling by the teacher, by reading professional examples of analytical texts with students, and most importantly, by coaching them through their efforts at deeper thinking. Modeling can take the form of a think-aloud as the teaching works at analyzing a text, or can come through assistance to student efforts, where the teaching shows what deeper analysis looks like in a specific context. I find that teaching short selections from important works of theory is an important way to illustrate what skillful analysis looks like. It also prepares students for the kinds of work they’ll encounter in college. In high school, students will need lots of support and scaffolding to access works of theory. When they get it, I believe they will be better prepared for college, when much of the supports drop away, and unprepared students can feel like they’re in over their heads. Beyond modeling, though, coaching for skill growth is the crucial task of teaching deeper analysis. Be direct about the shift in skills you’re looking for, naming the moves that you’re asking students to make. For example, when a student offers summary instead of analysis, explain what they’re doing, why it’s important to learn the deeper skill, and how they can move from their specific summary to basic analytical insights. Coaching students in their daily efforts at analysis yields the greatest growth, and this means direct instruction on the moves of deeper thinking.

Fake analysis

A good start toward real analysis is helping students to recognize the short-cuts around it that they tend to take. Talking-through these shortcuts with students can reveal paths to stronger analysis, and coaching opportunities for teachers. Over the years I have seen patterns in the early efforts at analysis from students, and have prepared coaching to guide their thinking in the right direction.

Summary instead of an argument

The danger: If allowed to offer summary of a text instead of analysis, students will fall back on this safe territory, and fail to progress as they should. While summary is an important skill, and demonstrates reading comprehension, it should have been mastered in middle school. High school is a time for deeper thinking. However, when reading a complex text, a summary can feel like an analytical breakthrough, since the surface seems impenetrable, and comprehension feels like cracking it open.

The opportunity for coaching: When a student offers summary instead of analysis, I compliment them on their comprehension when it’s accurate, and when it isn’t, I ask if anyone in class read the text differently. If important inaccuracies remain after discussion, I offer my reading, along with evidence. As I coach for comprehension, I must also be direct about the skill shift I’m looking for. After working on student affect, ensuring them that they have a good start in comprehension, I have to point out that they’ve offered summary instead of analysis. I explain the difference on the first few occasions, then work to cultivate analysis out of their summary. I might ask a student what caught their attention in their summary, or what they see as important about what they said. Prioritizing is an important analytical move, and from a students assessment of the value  of an idea in a text, early analysis is born. Coaching and coaxing ideas out of summary is a good start to analytical thinking.

Surface connections of text to self

The danger: Often, high school students are rewarded and encouraged to connect their readings to their own experiences, and this is an important way for them to make meaning and relevance from their learning. However, it can lead to surface connections that gloss the text in favor of more familiar territory – the student’s own life. Hopefully, text-to-self connections yield deeper understanding of students’ lives and the texts. If the connection doesn’t lead somewhere deeper, that student needs help. If you allow surface connections that are easily made, expect to get a lot of them, all year long.

The opportunity for coaching: There are two opportunities in these comments for greater depth – the text and the student’s self. Usually one point will have greater development than the other. Most often, it’s the analysis of the student’s own life. Encourage their effort at analysis, naming the text-to-self skill, then point out where their analysis needs work. If the student reaches a deeper insight on their own life, you could ask her to apply her idea into the text, to compare and contrast their life with the text. When a student falters, you might offer a passage where you see a connection, read it aloud, and ask for further analysis. Making connections across passages is a skill you can model for a student. You can also model the finding of a related idea in the text, then ask the student to apply it to their own life. Centering on an idea in the abstract can help students bridge ideas in the text to ideas about themselves and their experiences. Drawing out and adding substance to text-to-self connections early in the year will make these moves richer, and deepen students’ skills for college-level work.

An unjustified discussion

The danger: As students acclimate to doing their own analysis in class discussions, projects, and essays, they should develop a sense of needing to justify their arguments. In an academic community, each participant should strive to bring something important, and new, to the table. If this is not developed in the community, contributions can tend toward repetition of prior comments, surface observations, unchallenging assent and petty squabbles. If student contributions need no justification, class discussions can become free-for-alls, losing traction for depth, and missing out on the power of distributed cognition. When guided by a sense of common progress, class discussions will yield learning greater than the sum of its parts.

The opportunity for coaching: Explaining the concept of a justified discussion helps students understand an important function of your coaching and purpose of class discussions. If a student repeats the comment of a classmate, and says he simply agrees with it, there’s an opportunity to explain that he needs to bring something new. You can coach him toward expanding the idea into new territory, connecting it with a surprising place in the text, or finding a line where agreement ends. At every point, a teacher can ask the simple question: “Why?” Answering this simple question at regular turns helps give students the sense that there’s an expansive and difficult terrain beyond their analysis that is waiting for them to explore. Enculturate students to seek the new, the surprising, the insightful, the original. Instill a sense of pride in adding to an expanding understanding. Encourage whatever steps, however small, they make as a member of your intellectual community.

Prior knowledge maps-over what’s in the text

The danger: Students often see what they expect to see, rather than what’s actually in the text. Their experience, or prior understanding, can map-over the text at hand, so that instead of exploring new concepts, they rehash old ones. This can happen when analyzing a complex character or a challenging passage of non-fiction. There’s danger in allowing students to pass off prior knowledge as comprehension or analysis. Some teachers respond by asking if a student meant to say . . .  (insert the teacher’s reading of the text here). Of course, students usually say yes. However, when the teacher does the work for the student, they won’t grow much. Some teacher might just thank students for their contribution, afraid that challenging their understanding will discourage them. Coaches students through a misreading of the text presents real challenges, but also important opportunities.

The opportunity for coaching: In my experience, it is better to be honest and provide coaching than to let students slide. Working on comprehension together can clarify the difference between ideas from outside and inside the text. Teachers can point to evidence that needs unpacking, that differentiates its meaning from the understanding of the student. You could seek together the spot where comprehension breaks down, and their mapping-over creeps in. Often it is a complex sentence, which you can parse out together, word by word and phrase by phrase. Here, as elsewhere, there are opportunities for modeling in think-alouds, and for generative questions around key quotes. Leading students back to the text for the real work of comprehension and analysis closes off end-arounds, and increases rigor. If held to higher standards, student growth will reward your efforts, and your students will show real pride in their progress as well.

No evidence

The danger: Analysis without textual evidence reduces the rigor of an argument, and is not very convincing. When students aren't required to provide textual evidence, conversations tend toward general, vague takes on the text at hand, and rarely penetrate the surface. Digging into specifics, with close readings, yields more depth. That can't happen without close attention to the text, through citing and unpacking evidence.

The opportunity for coaching: In my class, students must use textual evidence to support their arguments in order to receive a passing grade. I make this clear in the rubrics and coaching for class comments, exams and take-home essays. I set up this expectation early and reinforce it often, so that soon providing textual evidence in the analysis becomes an automatic part of class culture. Usually, students who lack evidence in their analysis need only a gentle reminder, and they provide the evidence that they had planned to cite. Sometimes students need coaching on marking up the text to plan for assessments, where annotations on the page, sticky note, or side note yield better class discussions and essays. For those who struggle, I provide guidance in selecting and unpacking a quote. Coaching for how to use evidence with economy and structure is needed early in the year. The rubric for class discussions explains expectations, so students don't begin their analysis with a quote, instead introducing their argument and delivering a thesis. By the year's end, I can sit back and listen while students run the conversation, where every comment includes a direct quote from the text.

Dipping the toe in the text

The danger: Sometimes a student will make a brief argument, cite quick evidence, then talk at length about something the text reminds them about. If the text is the ocean, they've just stuck their toe in it, then spent the rest of their day on the beach. Get your feet wet, I tell them. Better yet, let's go swimming. The depth is in the text, usually, and for students to transfer its complexity to their own experience and ideas, they must spend real time in it.

The opportunity for coaching: Their analysis has at least a tangential connection to the text, which we can work with. I usually ask them to broaden their analysis of the text on their own, expanding the connection between their comment and the work at hand. If they falter, I can direct them to new evidence where I see connections, or ask them to spend more time on the quote they offered originally. A close reading of evidence they selected is a good start. Building a culture where everyone is expected to spend quality time in the text is the key thing.

A weighty idea hanging on a thread of evidence

The danger: Sometimes a student has a powerhouse idea, but supports it with one thin line of evidence. A big claim about a text needs more thorough support. On occasion, when a student has thin evidence, I ask the class what would happen if I take a big object and prop it up with one support - like a book balanced on a pencil. Of course, it doesn't hold.

The opportunity for coaching: If not trained and encouraged, students will typically support arguments with only one piece of evidence. Ranging across the text, especially when supporting broad assertions, requires modeling, coaching, and encouragement. Some students quickly excel at it, and become models you can point to for providing thorough evidence that takes in more of the text.

Applying theory that reduces, where it should expand

The danger: As students learn to apply the valuable tool of theory to analyze texts, they sometimes misuse it, by reducing the complexity of a text to a simple take on the theory. For example, students are generally familiar with a basic feminist insight, that men seek to control women. When they read a work of feminist theory, they might see only that basic argument. When they read a work of complex fiction, they might see only that basic argument again. Students need coaching to use theory to its full potential, which should expand understanding, not reduce it.

The opportunity for coaching: When a student makes a simplistic argument on a complex text, I tell them they've made a good start, but there's more work to do. Sometimes, just asking a student to expand the argument is enough. When it's not, I stand ready to help by pointing to sections of the text that force a reworking or complication to the analysis. Peers can do this work as well, and engage each other in dialogue that builds a more complete understanding. Regular attention to the complexity of each text, which never let us repeat basic arguments that blend them all together, helps build a culture of rigorous analysis and expansive vision.

Wild tangents

The danger: Every class has one or two students who can at times derail a class discussion, or bring it to surprising new places. Their analysis can feel like it's coming from left field, and leave a teacher uncertain about how to respond. It can also inspire new views on a text that no one had seen, which is the heart of analysis. Helping students bring in the new, without leaving everyone else behind, takes careful coaching.

The opportunity for coaching: My first response to a wild tangent is "Wow. I hadn't seen that." I want to reward students for taking an intellectual risk, and reinforce the idea that strong analysis reveals what was hidden. Next, I ask if the student can explain the connection between her ideas and what others have said about the text, or what she sees as the text's larger meaning. Usually, this is enough to clarify the tangent with the common understanding of the text. If not, I can coach for clarity, cohesion, and connections through scaffolding questions. I always want to leave that student feeling included, as a valuable member of our discussion, who is bringing one of the most important virtues of good analysis -- fresh vision.

What he said

The danger: One easy way of contributing to class discussion is to repeat the analysis of a classmate, and say that you agree. This isn't a bad thing, unless the comment stops there, which it often will. The student who relies on this kind of borrowed analysis is not growing his own skills, and need coaching to progress.

The opportunity for coaching: I explain the idea of justifying the discussion, and tell the student that he can do better than simple agreement. Whether it's a peer or a theorist, blanket agreement doesn't bring something new to the table, so doesn't count as their own analysis. When possible, I'll direct students to the more extreme places in a text that they've said they agree with, teasing out the space where their consent ends, with questions about why they depart, and what the implications are. Alternatively, a student can expand beyond agreement into new and difficult terrain, not departing from the peer or theorist, but expanding. Fresh places in the text can offer opportunities, and if a student can't find them on his own, I can help. Maintaining a culture where everyone is working to expand, and not repeat, adds rigor and integrity to our analytical work.

Generic analysis of form

The danger: As students add analysis of the text's form to their skill set, they tend to offer generic analysis at first, which needs to be coached against. After they learn to recognize element of form, such as tone, mood, irony, diction, and syntax, I'll ask them how the form shapes the meaning of the text. Generic analysis of form sounds like this: "It grabs the reader's attention. It makes you interested in the book. It adds to the entertainment. It pulls you in." All this might be true, I explain, since books tend to want to hold the reader's attention, rather than repulse it. The problem is that it's true in a generic way, and doesn't address the particular meaning of this particular book. Because it's true about any book, it doesn't help us to understand this one with  any depth.

The opportunity for coaching: Usually, asking a student to connect the element of form in question to the meaning of this particular text is enough to elicit a stronger analysis of form. For example, if a student has said that the magical realism in 100 Years of Solitude makes the book more interesting, you have generic analysis. If they argue that the magical realism combines the mythic style of traditional literature with the realism of modernity, representing a fusion that functions as a formal counter-point to the clash of these two modes in the novel's content -- we have something more substantial. Building students' skills in analysis of form begins by blocking the path of least resistance: generic analysis. After that, coaching for connections between form and content, by modeling, visual analogies, and scaffolding questions, will help students build-up a vision that sees the text's form as shaping its meaning in rich and complex ways.


Coach for real analysis

Overall, bringing students to an exploration of a text's difficult terrain means closing off short cuts, then helping them bridge to new skills through coaching. Teachers need to do direct instruction on analysis, naming and explaining its components and moves, demystifying a skill set that is often left unclear to students. They can model analysis through think-alouds and exemplar texts. They can do analysis of physical and visual forms to build up the skills for textual analysis through more accessible media. They can demonstrate the importance of analysis by tapping into the political concerns of students through the development of critical consciousness. However, the most impact comes in coaching moments that help students do stronger analysis during class discussions. This real-time, individualized instruction targets each student where she is, with what she needs. An eclectic approach to developing analytical skills will help students grow the most in this skills that is essential for college success and a flourishing professional career.


Analytical moves


Coach students on the following techniques for deeper analysis. I do direct instruction on the techniques, highlight moments when students use them, ask students to make the moves to deepen their analysis when it falters, and keep key moves posted on a world wall as reminders.


Click for printable word wall pages: Abstraction, Analogy, Analyze, Causality, Close Reading, Complexity, Evaluate, Micro to Macro, Rebuttal, Synthesize, Theoretical lens



Abstraction: Get to the idea above the details.  If you take away the unessential details until you are only left with the concept, what is revealed about that concept? For example, move from the local plot of a novel to the idea it’s expressing about humanity. Go from the local events in Tita’s passions in Like Water for Chocolate to what it says about the nature of love.

Accurate observations: Separate your personal views from the views expressed in the work. Make sure  your analysis can be supported with ample evidence from the text. What the book is saying may or may not align with your beliefs. Make sure you’re not reading your own opinions into the page, seeing what you want to see, regardless of what’s really there. It’s fine to include your own opinions in your comment, but don’t map them over the text. If they do really align with the text, prove it in an honest, careful and compelling way.

Analogy: Illuminate the text’s deeper meaning by comparison. A well-crafted analogy can reveal insights into the text by connecting it to a more familiar situation. For example, if you’ve explored Woolf’s form in A Room of One’s Own, and argued that she uses a skillful method of disorientation and reorientation in her narrative argument, you could make a comparison as follows: Reading Woolf is like playing Marco Polo, but while the reader is blind folded, the author really wants you to find her in a new place, as she calls to you from just beyond the familiar world of men’s novels, and men’s thinking.

Causal explanation: Much of literature and the history of ideas is about change and conflict, whether it’s in the transformation of a character or the clashing of world views. You can analyze the change you see in your readings by examining its causes. Keep asking why, why, why, to get deeper toward the root cause. For example, why does Hamlet finally do something and kill the king in Act V? Or why do the Romantics resist the logical strictures of the Enlightenment? Or why does a poem shift its tone in the middle of the last stanza? Don’t settle on quick or easy answers. Keep digging. Keep asking why.

Classifying: Break down the text into categories for further analysis. For example, how does nature imagery work in a particular poem or novel? Compare it to imagery of the city in another. Classify the methods an author uses to convince his audience of his position. Categorize the types of characters in a novel along patterns that you notice. Compare men and women in Hamlet. Look at introverts and extroverts in 100 Years of Solitude. In Season of Migration to the North, examine the categories of native and foreign, male and female, and how some characters cross and blur the lines that divide them.

Close reading: Zoom in on the small details in a narrow passage of evidence, asking yourself questions about the subtle effects and large implications of small moments - like word choice, syntax, figurative language, structure, diction, and rhythm. For example, in Hamlet's famous soliloquy, look closely at the first line: "To be, or not to be, that is the question." What's the effect of choosing the infinitive verb tense? How does that characterize the speaker? Why two commas in this short sentence? What does this halting rhythm suggest about the speaker? What's the effect of putting the verb up front and the rest of the sentence at the rear? Why does this very personal question lack first person pronouns?

Comparing/contrasting: Find two or more items for analysis on either side of a dividing line, then reveal and evaluate their similarities and differences. It could be two characters in tension in a novel. It could be two essayists who disagree about an issue. For example, compare and contrast Jeremy Bentham and Jean Jacques Rousseau on their views of education, measuring Bentham’s strict observation method against Rousseau’s advocacy of student freedom and personal exploration. Skillful comparison and contrast goes beyond obvious differences to find surprising similarities, hidden agendas, buried assumptions, and subtle differences in form.

Complexity: Texts are complex things, built of many interconnected parts with dynamic relationships. Avoid simple analysis built of one basic and obvious observation. Dig deeper, and look longer, to see the text’s complexity. For example, don’t stop at noticing that Tita is torn between tradition and the modern world in Like Water for Chocolate. If you go further, you’ll notice that tradition and modernity have their attractions and repulsions, and every major character is a hybrid of both – where the mother is a restrictive figure of tradition but also an independent and strong figure of a modern woman. At the same time, the text itself is a hybrid, with a liberated, modern sense of romantic love mixed with traditional forms of recipes and home cures.

Connect to other texts: The more you read, the more you’ll be able to make connections to prior readings that lead to meaningful analysis. Be careful to avoid the “this reminds me of...” comment. It’s not enough to say there’s a connection. Analyze it. Explore it. You must make a meaningful connection. For example, when reading creation stories from around the world, students have noticed similar “Eve” figures across the literature. To go beyond the “this woman reminds me of Eve” non-analysis, say how the figures are similar and different, and what that means. Why do female figures often represent the “Fall” moment that also begins the world as we know it? Why do the texts show moments of female transgression of male authority leading to pain, and progress? You can perform other analytical moves as you connect to other texts. Abstraction can help you see the overall idea above the details of each text. Comparison and contrast can help you understand each culture and time. Causal explanation can help you see the history of ideas developing. Do more than point out the connection. Dig into it.

Critical consciousness: Where appropriate, bring a critique to your reading of a text, exposing and challenging an injustice it supports, an oppressive agenda with which it aligns, a contradiction that damages the image of ourselves, or disrupts our progress together as a people. Critical consciousness can expose gender bias, class oppression, and racist attitudes, but also seek positive moments that foster empowerment, self-actualization, and social justice. For example, when reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, you could trace the portrait of the worker in the mass production economy, challenging his assigned role as a dehumanized commodity. Or you could uncover the empowering aspects of his capitalist vision, bringing to light the positive freedoms of a market economy.

Diagram: How can you represent your analysis of the text through visuals, graphs, diagrams, or concept maps? For example, to understand Nervous Conditions, make a Venn diagram showing the categories of the native African and the colonial English, as well as where they intersect in moments of hybridity. Graph the plot structures from the 18th to 20th century texts we read, moving from linear to elliptical to circuitous. Make a concept map of 100 Years of Solitude, showing the dynamics of the world out there compared to the world of innocence and isolation, and the fusion points where they meet in the novel.

Evaluate: Make a judgment backed up with analysis, argument, and evidence. Say if you agree with an author’s position or not, and why. Judge the nature of a character in a novel. Work toward complex evaluation, which goes beyond a simple “good” or “bad.” You might find that the issue is “good when…” but “bad if….” Look for situations that go beyond the surface. This could sound like, “It seems obvious that the character is evil, but in reality she’s good, because….” Be open for opportunities for evaluation goes beyond binary thinking like good/bad, right/wrong, pure/impure, which are useful categories, but don’t always fit. And always work to convince your audience of your evaluation through careful argument and ample evidence.

Evidence: Select evidence from the text related to your argument, not simply from the plot. Select a quote you can dig into and break down, revealing deeper meaning. Make sure you’re not hanging a big argument on one small piece of evidence. Suppose your analysis with ample evidence. Dig deeply into one section of a text through a close reading. Look broadly across the text to firm up your evidence in diverse passages.

Form: How does language works to shape meaning? Uncover through close readings. Avoid “generic analysis of form,” where you repeat stock answers about how the form works. You could say about any element of form, the tone, imagery, or syntax, that it “draws you in,” “grabs your attention,” or “emphasizes” something. But what does this analysis really say? Don’t all texts work to do that at some level? So even if it’s true that a text’s imagery works to “grab your attention,” that doesn’t really tell us much. Instead, how is this text’s specific content shaped by its specific use of form? For example, what does the cold, logical form of Adam Smith’s writing say about the nature of capitalism as he describes it? What does the combative nature of Marx’s prose say about his communist ideas?

Generalization: Broaden the scope of your analysis from the local to the general. For example, you could move from a discussion of Colombian history in 100 Years of Solitude to an analysis of Latin America broadly, and on to the evolution of society generally in the modern world.

Generating metaphors: Use inventive language to capture the text’s depths – its big idea, its complexity, its contradiction, its overall spirit. Craft similes and metaphors, figures of speech and rhetorical flourishes – be creative to reveal the subtleties of the reading. For example, if you’ve argued that Borges plays with self-referentiality to underline the constructed and contingent nature of the self, work to capture that in metaphor: Borges’ poems and stories go beyond what Hamlet called the purpose of art, to hold a mirror up to nature, by holding a mirror up to a mirror, showing the infinite regression the borders of the self – where the effect is dizzying, illuminating, and comically subversive.

Generating possibilities: What are the various ways you can interpret a passage, or respond to an argument? Expand your analysis by offering multiple ways to look at a text. You could evaluate them, revealing which view is the best. You could argue why each view is valid, explaining why seemingly separate interpretations make up a coherent whole. For example, when reading Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, you could make an argument supporting his view that assimilation is impossible under colonial conditions, then make an argument about how it could be possible, then a third argument about why the binary of assimilation or non-assimilation is the wrong way to look at the phenomenon. You could then say which argument is most true, or explain why each view is valid.

Inference: Use evidence in the text to prove something not directly stated, but that you infer. It should be revealing, not obvious. You wouldn’t score many points by inferring from the narrator’s tone in Notes from the Underground that he is angry. That’s pretty obvious. However, you could infer from his defensiveness against his imagined readers, his hostility toward his co-workers and classmates, and his harsh self-critique that the narrator restlessly takes apart the relationships in his life in search of something he cannot find, or even name.

Justifying the discussion: Why is it important to see what you’re seeing? Reveal the gravity, the impact, the relevance of your observations. If there is no apparent importance, ask yourself why. Do you need to think further on why your analysis is important to see? Do you need to start over and find something more worthy of class discussion? Do you need help from your classmates and/or teacher to justify the discussion? Prepare to answer this question: “So what?” For example, if you’ve made an observation that Swift’s ironic treatment of childhood poverty in Ireland is a more effective form of argument than straight critique, you should prepare to say why that matters to notice. You could argue that an ironic, sideways tackling of injustice helps shock the audience into caring about suffering from which they are detached in their daily lives, and that Swift gives activists a tool, in his sardonic hyperbole, of bridging the distance between the people, the press, and the oppressed.

Logic: Examine the quality of the thinking in an argument or theme from a text, whether it’s directly stated or implied. Look for the logical fallacies we’ve studied, from hasty generalizations to ad hominems. Test ideas for logical validity. Extend arguments to their logical conclusion. For example, Freud has a theory about hero myths and the Oedipus Complex. What specific elements of his argument can you test with reason? What alternative logic can you propose to explain the evidence?

Negative analysis: What’s not there that you might expect to be? What does its absence tell you? For example, when looking at the short stories in Dubliners, by James Joyce, you might notice that the stories often lack clear exposition, so that the reader has to struggle with what’s happening and who the characters are. The stories also lack clear conclusions or moral lessons. What’s the effect on the reader? How does that connect to the meaning of each story? What does this new, ambiguous structure say about the early 20th century?

Parts/whole: How does the meaning of a local passage inform our understanding of the whole work? What does a broad theme of the whole work tell us about how to read a local passage? Connect the part to the whole, and the whole to the part. For example, use the broad meaning of Blake’s songs to inform your reading of “The Tyger” in Songs of Experience. Use a reading of “The Lamb” in Songs of Innocence as a key to understanding the entire set of poems.

Prediction: What comes next in an argument, in a story, and why is it important to see? What does your prediction reveal about what has come before? What evidence can you bring to support your speculation? Make sure you don’t simply predict the plot of a novel. You’ve got to justify the discussion – focusing on the deeper meaning, not simply the surface matter. For example, when reading The Stranger by Camus, go beyond predicting the verdict in the trial. Say what your prediction means, what it says about society, what it says about our justice system, and our encountering of “the stranger,” the Other.

Problem solving: What challenge does the literature or theory present, and how does it suggest ways to deal with that problem? Do you agree or disagree? How else might we think of the problem, and its solution? For example, the Tao Te Ching describes a mysterious, unknowable infinite to which humans ought to align themselves in a natural flow of detachment. What problems in human existence is this philosophy seeking to address? What problems might it cause? What is the best approach to the tensions that it works to navigate?

Sequencing: Examine why a story or an argument is put together in its particular order. For example, why does 100 Years of Solitude begin both at what seems to be the character’s final moments of life, while flashing back to its beginning? Why does Equiano’s autobiography begin with a prayer, then a formal address to Parliament, then an apology for telling his story? How does the structure of a text shape its meaning?

Synthetic conclusion: As you work to conclude your analytical comment, finish with a synthesis, creating something new from the parts that came before. It’s more than a summary, which just restates what you’ve already said. A synthesis brings your earlier ideas together through a creative act.

You could conclude with poetics, in a striking metaphor, in a compelling image that captures the essence of your argument with a more profound and revealing insight. For example, if you’ve argued that the Yoruba creation myths have adapted to the modern world through their dynamic oral tradition, avoiding the calcification of most sacred writing, you could conclude your comment with a synthesis through poetics: The Yoruba wrote in the fluid medium of living human speech, while the Judeo-Christian tradition set down their beliefs in the restrictive mode of chiseled stone.

You could conclude with a connection, showing how your analysis reveals new insight into a related area. The most common place could be a connection to today’s world, or your life. For example, if you’ve argued that Dabydeen’s The Intended shows the impossible trade-offs demanded by cultural assimilation, you could conclude your comment by examining the difficulties of assimilation for contemporary immigrants in Boston, or you could contrast his story with successful stories of integration. Connecting the story to your experience of today’s world is a safe bet for relevant synthesis.

You could conclude with a recommendation, explaining how to resolve the tensions explored by the text. For example, if you’ve argued that Frazer’s analysis of religion misses the spirit of religious experience, recommend a fuller way to read sacred texts that avoid his mistakes.

You could conclude with new questions. Your analysis could reveal big new questions that we wouldn’t have seen before. If so, this can be a synthetic conclusion. They have to be important questions, with answers that aren’t obvious. For example, if you’ve argued that Weigle’s feminist take on religion demands that we re-read creation stories to uncover powerful portraits of women, you could leave us with important questions: how do women work within a male church hierarchy to re-interpret centuries of patriarchal theology, and how will men react to feminism from the pulpit?

You could conclude with a big new insight, the surprising place your argument leads us to. Never hold back your thesis, saving it for the conclusion. Instead, deliver your essential argument, compelling in and of itself. Once you reach your conclusion, show us what your thesis reveals after thorough analysis. For example, if you’ve argued that the poetry of Sappho represents a new tradition of individualism breaking away from the collective mode of sacred texts, you could explore the nature of that individualism in your conclusion, spelling out what’s gained and what’s lost as the individual poet stands forth from the folk collective of earlier writing.

Theoretical lens: Apply the views of a familiar theorist to uncover meaning in the work, such as Marxism, psychology, feminism, sociology, etc. For example, how can your studies in psychology illuminate Don Quixote and what that texts tells us about the nature of the human mind?

Uncovering assumptions: What are the implicit arguments assumed in a theory, not directly stated, but at the core of its world view? What does a novel assume about how the world works, how people behave? Uncover the assumptions, then analyze and evaluate them. For example, in Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, is there a general portrait of how people are? What is it? Is it correct? Compare it to the portrait of humanity in the poems of Blake or Wordsworth, or in the paintings of Gauguin.

What does it say / What does it do?: Asking this two-level question yields deeper understanding of any text (Beans 2011). Start with a literal understanding of a passage or paragraph in a text, to get to the “what does it say?” level of understanding. Next, ask yourself how the section functions in the story or argument, the “what does it do?” level. In a narrative, does the section set up background, exposition the central character’s history, provide an illustrative anecdote, draw the plot to a crisis, or provide denouement? In an essay, how does the section work to convince the audience of the author’s argument?

Logical fallacies

Over the years, my efforts at teaching analysis have run up against another kind of short-cut around careful thinking -- the logical fallacy. These fallacies are tempting end-arounds for students, who might avoid an opponent's complex argument and instead attack the author, origin, or popularity of an idea. Students seem to enjoy learning about fallacies, and quickly come to recognize them in their own arguments, in their peers, our readings, and even in me. Teaching students about fallacies serves a number of important purposes. It helps them avoid being manipulated by shady arguments and manipulative media. It also helps them think more logically, and avoid the easy paths of careless thinking. Finally, teaching fallacies adds to a culture of intellectual rigor and academic integrity, preparing students for the demands of college.


Definitions of the fallacies come from the Dictionary of Logical Fallacies, http://www.fallacyfiles.org, by Gary N. Curtis, copyright 2001-2015, except where noted otherwise.

The examples from student papers are my own, but give a sense of the kinds of errors in argument I've seen over the years. They are taken from the first paper of the year, on Abrahamic religions and theories of liberation.

1. Appeal to Authority

Form:    Authority A believes that P is true.

Therefore, P is true


Not all arguments from expert opinion are fallacious, and for this reason some authorities on logic have taken to labeling this fallacy as “appeal to false authority” or “argument from questionable authority”.

We must often rely upon expert opinion when drawing conclusions about technical matters where we lack the time or expertise to form an informed opinion. For instance, those of us who are not physicians usually rely upon those who are when making medical decisions, and we are not wrong to do so….


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Marx is a famous theorist, an influential thinker, and an expert on how the rich exploit the working class, so his theory on religion is true.


2. Two Wrongs Make a Right


This fallacy involves the attempt to justify a wrong action by pointing to another wrong action. Often, the other wrong action is of the same type or committed by the accuser, in which case it is the subfallacy Tu Quoque.

Two Wrongs Make a Right needs to be distinguished from retaliation or punishment, as it would not do to condemn these on logical grounds, though they may be morally objectionable. So, when children defend themselves by hitting or kicking another child on the grounds of “he started it!”, they may be morally to blame, but not logically.

Rather, this fallacy is committed when the wrong being defended is not directed at the accuser, and so is not retaliatory. Attempting to justify committing a wrong on the grounds that someone else is guilty of another wrong is clearly a Red Herring, because if this form of argument were cogent, one could justify anything.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Don’t blame the Jewish people for human rights violations. Remember what the Egyptians did to the Jewish people in the book of Exodus.


3. Appeal to Force


Appeal to Force is a technique of distraction which occurs when force, or the threat of force, is used to “win” a debate. More frequently, it is used to cover up the fact that the threatener is losing. The name “argumentum ad baculum” (“argument by the stick”) alludes to the use of a stick, or club, to beat someone.

This fallacy is committed whenever force or the threat of it is introduced into a rational discussion in order to derail it. For example, extremists will disrupt debates by starting riots when their side appears to be losing. Even audience members “shouting down” a debater whom they disagree with in order to prevent a case from being heard are resorting to “ad baculum”.


English 12 class discussion - avoid these examples of bad logic


Shouting. Talking over other students. Slamming hands on table. Aggressive posturing. Telling people to shut up….


4. Argumentum ad Hominem

Translation:        “Argument against the man” (Latin)


A debater commits the Ad Hominem Fallacy when he introduces irrelevant personal premises about his opponent. Such red herrings may successfully distract the opponent or the audience from the topic of the debate.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Marx was a communist, a no-good, non-working pinko commie, so his theory on religion must be wrong.


5. Tu Quoque                    Latin: “You’re another”, AKA: “You, also” or “So’s You.”

Type:    Argumentum ad Hominem / Two Wrongs Make a Right


A very common fallacy in which one attempts to defend oneself or another from criticism by turning the critique back against the accuser. This is a classic Red Herring since whether the accuser is guilty of the same, or a similar, wrong is irrelevant to the truth of the original charge.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Weigle argues that men fear women’s power, but I say she fears men’s power.


6. Genetic Fallacy


The Genetic Fallacy is the most general fallacy of irrelevancy involving the origins or history of an idea. It is fallacious to either endorse or condemn an idea based on its past, rather than on its present, merits or demerits, unless its past in some way affects its present value. For instance, the origin of evidence can be quite relevant to its evaluation, especially in historical investigations. The origin of testimony--whether first hand, hearsay, or rumor--carries weight in evaluating it.

In contrast, the value of many scientific ideas can be objectively evaluated by established techniques, so that the origin or history of the idea is irrelevant to its value.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


The ancient texts from these religions are so old that they can’t be true for people today.


7. Red Herring                  AKA:  Irrelevant Thesis


This is the most general fallacy of irrelevance. The name comes from the reputed practice of escaped convicts using pickled herrings to throw bloodhounds off the scent. Thus, a “red herring” argument is one which distracts the audience from the issue in question through the introduction of some irrelevancy.

English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic

Gutierrez says that the Bible is about liberation, like it’s supposed to free us. What frees me is when the bell rings at 2:30. But it’s not even a bell, really. More like a beep. A really loud beep.


8. Straw Man


Judging from my experience, Straw Man is one of the commonest of fallacies. It is endemic in public debates on politics, ethics, and religion. “Straw man” is one of the best-named fallacies, because it is both memorable and vividly illustrates the nature of the fallacy. Imagine a fight in which one of the combatants sets up a man of straw, attacks it, then proclaims victory. All the while, the real opponent stands by untouched. In a dialectical contest, this is what the Straw Man amounts to.

The Straw Man is a type of Red Herring because the arguer is attempting to refute his opponent’s position, and in the dialectical context is required to do so, but instead attacks a position--the “straw man”--not held by his opponent. In a Straw Man argument, the arguer argues to a conclusion that denies the “straw man” he has set up, but misses the dialectical target. There may be nothing wrong with the argument presented by the arguer when it is taken out of this dialectical context, that is, it may be a perfectly good argument against the straw man. It is only because the onus probandi is on the arguer to argue against the dialectical target that a Straw Man fallacy is committed. So, the fallacy is not simply the argument, but the entire situation of the argument occurring in such a dialectical context.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Cone argues that White people should want to be more Black. Well, I guess it’s alright with Cone if White folks like Rachel Dolezal pretend to be Black, or suburban kids listen to gangster rap in their moms’ minivans, but I say don’t pretend to be something you’re not.


9. Quoting Out of Context


To quote out of context is to remove a passage from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its meaning. The context in which a passage occurs always contributes to its meaning, and the shorter the passage the larger the contribution. For this reason, the quoter must always be careful to quote enough of the context not to misrepresent the meaning of the quote. 

English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Marx says that “the soul … is the opium of the people,” but I say that the soul is the spirit of every human, and it leads us to the truth of God, not the addiction to drugs.


10. Bandwagon Fallacy                   AKA: Appeal to Popularity

Form:    Idea i is popular.
i is correct.


The Bandwagon Fallacy is committed whenever one argues for an idea based upon an irrelevant appeal to its popularity. The name comes from the phrase “jumping on the bandwagon”, referring to joining a cause because of its popularity.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Cone is in the minority with his radical views on Black liberation theology. Most people don’t believe him, so he can’t be right.



11. One-Sidedness


Scholars are expected to examine all of the evidence and come to a conclusion. Thus, a one-sided lack of objectivity is a cardinal scholarly sin. This is why scholars should listen to others in their field even when --in fact, especially when-- they disagree. It is only when scholars have heard and weighed all of the evidence, and considered all of the arguments, that they can come to an objective conclusion.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


The Qur’an is wrong in all of its ideas. It is so off the mark that it’s not even worth going in to.


12. Appeal to Ignorance

Form:                                                                                           Or:

There is no evidence against p.                                           There is no evidence for p.
Therefore, p.                                                                         Therefore, not-p


An appeal to ignorance is an argument for or against a proposition on the basis of a lack of evidence against or for it. If there is positive evidence for the conclusion, then of course we have other reasons for accepting it, but a lack of evidence by itself is no evidence.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Jesus said he would be resurrected in three days after his death, but no one has any proof that happened, so it can’t be true.


13. Slippery Slope

Exposition: There are two related types of fallacy referred to as “slippery slopes”:


1.      Semantic Version:

A differs from Z by a continuum of insignificant changes, and there is no non-arbitrary place at which a sharp line between the two can be drawn.
Therefore, there is really no difference between A and Z

This type plays upon the vagueness of the distinction between two terms that lie on a continuum. For instance, the concepts of “bald” and “hairy” lie at opposite ends of a spectrum of hairiness. This continuum is the “slope”, and it is the lack of a non-arbitrary line between hairiness and baldness that makes it “slippery”. We could, of course, decide to count, say, 10,000 hairs or less as the definition of “bald”, but this would be arbitrary. Why not 10,001 or 9,999? Obviously, no answer can be given other than the fact that we prefer round numbers, but round numbers are an artifact of our base 10 numbering system. However, it does not follow from the fact that there is no sharp, non-arbitrary line between “bald” and “hairy” that there really is no difference between the two. A difference in degree is still a difference.

  1. Causal Version:

If A is permitted, then by a gradual series of small steps through B, C,..., X, Y, eventually Z will be too.
We should not permit Z.
Therefore, we should not permit A

This type is based upon the claim that allowing a controversial type of action will lead inevitably to allowing some admittedly bad type of action. It is the slide from A to Z via the intermediate steps B through Y that is the “slope”, and the smallness of each step that makes it “slippery”.

This type of argument is by no means invariably fallacious, but the strength of the argument is inversely proportional to the number of steps between A and Z, and directly proportional to the causal strength of the connections between adjacent steps. If there are many intervening steps, and the causal connections between them are weak, or even unknown, then the resulting argument will be very weak, if not downright fallacious.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


If we analyze religion, then the fundamental beliefs of most people are thrown out the window. Without fundamental beliefs, anarchy will erupt and the fall of civilization will soon come. World War III will break out and the world will end.


14. Hasty Generalization


This is the fallacy of generalizing about a population based upon a sample which is too small to be representative. If the population is heterogeneous, then the sample needs to be large enough to represent the population’s variability. With a completely homogeneous population, a sample of one is sufficiently large, so it is impossible to put an absolute lower limit on sample size. Rather, sample size depends directly upon the variability of the population: the more heterogeneous a population, the larger the sample required. For instance, people tend to be quite variable in their political opinions, so that public opinion polls need fairly large samples to be accurate.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Weigle says that women play a powerful role in religious stories, but there aren’t many women mentioned at all in Genesis, so it’s not true.


15. Appeal to Consequences


Arguing that a proposition is true because belief in it has good consequences, or that it is false because belief in it has bad consequences is often an irrelevancy. For instance, a child’s belief in Santa Claus may have good consequences in making the child happy and well-behaved, but these facts have nothing to do with whether there really is a Santa Claus. Beliefs have many consequences, both good and bad. For instance, belief that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer may have such bad consequences as frightening cigarette smokers or making them depressed, but it may also have such good consequences as motivating people to stop smoking, thus lowering their risk of cancer. However, the most important consequences of the belief, or lack thereof, that smoking causes lung cancer are affected by the fact that it does so. In other words, we cannot determine the truth-value of a belief from its consequences alone, since many of those consequences are dependent upon its truth-value.


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


If Gutierrez was right about Jesus wanting people to be free from oppression, then the whole system of modern capitalism would be called into question and stop working. The system can’t stop working, so Jesus must not have wanted that.



16. False Dilemma


Also referred to as the “black and white” fallacy and “false dichotomy”, bifurcation occurs if someone presents a situation as having only two alternatives, where in fact other alternatives exist or can exist. (from www.infidels.org)


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Either Weigle is right and women are powerful figures in religion, or she’s wrong, and women have no power.


17. Intentional Fallacy


The dubious critical practice of seeking to decipher a text’s meaning by determining the author’s intentions. [Aidan Arrowsmith]


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


Cone misses the intention of Jesus, which is to spread love and brotherhood, not a racial divide.



18. Affective Fallacy

Exposition: The fallacy of confusing a work of literature with its effects on the reader. To a New Critic, meaning exists in the words of the text, and can therefore be observed objectively. Its emotional effect on actual readers is irrelevant.

(from Lynch, english.montclair.edu/isaacs/605LitResearch/litermFA02.htm)


English 12 papers - avoid these examples of bad logic


The story of Exodus moves me deeply, and so is true, while Marx is false.

Analysis Do's and Don'ts

Analysis - Don’t

Analysis - Do

1. Appeal to Authority. It isn’t the authority of the source that makes an argument correct, but the argument and evidence.

Analyze the Authority’s Argument. Appeal to the specific arguments and evidence that the authority puts forward, convincing your audience through sound reasoning, not name dropping.

2. Two Wrongs Make a Right. Don’t make a bad argument or wrong action on the grounds that your opponent has done the same.

Analyze the Wrong. If the opponent against whom you argue has made a bad argument or wrong action, explain the nature of the problem without committing the error yourself.

3. Appeal to Force. Shouting down or otherwise intimidating your opponent is not an argument at all. It implies that you have no argument, and have resorted to bullying.

Appeal to Reason. Remain calm in debate. If your opponent resorts to an appeal to force, point it out, and focus the debate back to the argument at hand.

4. Argumentum ad Hominem. Attacking the character of your opponent leaves his argument untouched.

Argue the Ideas. Focus on argument and evidence.

5. Tu Quoque. Turning the argument back on the accuser is a form of ad hominem. Saying, “You’re another,” doesn’t address the merits of the original argument, but grants the argument of your opponent so you can turn it against her character.

Analyze the Argument. Debate the validity and evidence of the original argument.

6. Genetic Fallacy. Focusing on the history and origins of an idea attempts to distract the audience from the real debate – the current merits of the idea.

Argue the Current Merits. Focus on the idea at debate, not where the idea comes from, or who accepted or rejected it in the past.

7. Red Herring. Introducing an irrelevant topic for debate is an obvious attempt to throw your audience or opponent off the track from the real debate at hand.

Stay Relevant. Focus on issues relevant to the debate at hand.

8. Straw Man. Pretending that your opponent holds an argument that you can easily defeat, while he obviously does not hold that argument, weakens your analysis.

Fight Fair. Address the arguments that your opponent has actually made. There’s plenty of work to do here.

9. Quoting Out of Context. Misquoting relies on the audience’s unfamiliarity with the source. You’ll be found out in debate when your opponent replies, or when an informed member of your audience (me), calls you on this intellectual shortcut.

Stay True to Context and Spirit. Provide sufficient context when quoting your opponent, so that the audience understands the focus and spirit of your opponent’s argument.

10. Bandwagon Fallacy. The popularity of an idea does not prove the idea true or false.

Think Independently. Argue about ideas, independent of their popularity or unpopularity.

11. One-Sidedness. Ignoring evidence and argument against your ideas leaves this evidence and argument hanging over your head, for all to see.

Address Counter-arguments. Examine all of the evidence. Anticipate and address the objections an opponent might make to your analysis.

12. Appeal to Ignorance. Lack of evidence does not prove or disprove an idea.

Appeal to Evidence. Know what you don’t know. Lack of evidence means uncertainty. Work to gather more, and interpret it.

13. Hasty Generalization. If you base an argument on a sample of evidence that’s too small to be representative (just personal experience, or too little data), you’ve failed to prove your argument. Other evidence might speak against your analysis.

Look Broadly at Evidence. Make sure you’ve examined and addressed enough evidence to give proof to your argument.

14. Slippery Slope. There are two forms of this bad argument.

Semantic. This relies on the vagueness of definitions. “There’s no difference between A and Z, because the distinction between them is arbitrary.” Example: “There’s no difference between bald and hairy, because any number set for the limit of hairs between the two definitions would be arbitrary.”

Causal. This relies on the linking of causes, from one premise or action, to a resulting negative, without making the causal chain clear. “If A is allowed then Z would need to be allowed too, because A leads in gradual steps to Z.” Example: “If we ban guns for personal protection, foreign powers could invade our country at will.”

Rationally Analyze the Continuum.


Semantic. Definitions rely on the difference of degree, even if the difference can’t be quantified with exact precision. A difference of degree is still a difference. Argue the ideas, not their semantics.



Causal. If there is a link of causes between A and Z, you need to explain them clearly, and rationally. Make the steps in a continuum clear.

15. Appeal to Consequences. The consequences of an argument have no bearing on the truth or falsity of that argument.

Appeal to Reason. Work to get at the truth, and consider its implications without bending the rules of logic.

16. False Dilemma. Don’t pretend there are two choices in a given situation, one that you favor and the other that you choose for its offensiveness.

Thoughtful choices. Honestly consider all of the possibilities. Showing your audience that you’ve thought through the problem is more convincing than settling up false binaries.

17. Affective Fallacy. Don’t just gush over a text, or vent negative emotions over its shortcomings.

Read closely. Let your emotions fuel a careful reading and sound argument, which may be impassioned, but never solely emotive.

18. Intentional Fallacy. The meaning of a text is not what you believe the author “meant to say”

Analyze the text. The text is what the author “meant to say,” or she should’ve written something else. Analyze the words on the page.



Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.


Curtis, G. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2008, from http://www.fallacyfiles.org


Perkins, D. (1995). Smart schools : better thinking and learning for every child. New York: Free Press.


What analysis is

What analysis isn't

Center it around a text

Developing skills

Fake analysis - dangers & opportunities for coaching

Coach for real analysis

Analytical moves

Logical fallacies

Analysis do's and don'ts

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