Symbolism in Literature Lesson Plan


Moby Dick is about a whale hunt gone bad. The Old Man and the Sea is about a fishing trip gone bad. The Great Gatsby is about a weekend party gone bad. The American flag is a red, white, and blue piece of cloth. Teaching symbolism will eliminate stupid answers like these.


A Symbol of Despair

We read Of Mice and Men as a class. Everyone liked it. I couldn’t wait to read the literary analysis essays about it. After the fourteenth consecutive D-, I realized nobody understood the broader meaning of the novel. I had failed in teaching symbolism. As a punishment, I hanged myself in effigy from the ceiling. I used a rolling chair. It darted out from under me. I fell on my head, received a third degree concussion, and lay unconscious.

When I awoke, John Steinbeck stood over me, called me Lennie, pulled out a gun, and shot me, not with a bullet, but with a teaching symbolism lesson plan and strategies.

I share it with you.

ELA Common Core Standards Covered

The following assignments cover the following ELA common core standards for reading and writing.  This is for your administrator, not your kids.  Kids need student-friendly worded objectives.

  1. RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  2. RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  3. W.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Teaching Symbolism: Background Information

Discuss the following concepts. Take notes where applicable.

  1. Symbolism allows people to communicate beyond the limits of language.
  2. Humans use symbolism all the time. Words themselves are mere symbols for something else.
  3. A symbol is a person, place, or object that stands for something beyond itself.
  4. National, religious, and cultural symbols have standard interpretations as well as a personal significance for each individual. For example, the American flag symbolizes the United States of America. The personal significance, however, varies. A U.S. army veteran cherishes its meaning. A terrorist, on the other hand, finds it despicable. A green piece of paper with George Washington’s picture on it symbolizes one dollar. A billionaire considers it chump change. A beggar considers it an elusive treasure. This is an excellent exercise for teaching symbolism.
  • Choose a well known religious, national, or cultural symbol
  • Write a (half) paragraph analyzing its meaning. Include the standard meaning along with a personal interpretation and a personal interpretation from someone else.
  • The personal nature of the assignment makes it excellent for a paragraph challenge.

5.  A literary symbol gains its meaning from the context of a literary work and often changes as the work develops.

Strategies and Procedures for Teaching Symbolism in Literature

Strategy: Look for references to concrete objects and analyze whether they could be symbols. Pay special attention to objects named in the title.
Procedure: Make a two-column chart. In the left column, write down the concrete object. In the right column, write what it may symbolize.

Strategy: Pay special attention to objects or places accompanied by a lengthy description, repetition, or special placement.
Procedure: Analyze the title. List objects mentioned more than once. List objects that appear at crucial moments.  Determine whether a place, object, or character is essential to the theme of a literary work.

Extension Activity: Write a literary symbol analysis. It should include the following:

  1. A topic sentence that names the literary work and the symbol.
  2. Possible interpretations for the symbol.
  3. The symbol’s effect on the work as a whole.
  4. The author’s purpose in using the symbol.

Teaching Literary Elements with Short Stories

Understanding literary elements is necessary for literary analysis.  These short stories will help you teach literary elements.