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Teaching Literary Devices the Easy Way

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Question: What do the songs Under the Boardwalk by The Drifters, Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles, and Yakety Yak by The Coasters have in common?

Answer: Aside from being chart-topping oldies, they are all mentioned in The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, a favorite of middle grade curricula. And these songs are a great examples of allusion, the reference to well known real world things.

Two sixth grade teachers from Mary E. Zolz Middle School in Runnemede, New Jersey brought this example to my attention. Their Literary Terms content is posted on a Web page that happily is readable for all of us, not just their 6th grade classes (take a look, it’s good content:

I love it when we can teach literary terms organically by introducing a term to explain a great writing example from a book the students are reading. Imagine highlighting these references to the songs by playing them in class while putting the word allusion and its definition up. Every student will remember that lesson!

Taken in the abstract, literary terms and their definitions are the stuff of test-anxiety nightmares. A long list of hard-to-spell-or-pronounce terms with confusing definitions amounts to torture for the student, and that’s not hyperbole. Read this list out loud if you don’t quite believe me yet:

Anaphora, anastrophe, anthropomorphism, aphorism, assonance, caesura, consonance, chiasmus, colloquialism, euphemism, hyperbole, hypophora, isocolon, litotes, malapropism, metonymy, polysyndeton, soliloquy, zoomorphism.

If you can read it without pause, you must be an English teacher. I can’t, not without a extra care over some of the pronunciations, even though I’m a writer who’s used all of these devices many times. As a young student, I would have had a lot of trouble memorizing their spellings, let alone their definitions.

To put it more whimsically, ask not what chiasmus can do for you, ask why your teacher thinks you should memorize it!

And what’s with all those words that have multiple Ys in them? I can tell you, as an author whose last name has the vowel i followed by the vowel a, that uncommon combinations of vowels are confounding. No one seems to be able to spell Hiam correctly, and very few people can spell hypophora or polysyndeton. That these have venerable Ancient Greek pedigrees is no consolation to middle school students.

I did cherry pick harder terms for that list. Usually we start with terms like analogy, irony, and symbolism, which are more common and easier. But hard-to-spell terms are also important because authors do use them. I think the trick is to tackle them one at a time, in context, and bring each one to life by linking it to a great example from the reading, or from a poem or paragraph you showcase.

When Romeo is standing beneath Juliet’s bedroom balcony in the dark, he speaks his own thoughts aloud (soliloquy), saying, But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. And of course he is both metaphor and hyperbole as well. To understand how these two simple lines do their wonderful work, we need to swing three literary terms into full use. What a great teaching example!

I’m an author, not a literary scholar. When I write,I don’t consciously say to myself, “Hmm, I haven’t used anastrophe in this chapter yet, so I better put it in soon!” My general feeling was that I probably didn’t use a lot of literary devices. Aren’t they from the classics? So imagine my surprise when I started looking for literary devices in my own writing and found lots of them. How did they get there?

And yet it does make sense. When you read and write, you soak up methods and use them yourself. Writing becomes a partially unconscious thing. And teachers help with this natural acquisition of literary techniques by getting students to stop and think about good passages of writing. It’s intriguing to wonder what Shakespeare was doing.

In preparing curriculum materials* based on Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, I had a lot of fun identifying examples of literary devices in my own writing. It felt a little strange, actually, to take off my writing hat and don my teacher’s hat for this purpose. I found myself muttering, “What’s the author doing here? Oh! He used anastrophe to slow the reader’s pace and emphasize a point! Cool.” Even though I was the writer, I still had to parse and analyze like anyone would, because of course I don’t write with a checklist of literary devices at my elbow.

Looking for examples of literary devices in Silent Lee was quite fun, and I did find plenty of examples of literary devices in action. My hope is that they will be used to teach literary devices organically, by talking through each sentence of passage with your students.

* My content for teaching literary devices, as well as character and plot development, is available in the Teachers’ Lounge at the Webster Press website,

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