Ace the LET! Tips for Analyzing English literature

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Every English exam features Reading Comprehension items that test the ability of a reader to grasp and examine literary texts. Three to four questions usually follow a literary text, with the items asking questions ranging from who, what, when, where, why and how, to more difficult questions on the theme or message of the text.

Provided that you have a fair understanding of the parts and rules of the English language, here are some tips for analyzing English literary pieces that you may come across in your LET.

1. Map out the thoughts or ideas in the composition or piece

Mapping out concepts is a useful technique in identifying key ideas or thoughts, themes or messages. Whether it is a story, an essay or a poem, all kinds of texts can be analyzed and mapped out. There are many types of conceptual maps that can help you figure out a text, depending on the type of text and the purpose of the mapping.

A plot diagram is best used for analyzing short stories. This diagram has five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action (denouement), and resolution. This tool can help you analyze how a story progressed and appreciate the causal relationships of events in the story.

An essay can be broken down into an outline. To better analyze an essay, you can make a sentence outline that details first, the key idea/s of the essay and second, the supporting details of the key idea/s. This is what a sentence outline looks like:

    • This is Key Idea 1
      • This is Support 1 to Key Idea 1
      • This is Support 2 to Key Idea 1

Poetry may at first seem obscure or beyond understanding, but beneath the rhyme and meter are thoughts and ideas waiting to be discovered. To unravel the poem’s mysteries, examine the figurative language used in the poem. Look for symbols and metaphors used, and plot them out against the idea they represent in the poem.

2. Read between the lines, know the figures of speech

Literature uses figurative and emotive language to get a point across. There are many types of figures of speech, and here are the four most commonly used in the English language.

First is Simile, or the comparison of two objects with the use of the words ‘like’ and ‘as.’ Example, “Preparing for the LET exam is like training for the Olympic Games.”

The second is Metaphor which compares two seemingly disparate objects, and can be illustrated with this line from William Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, “When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” In this metaphor, Wordsworth compares the people to daffodils, associating some characteristics of the flower to the crowd he saw.

Personification, the third figure of speech, refers to giving life to an inanimate or lifeless object by attributing person or human-like features or capabilities to it. Take this example from the poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer, “A tree that looks at God all day/ And lifts her leafy arms to pray.”

The last figure of speech is Hyperbole. Hyperbole exaggerates situations, thoughts or objects to lay emphasis on an idea. This figure of speech is used every day. For instance, when we say “The wait for the train took forever,” we do not literally mean that we waited forever (is waiting forever even possible?). What the statement meant was that the train took a long time in coming, maybe an hour or more.

There are many other types of figures of speech, such as irony, synecdoche, among others. Knowing the definition of each figure of speech can help you navigate through texts and analyze its parts.

3. Read the text within its context

This last tip may sound profound, but it has a practical application that you will find useful in any fields or art discipline. It means to locate the text or the literary composition within its time or place in history. All works are executed within a certain period or era; a literary piece may champion the dominant thought of its time ( ), or it may go against the flow (think Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere).

Knowing the background of the text is essential to reading the intent of the author, the impact of the text on the audience, and the conventions in style and form followed or violated by the text. A bit of history can go a long way, especially when we are asked for the theme of a poem, a story, or an essay.

To illustrate, read this stanza from Carlos Bulosan’s poem If You Want to Know What We Are:

We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities;
in skies and seas and rivers, in lands everywhere;
our number increase as the wide world revolves
and increases arrogance, hunger disease and death.

Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956) is a Filipino writer and migrant worker. He left the Philippines and migrated to the United States in 1930 to find work, but suffered racism and unfair labor practices during his employment. He lived through the time of American occupation of the Philippines.

Based on the information, how do we interpret this stanza from If You Want to Know What We Are? Who does ‘We’ refer to?

Various points of analysis can be drawn from that bit of historical information. Knowing that Carlos Bulosan is a Filipino and a worker, we can infer that the poem is speaking for an oppressed group of people such as the colonized Filipinos or the migrant workers.

These techniques would not be effective if you miss out on the most important tip of all: read more. Reading more literary texts would open your eyes to structures, forms and conventions in literature, and improve your ability to understand texts. Reading to expand your knowledge base would also come in handy, as all kinds of texts are best read in relation to the world and to society.

If reading becomes a regular habit for you, you would be more prepared for the LET and the teaching profession.

Ace the LET! is a MindGym blog segment that features easy and practical steps in preparing, studying, and taking the LET. This segment will also compile tips from your MindGym coaches, and useful materials that you can use to achieve your LET goals, and ultimately, to finish at the top!

About Mo/am Alice

As Education Administrator/Director of MindGym, she tackles the center’s day-to-day affairs and gives its learners the warmth, care, and support that only the “heart” could afford to deliver. As one of the main coaches for MindGym’s Intensive Coaching for LET, she infuses practical lessons not only for LET success but for life as a teacher. She vows to be a lifelong learner. Follow her on Twitter.
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