English Language

Approaching Analysis



Detailed examination of the elements or structure of something: study, investigation, scrutiny.

The Fall of Icarus is a painting I love and first came across during my PGCE. A seemingly innocent landscape with an array of life carrying on around the flailing legs of Icarus as he drowns after attempting to fly near the sun, which is already half set and a long way away. The ploughman continues to plough, ignorant to another’s suffering. As Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux-Arts” (the inspiration for the painting) suggests, humankind remains ever indifferent of others’ suffering – incidentally, this picture is a great stimulus for An Inspector Calls

The significance of Icarus in the painting, or more to the point, his insignificance, is important as the onlooker must search for him, look closely and carefully to find him and therefore start to understand the meaning behind the painting. When teaching analysis, it is easy to assume that students can simply pick out the important aspects of a text or identify the significant word in a quotation; much like locating Icarus, this can be tricky and not come naturally to the young people we teach.

Some strategies that I have found success with first involve equipping my students with a toolkit to allow them to partake and engage in analysis; it is frustrating and demotivating if they have the ideas but cannot articulate them. Here is a word bank that has been useful:


Hopefully, as you move along each column from the left, the word bank demonstrates the process of analysis. It is the process that students can tap into, rather than coldly picking key words and making assumptions. This process needs to involve the other Assessment Objectives – namely context – to ensure that their analysis can turn into explanation and be developed in detail. Below are two firm favourites of mine that can be used for any text.

#1 The Detail Detective

Show an image to your students; it must have many components and also an overall meaning (for example, a family at the dinner table). Students must follow these steps:

  1. List as many nouns that you can find in the image
  2. Use adjectives to describe the people’s expressions/ objects positions
  3. Use verbs to explain what the people are doing


  1. What can you infer about your points for 1, 2 and 3?

Students should be able to identify all the elements of the image and then make informed inferences based on the small details. Some details may be insignificant, but each contributes to the overall meaning. Here is a picture I use for Jekyll and Hyde (The Birling’s dining room is also great for this activity).


Spotlight – he is hunted, trying to hide, attention is on him; he has committed a crime

Cloak – he is in disguise, wants to blend in, colour of night time, like a ghost, in-distinctive

Top hat – Jack the Ripper, upper class, wealthy, educated

This can then light a spark to particular quotations and lead to evaluative comments on why the writer has chosen certain elements in the creation of a scene.

#2 Wave of Wonder

This activity encourages students to view their analysis as a wave that begins as a ripple and continues to grow until it crashes towards a definitive conclusion. This is supportive of a focused argument response.

Again, this example is from Jekyll and Hyde, but works with any text.

  • Provide a theme/question for students to focus on, for example: How does Stevenson conform to the Gothic in his presentation of Hyde?
  • Read a small section of the text. Students need to highlight what is Gothic(or the chosen theme) from the section and the quotation should be placed on the board – this is the beginning of the ‘wave’.
  • Students draw a circle around the quote and fill it with the below; each question needs a new circle (I suggest A3!)
  1. What are the direct connotations of this word/technique?
  2. What do you personally think of when you read this quotation?
  3. What contextual information do you know that links to this quotation?
  4. What can you infer about the character?
  5. What might a contemporary audience think?
  • Complete the activity with students answering the question with the support of the key words bank.

The aim is for students to see quotations as part of a bigger more significant picture, rather than a random choice from a section of text.

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