Symbolism Assignment For High School

Teaching Symbolism Background Information

Discuss the following concepts. Take notes where applicable:

Symbolism allows people to communicate beyond the limits of language.

Humans use symbolism all the time. Words themselves are mere symbols for something else.

A symbol is a person, place, or object that stands for something beyond itself.

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:

  1. Choose a well known religious, national, or cultural symbol
  2. write a (half) paragraph analyzing its meaning. Include the standard meaning along with a personal interpretation and a personal interpretation from someone else.
  3. The personal nature of the assignment makes it excellent for a paragraph challenge.

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

One of the beautiful things about stories are the underlying lessons, morals, or critiques they contain. Teaching students to identify these hidden messages brings greater depth to their literary experiences.

Storyboarding is a great way to teach the concept of themes, symbols, or motifs. It allow the visuals or symbols to tell the stories, making the ideas easy for students to understand and expound upon. With storyboards, students can reflect abstract ideas in a concrete manner, a useful tool for middle school or high school students.

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Defined

In literature, themes, motifs, and symbols serve a number of purposes. Some convey meanings other than those explicitly in the text. Others help the reader understand motivations of a character or an author’s intended message. Sometimes themes, symbols, or motifs simply paint a picture in the reader’s mind through repetition of imagery.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!

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Our Recommended Lesson Plan

Overview of the Lesson

Students are given a particular theme, symbol, or motif to track throughout the reading of a novel.

Time: Throughout a Unit

Grade Level: 8-12


Students will be able to depict a key theme, symbol, or motif from a work of literature and convey their understanding of its meaning through storyboarding.

  1. Identify examples of a theme, symbol, or motif in fictional text, and interpret its meaning.
  2. Identify the effects of one of the above on the plots of fictional texts.
  3. Demonstrate understanding of symbolism by completing a graphic organizer or visual presentation of the abstract idea.

Requisite Prior Knowledge

Students should be able to understand that objects have deeper meanings, feelings, or emotions associated with them. For example, students should be able to explain the significance of the American flag and list three feelings or emotions that accompany its literal meaning.

Lesson Specific Essential Questions

  1. How can an abstract idea create a deeper meaning?
  2. What are the connotations of a recurring structure in literature?
  3. How do symbols affect my everyday life?

Anticipated Student Preconceptions/Misconceptions

Some students will have trouble thinking abstractly. Many students do not realize that some themes, symbols, or motifs have general or universal meanings.

Common Core State Standards Addressed

Although this lesson can be used for multiple grade levels, the examples below are the Common Core State Standards for grades 9-10. Please see your Common Core State Standards for grade-appropriate strands.

  • ELA-Literacy.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
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone)
  • ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5: Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest

Lesson Details/Procedure

Before Reading

Ask students to complete the worksheet by filling in ideas, emotions, and feelings associated with the images in the storyboard. This will convey that each image has an abstract meaning.

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During Reading

When beginning the novel, the teacher should give each student their own theme, symbol, or motif to track. Students should complete a template storyboard by collecting a direct quote, page number, and explanation of the concept.

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After Reading

Once students have tracked their concept through the novel, they will create their own storyboard. It should visually depict the scene, include a direct quote, and explain its meaning for each chapter. There are completed examples below.

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More Examples of Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Activities

THEMEThe theme is the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person's thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic or take-away message.
MOTIFA motif is a distinctive feature or repeating idea in an artistic or literary composition.
SYMBOLA symbol is an object representing, or used for, something else; frequently an emblem, token, or sign, which represents something deeper and more important. It might be a material object representing something immaterial.

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