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3.1: Discover What a Text is Trying to Say

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    All texts—whether fiction or nonfiction—carry layers of information, built one on top of the other. As we read, we peel those back—like layers in an onion—and uncover deeper meanings.


    Figure 1, Hidden Meaning

    Take a look at Figure 1. We can explain the “deeper meaning” concept by investigating this figure. All texts and stories have surface meaning. In the sketch, this is represented by all the things we see above ground: the tree, the house, and the box (A), along with whatever is in it—even though the box may be closed, anyone who walks by can see it and explore it. These items are concrete and obvious. In “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” for example, the surface story is about a little girl who goes for a walk in the forest, wanders into the bears’ home, gets into their belongings, and is frightened off.

    But stories and essays also have deeper, hidden meanings. In Figure 1, there’s a buried treasure chest (B) deep underground, waiting to be discovered and opened. Texts are much the same—they each contain obvious, surface level meanings, and they each contain a buried prize as well. What’s the deeper meaning in “Goldilocks”? Most fables and fairy tales were designed to teach, warn, or scare. Perhaps the author wants us to think about what happens when we invade people’s privacy. Or maybe it’s about the drawbacks of curiosity. What do you think?

    When working with a text, be aware of everything that is happening within it—almost as if you’re watching a juggler with several balls in the air at one time:

    • Consider the characters or people featured in the text, their dialog, and how they interact.
    • Be aware of the plot’s movement (in a fictional story) or the topic development (in a nonfiction story or essay) and the moments of excitement or conflict as the action rises and falls.
    • Look for changes in time—flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences.
    • Watch for themes (ideas that occur, reappear, and carry meaning or a message throughout the piece) or symbols (objects or ideas that stand for or mean something else; these carry meaning that we often understand quickly without thinking about it too much).

    Examples of themes: coming of age, redemption, the nature of honesty, conflict, sacrifice.

    Examples of symbols: full moon (typically suggests mystery), dark forest (danger or the possibility of being lost), white flag (surrender), a path or road (journey).

    As you read, always look for both surface meanings and those buried beneath the surface, like treasure. That’s the fun part of reading—finding those precious hidden bits, waiting to be uncovered and eager to make your reading experience richer and deeper. Even if you just scratch the surface, you’ll learn more.

    More About Figurative Language

    Much of our work so far has been around academic texts, which emphasize literal language. You got an introduction to figurative lanaguage in Unit 2, but we will need to look more deeply into it. Much literature and other descriptive texts use figurative language. Here are some elements you will want to pay attention to when you are reading your assigned novel for this course and other texts:



    In-Class Exercise 3.1: Figurative Language Table

    After the figurative language lecture, complete the table with examples from the novel you are reading for this class.




    Literal Language or Denotation

    The dictionary definition of a word(s).


    The social overtones, cultural or emotional meanings of a word(s)

    Figurative Language

    Describing something by making a comparison to something else.


    A comparison using words such as “like” or “as”


    A direct comparison NOT using “like” or “as”


    A word combining two words that have opposite meanings


    Giving human traits to non-human creatures, things or ideas.


    Exaggerating to show strong effect.


    An expression with less emphasis than expected (Opposite of a Hyperbole)


    This page titled 3.1: Discover What a Text is Trying to Say is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amee Schmidt & Donald Winter.

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