Substantive Education

February 10, 2010

Writing an Explication

Teaching students to write is to teach many subjects at once.  Writing an essay involves more than knowing how to spell and construct sentences.  Students have to develop logic and thinking skills so that they can make reasoned arguments.  They need to learn to do research and assimilate knowledge so that they have something meaningful to communicate.  For each student these blending of skills will result in a unique writing style and each student will struggle with different aspects of writing.

One method to help students work on all of these skills at once is to ask them to write an explication.  Due to the nature of an explication, students are asked to closely examine the writing of someone else, to pay attention to literary elements, images, and themes so that they can clarify them in a concise, clear manner.  In doing this they are not only learning about the passage of literature they are explicating, but they are also learning, by carefully observing writing, to be better writers themselves.  Generally explications are relatively short, so along with understanding a passage, students must also develop a sharp focus and be concise and clear.  These are skills that will carry over into other areas of writing.

I’ve asked my students to write a one page explication this week about any passage of literature they are currently reading.  I know that the idea is still fuzzy to many of them, and to many of their parents as well, so I hope that the following will help to clarify what is expected, along with the benefits of doing this type of essay.

An explication is one of the most important papers that students will be assigned in college literary classes. In short, an explication is to make the implicit…explicit.  In an explication the student slowly reveals the meaning of a poem, text, or passage by providing literary analysis.  Examining the literary elements used by an author, we can make the purpose and meaning of a story or poem clear.  A well done explication will help the reader gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of the passage.

The first step is to choose a passage of literature, short story, or poem, (often these choices will be made for the student by the teacher) and to read it carefully.  Generally a passage will need to be read several times, along with taking notes.

Next the student should make note of the various literary devices used.  Note down the figurative language.  Does the author use similes or metaphors?  Are there any recurring words that suggest a theme?  What is the tone of the piece, the overall mood?  Who is speaking, whose point of view is prominent?   Do the authors words conjure up images in your mind that shed light on the passage.  What descriptive words are used?  How do they contribute to the overall message the author is conveying?  Consider the verbs carefully.  Does the authors word choice affect how you feel about the characters in the story?  Are the characters believable?

Now students may need to do a little research.  Is there background material that would be helpful to know?  Is the piece written in a different era with different vocabulary?  What is the historical context, if relevant?  Would understanding the authors background give clues as to the meaning?

Another line of thought and approach if a student is explicating a short passage or idea within a larger work, is to demonstrate how the crafting of the overall plot is illuminated and moved along by the selected passage.  How does this passage shed light on a conflict, a character, or a theme in the book?  Does it foreshadow or provide clarity about a characters motivation or actions?

An explication of a poem will probably involve moving line by line, because by it’s very nature, a poem is condensed speech and each word is important.  Breaking down a short passage within a larger work will require the student to ask different questions, showing how the selected passage is related to the whole.  As students are moving toward the actual writing process of their explication they should have a sharp focus on what they are trying to express.  Typically, students will not try to analyze the whole of Hamlet, instead they will pick a theme, an image, or a key passage to explicate that will provide the reader with valuable insights.

After all this initial work is done the student is ready to begin writing.  In an organized fashion, students should explain all that they have discovered so that the reader will have the necessary information to fully appreciate and understand the piece.  It may help to point out to students that often an explication is exactly what a good literature teacher has done for them.  Have they had someone explain a passage of Shakespeare to them providing vocabulary help, pointing out the use of images etc.  That is really all an explication is.

These types of writing exercises help students to hone a variety of skills necessary, not just in college literature courses, but in life.  Students must pay thoughtful attention to what they are reading, note details and connections, and present their findings in a logical, concise manner.   While students of a wide range of ages will find this type of writing challenging. it is also a great way to prep Juniors and Seniors in high school for  further studies.



  1. I have to be honest and confess I have never heard of an explication until I saw this…
    I love learning new things…

    Comment by Ellen — February 10, 2010 @ 11:49 pm | Reply

  2. […] Ireland, Peace Wall, Poetry, Tim Bagdanov My Essay writing class has been working on writing explications. For the first few assignments students were free to choose which pieces their would explicate.  […]

    Pingback by Essay Writing class update. « Substantive Education — March 4, 2010 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

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