Allusions are a type of literary device that makes a reference to another well-known work or event. Typically, allusions are not considered complex or hard to understand. The difficulty in recognizing allusions in a piece of literature stems from the reader's familiarity with the work that's referenced. Helping middle school students understand allusions is a matter of activating their prior knowledge and using subjects they are already familiar with to help them see that allusions are all around them.
Allusions can be cultural or historical in nature. The best way to recognize allusions is to be well read and up to date with current and historical events. But if that isn’t the case, knowing how to identify and research allusions will help as well.
Allusions abound both in literature and speech. When someone calls you a Judas, he is making an allusion that means that you are a backstabbing person. Teaching students to recognize cultural or historical allusions is a matter of making them aware of basic, well-known facts. Because many students are no longer required to read widely in a variety of areas, and because many students don’t like to read, recognizing allusions can be difficult. To effectively teach allusions, teachers should find a text that has several allusions.
Using a graphic organizer with headings for "Stated Text," "Reference Source," and "Allusion Meaning," have students read the text and highlight any allusions. It doesn’t matter whether they understand the meaning of the allusion at this point. Once they’ve identified the allusions in the text, have them complete the sections of the graphic organizer that they already know.
Model deciphering the first allusion for the students. Read the paragraph where the allusion is used and think through it out loud so students can have the benefit of hearing how you figure it out. You might say something like, “Hmm, the speaker here says that the artist was no Van Gogh. I’m not sure who Van Gogh is, but because the sentence is talking about an artist, maybe Van Gogh is an artist too.” You can then do an Internet search on Van Gogh so that students can see that Van Gogh was a famous artist. Under the "Allusion Meaning" section of the graphic organizer, you can then write that the allusion meant the speaker in the story thought that the artist wasn’t any good.
Context clues can help students figure out what allusions mean. In the example above, the word "artist" was a context clue that gave the allusion a frame of reference. Having students identify the context clues surrounding an allusion will also help them identify and analyze allusions
Using song lyrics with references to famous people or movies is another great way to introduce and teach allusions to students. Because they are already familiar with the song and know what the allusion means, doing so activates their prior knowledge and helps them realize that they already know what an allusion is on some level.
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