The Teaching of Literature Should be Led by Ideas

Literature is not a subject in itself. It has a relatively young history as a subject and, as Northrop Frye says, should be seen as a combination of both history (for its structure) and philosophy (for its ideas).  

The teaching of literature should be led by ideas, especially for pupils compelled to take the subject. Ideas create purpose in a text. Texts also intend to not only present ideas but to interact with them and the reader, hopefully affecting both in the process. Take Orwell’s 1984 for example: it intends not only present the idea that those who are brainwashed will love ideologies to which they are brainwashed, but to warn the reader of such dangers themselves. 

I have seen literature taught by skills and process rather than by ideas (see Kirby’s great blog posts here). This devalues ideas in literature and instead prizes applying an acronym onto a text in order to understand its devices. It is still essential to approach texts in a systematic way, and acronyms or checklists of stylistic devices are useful. If they were not useful, they would not exist. But the teaching and understanding of literature must be led by ideas, something far more nebulous yet ambitious to teach and learn than a checklist of stylistic devices. 

Why Consider ‘Generalisations’ as a way of writing thesis statements? 

The process of creating generalisations or ‘Enduring’ or ‘Essential Understandings’ as promoted by Erickson et al. seems to have great potential as a way of teaching to the creation of ‘thesis statements’ in literature. 

Thesis statements (or topic sentences, or claims, or ‘points’ or ‘statements’) are ideas that the text is interested in. These ideas should resonate both socially and emotionally for the reader in different contexts, and really are the meat of why I’m writing this and post and why you reading it.  Without a quality thesis statement – precise and socially rich – no argument is possible. 

How to create a thesis statement:

Creating a thesis statement can be a three-part process, something I have seen in both UK and US systems of education: 


Analytical verb


The presentation of technology in 1984 


a world where free-will is crushed. 

This is written about in many forums and is both visual and useful. As far as a pick-me-up-and-go, this is great. Yet we want to create useful claims that avoid glibness. Therefore, how can students write useful claims? Just knowing the plot of a text is not enough. Instead, students must be working with the concepts on a regular, daily basis, using such language and evaluating the text as such. 

This is a great thesis generator: 
This is a great example of how to write literary thesis statements: 

How to create a generalisation – first attempts 

My example of creating a generalisation is for a classroom of Key Stage 4 (16-year-olds) who are reading Orwell’s 1984. 

For creating ‘generalisations’ I am following a model create by Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning (2000). 

Firstly I need to consider a range of concepts that could be covered. This list could be as simple as a series of themes we source for the text from the usual sources: 



Subversion of Reality

Subversion of Love and Feelings

Loss of Identity and Independence

Political Loyalty

Class System

Controlled Information and Rewriting of History

Use of Technology

Use and Abuse of Language

Psychological Manipulation/coercion




Stage One: Find Two of these ‘Concepts’ and match them together with a verb. Preface it with ‘students will understand that…’


Students will understand that technology affects control of citizens

Students will understand that technology enables control of citizens.


Stage/Level 2: Ask a ‘why or how’ question to create purpose to that generalisation. 

Level 2 How does technology enable coercion? Who is being coerced? Who is doing the coercion?

Technology enables governments to track thoughts and actions to control their citizens 

This introduces the concepts of ‘governments’ ‘thoughts’, ‘actions’ and ‘citizens’ . 

An alternative rewording could be Technology enables governments to control the thoughts and actions of citizens

We see some semantic issues here in trying to keep the conceptual word ‘coercion’. Perhaps ‘control’ is more effective. 


Stage/Level 3 Ask for the significance, or the purpose, of the claim?

Technology enables governments to control the thoughts and actions of citizens in order to maintain power. 


Technology enables governments to control the thoughts and actions of citizens in order to maintain power at the expense of individual freedom.  

Two new concepts introduced here are:
+ (individual) freedom

This stage aims for evaluative understanding and creates an argument. It is an argument because something of a reverse could be seen as true – technology can encourage freedom of thought without threatening the power of governments. 

Further Thoughts

At what point are these generalisations too unwieldy? Is the process of making them most useful? 

Should we start with generic themes at the start of the unit, and then share a conceptual ‘bank’ as we begin to ‘discover’ them in the text? (e.g we added ‘power’ ‘individual freedom’ ‘citizens’)  

At what point are we actually conscious of these generalisations in our internal maps?

Are these generalisations best used when students attempt to make their own and then compare them to mine?

I think this is the x-factor. When students are able to compare different generalisations, and then form thesis statements from them. 


So now we have a generalisation, can we turn this into a thesis statement and an actual argument? 

Technology enables the totalitarian government of Oceania to control the thoughts and actions of its civilians (or citizens!) in order to maintain power at the expense of individual freedom.  

The arguments can then be about engaging with the key concepts from the generalisation/thesis statement. 

Each claim in the three main paragraphs can contain more words from the generalisation/thesis statement (see Wiley). 


Further Thoughts: 

  1. Can concepts help form thesis statements? Can they form claims? Can they become evaluative statements at the ends of paragraphs? 
  2. Literature involves picking apart the presumptions underpinning statements. In the top one, an able student would question whether mass tracking of thoughts would be a benefit (stable population) (reduce threats to government), or a danger (reduces liberty etc).
  3. Students would also consider what kind of concepts might be tracked in claims, and in what order. 

Ultimately, I think that generalisations can at the least lead to interesting thesis statements, albeit unwieldy.