How To Teach the Difference Between Plot Summary and Analysis

Teaching the difference between plot summary and analysis is something that comes up pretty quickly in the school year if you teach 9th or 10th grade students. And getting the distinction clear is critical for your students’ success in being able to analyze literature in high school and beyond. Fortunately there are a few fun and simple strategies you can use to help your students grasp this so that they can build on it for the rest of the year. In this blog post I want to share with you a step-by-step lesson that can help your students see the differences and work with these concepts in multiple ways.

Begin with an Engaging Warm-Up

I like to teach this concept through a character analysis mini unit based on a short story we’ve recently read. But even before we get into what analysis is, we start with students choosing a character from a movie that they’ve seen. It can be any character at all, but I’ve found that most students are familiar with some superhero, so I usually steer them in that direction. I’ll have them jot down key characteristics about that character and turn to a partner and share. They don’t realize it, but even in this short exercise they are starting to analyze. Soon we will make this explicit.

Review the Definitions

After students think about a character from a movie that they remember and chat about that person, you’ll make a few definitions explicit. Here you will break down exactly what plot summary is and is not, and exactly what analysis is. Students can write down the concepts on guided notes for future reference. It’s key that they have this somewhere they can access because they will use these concepts all year (and beyond your class).

 This is the time to point out the “nitty gritty” of the definitions and see what questions your students may have before delving into examples.

Bullet list of what analysis is for high school English

Go Over Examples

Now is the time you give students examples to test their knowledge and solidify those definitions. I review as a class with high-interest examples. We review each definition with its own example, so as not to confuse students. Tell students they will specifically look for plot details in the first example, and then show a new example for analysis. I’ll read the paragraph aloud and then have students name as many plot details (or the analysis) as they can identify. Since my warm-up exercise uses superheroes as the topic, I stick with that in my own examples. Most students have seen some type of superhero movie, read a comic, or seen a cartoon with the hero trope, so it’s a fairly universal topic for class discussion. 

Spiderman analysis example.

Let Students Test Their Knowledge

Now is the time to have students begin working closer to independence. I use a “turn and talk” activity and have students discuss the differences between writing focused on plot details versus on analysis. Depending on the flow of the class, I may have them write their own ideas on a handout first, then begin collaboration. I’ll review the activity as a class or in larger groups as well so we can jot down ideas together and refer to those examples as a class later.

Use A Sorting Activity For Better Understanding

Even our “big kids” don’t want to sit and write notes every class. I like to find ways to make reviews and examples kinesthetic. One activity I like to incorporate is sorting. I create hand-held cards with examples of plot details and analysis. Students then separate into two piles based on whether it’s analysis or plot. I include this activity at the bottom of this blog post and you can download it today for free!

card sorting activity for plot details and analysis

Follow-up With Paragraph Coding

You can do this before or after the card sorting game, but it is critical that you give students a few model paragraphs and either as a full class, in partners or individually, have students “code” the paragraph by highlighting the use of analysis in one color and highlighting the use of plot details in another color. 

They should be able to see pretty quickly that a well-written paragraph for high school English is mostly analysis with only a few plot details that are essentially used to back up the analysis.

coding for analysis paragraph

Check for Understanding

Take some time at the end of the lesson to check that your class understands the differences between plot summary and analysis. The simplest way is to create an exit ticket. Simple is better, you’re just getting an idea of who might need review or extra practice. This way you can decide if you need to find more examples or alternate activities.

Don’t Forget to Touch Base

As with any concept, we can’t just teach it once and never talk about it again. It doesn’t have to be something complicated and time intensive. I might use an example as a warm-up and ask students if it is an example of a plot summary or analysis. I might throw in an exit ticket now and again to make sure they remember. It’s really about keeping these terms fresh and continuously rotating through their brain as useful information because as they navigate all their high school English classes they will be asked to analyze in both formal and informal ways. 

If this lesson sounds like it could work with your students, feel free to download it for free today! We’d love for you to try it out, and let us know how it goes. If it goes well, you can join the English Teacher Vault and get the entire unit, plus instant access to over 100 other resources!

Your free resources for teaching plot summary and analysis:

Character Analysis and Plot Details Slideshow

Student Guided Notes: Plot Details and Analysis

Card Sorting Activity For Analysis and Plot Details

Get the entire character analysis unit when you join the English Teacher Vault! 

Get access to all the lessons.


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