Page 3 - High School English I: Reading Study Guide for the STAAR test

Passage Type 2: Reading Literary Texts

Literary texts refer to writing across a wide variety of genres. Street signs and cereal boxes can actually be considered “literary texts,” but for the purpose of this test you’ll be asked to read more traditional literary texts like fictional short stories, poetry, drama excerpts, etc. Since many of the skills you’ll need to apply to the reading of literary texts also pertain to reading informational or expository texts, this section will highlight the skills unique to, or more commonly associated with, the reading of literary texts. It is important to note: 13 of the 52 questions on this portion of the test assess your skills in reading literary texts. If this is not a strength for you, make sure that you “brush up” on reading skills and strategies that will help you with this type of text.

Influences on Literary Text

Many influencing factors affect authors when they write. These may include allusions to Greek mythology or borrowing a storyline from an author they admire and putting a modern spin on it. Here are some of the influencing factors of which you should be aware when reading literary texts.

Mythical, Classical, and Traditional Literature

Much of the contemporary literature we read has the influence of mythology, folklore, and classic or traditional literature in it. In the same way that the English language has “borrowed” words from Greek and Latin and incorporated them into the language, so too have literary texts often taken on some influence from earlier writers whose work has affected the author. From allusions, to metaphors, to characters, to storylines themselves, the influence of mythical, classical, and traditional literature can be seen in contemporary works. Part of your assessment will be to analyze that influence on twentieth and twenty-first century literature.

Figurative Language

Figurative language is a big umbrella term that covers literary devices like: metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism. Figurative language is not meant to be taken literally, but instead is used in an artistic sense. When an author uses a metaphor, she does not necessarily intend for the reader to understand that one thing is another, but rather that the two share some similarities for comparison. The STAAR® assessment asks you to “relate the figurative language of a literary work to its historical and cultural setting,” meaning that they are testing your ability to understand the figurative language, how and why it is figurative, and why an author may have chosen to use such language based on the time period (historical) or culture of the author, her characters, or setting (cultural).

Types of Literature

Beneath the large umbrella term of “literature” come many categories. They include poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction. The list is more extensive if you break the categories down even further. The STAAR® test assesses your ability to read, comprehend, analyze, and access the ideas presented in a variety of literature types. Here are some with which you’ll need to be familiar.


Poetry is an artistic form of writing that can take many shapes. From sonnets to lyrics to epic poems, poetry is writing that tends to be an expression of feelings and ideas through figurative language. It often uses rhyme and the sound of language to evoke certain feelings in the reader. When students are tested on poetry, the questions often involve analyzing the structure and/or literary elements of a poem or excerpt of a poem. In analyzing the structure and literary elements, you should be able to apply an understanding of the effects of diction and imagery on the reader, determine how or why an author uses figurative language, irony, paradox, etc., and recognize the effects the use of these tools have on the reader. Here are some of the literary elements often analyzed in poetry.

Diction—Diction simply refers to the author’s word choice. When you are examining diction, you want to think about why an author selects one word as opposed to another that would have the same or similar meaning. In poetry, an author’s diction is especially important because the words used “paint a picture” for the reader, so more figurative and flowery language is likely to be used to create a certain mood for the reader.

Imagery and Controlling Images—The term imagery refers to the mental picture or “image” that is created in a reader’s mind based on the language and description used by an author. Imagery is usually visually descriptive, but can also include descriptive language that appeals to a reader’s other senses: hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling. Controlling images are images or descriptions that run throughout a piece of literature and are repeated multiple times to stress the theme of a work or give the reader insight to a particular symbol or idea. Controlling images are generally easy to identify because they are the ones your brain keeps coming back to and noticing or remembering.

Figurative Language—Figurative language is language that is not meant to be taken literally but is used to help engage the reader by making the text more effective, impactful, or persuasive. Figurative language includes literary devices like similes, metaphors, personification, allusion, imagery, and hyperbole.

Understatement—This literary device allows authors to draw attention to an idea by making a situation seem less important than it really is. Understatement can create a sense of irony or sarcasm that makes the audience sit up and take note. An example of understatement might be if you were involved in a car accident resulting in major body damage to the car, but when explaining to your parents what happened, you suggest it’s just a small scratch. Understatement is the opposite of overstatement (see below).

Overstatement—Overstatement (sometimes referred to as hyperbole) means making a big deal out of something that really isn’t important. It’s a form of exaggeration that may be used by an author to bring attention to an issue. For example, to say that Grace was “going to die” because she had a pimple break out the night before her prom is a bit of an overstatement. She is not literally going to die from the pimple, but the exaggeration does draw attention to the idea that she is embarrassed not to have flawless skin for the big dance.

Irony—Irony is the difference between what you expect and what actually happens or is said. There are three types of irony: verbal, situational, and dramatic.

  • Verbal irony is the difference between what someone says and what he or she really means. Verbal irony can seem sarcastic or funny, but the author is counting on the audience’s intelligence to pick up on the true meaning the words are intended to convey.

  • Situational irony is the difference between what you expect to happen in a certain situation and what actually happens, which would be unexpected. When you watch sitcoms (or “situational comedies”), you laugh because what happens to the characters on the screen is not what you would expect to happen in a particular situation.

  • Dramatic irony is created when the audience knows something the characters don’t know. For example, readers know that Juliet has taken a potion to make her appear dead, but that she will wake up. Romeo does not know this, however, so he takes the drastic measure of stabbing himself to join his sweet Juliet in death.

Sarcasm—This can sometimes create a sense of irony in that a sarcastic comment can be unexpected in a particular situation or coming from a particular character. More than that is the sense that sarcasm is intended to wound or emotionally hurt the person to whom it is directed. It is negative in nature because it is usually insulting in some way. Irony does not have to be mean or negative.

Paradox—A paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement that is still somehow true. Paradoxes may create humor when they are used, but they also make a reader rethink the statement to discover the contradiction and consider its underlying truth. George Orwell includes a paradox in his allegorical novel, Animal Farm, when he has the pigs proclaim, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” If all are equal, then none can be “more equal,” but, in a sense, in life, although all humans are created equal, not all are treated as such. So there is a sense of truth to the statement even though it seems entirely contradictory.


As a type of literary text, drama refers to a play or theatrical storytelling. The word “drama” has taken on a certain connotation today, as in “She is just drama, so I don’t associate with her!” When we consider it as a type of literature, however, we remember that a drama doesn’t have to be serious in nature. A drama (play) can be a comedy, a tragedy, or a history. And just like other types of literature, its structure and elements can be analyzed. Here are some terms specific to drama with which you should be familiar.

Monologue—a long speech delivered by one character. Not to be confused with soliloquy (see below), a monologue is usually delivered by one character who may be addressing an audience on stage or addressing the viewing audience directly.

Soliloquy—a speech delivered by one character to himself or herself. A soliloquy is a speech given by a character who seems to be thinking aloud and talking to themselves. Soliloquies allow the audience insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings. Soliloquies may be delivered with other characters present on the stage, but the other characters cannot hear what is being said as it is an internal monologue delivered aloud for the sake of the audience.

Dramatic Irony—Dramatic irony refers to the tension that is created for an audience when they know something that the characters do not know. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet gives her famous “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” soliloquy. She thinks she is speaking to herself, but the audience knows that Romeo is hiding in the dark listening to her speak of her love for him.


The term fiction refers to a piece of writing that is a work of the author’s imagination. Fiction may seem real if the author gives realistic details or models it after real-life events or people, but it is important to remember that fiction is not real and is the author’s fabrication, not fact. The fictional passages included on the STAAR® test will require you to read, understand, make inferences, and draw conclusions about the elements of the text that may be unique to fiction writing. Here are some terms to know and understand that are commonly used when analyzing works of fiction.

Plot DevelopmentPlot refers to the actions in a story that take the reader from the beginning of the tale to the end. Some texts have a lot of action and there is a lot of plot unfolding, while some texts have less of a plot and are usually not as engaging to read. Plot development refers to how the author “builds” the story. How do the characters interact with each other? What is the sequence of events? Does the order of events tell a cohesive story that is easy for the reader to follow? Authors may use various tools to build and develop the plot, and the test will assess your ability to recognize the plot structure and analyze its effectiveness.

Linear plot development occurs when the events of the story are told in chronological order: first this occurred, then that happened, and, finally, the story ends. Non-linear plot development allows authors to take their readers on twists and turns in the telling of the story. Non-linear plot development techniques include flashbacks, where the reader is taken back in time by the author, interrupting an otherwise chronological order of events. Flashbacks interrupt the normal “flow” of the text, but give the reader insight or background information important to the events currently unfolding. It is like a little “time out” while the author takes the reader on a side tangent that will eventually loop back to the current story.

Foreshadowing is another plot development technique where the author hints at events that will unfold later in the story. Often appearing at the beginning of a story or a chapter, foreshadowing means giving little hints about later plot events still to come. Some texts include sub-plots, which are secondary plots that run parallel to the main action. There’s the main action and set of events, but there’s another set of actions or events that is connected to the main plot, but which may develop differently. Subplots often involve connections between a secondary character and one or more main characters. Parallel plots are similar to subplots in that they are secondary to the main action, but they are not as fully developed as the main or subplot and often don’t include a connection to the main character(s).

Character Development—Like plot development, character development refers to how an author creates, presents, and develops his or her characters. Analysis of character development in terms of how an author creates complex yet believable characters is assessed on the STAAR® test. This means identifying the author’s techniques to breathe life into a character. What kinds of obstacles do they face? How do they handle adversity? How do other characters feel about them?

One technique of character development is the use of a character foil, which is a secondary character used by the author to highlight certain qualities or characteristics of the main character by providing a strong contrast. For example, Shakespeare uses a foil for Romeo in the character of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Where Mercutio is cynical about love but is outgoing and the “life of the party,” Romeo is more shy and reserved but falls in love deeply and passionately. While they are best friends and have some things in common, there are very different personality traits that play off each other through the course of the play.

Point of View—The point of view of a text is the perspective from which the story’s action is told. Sometimes an author will create a narrator to “tell” the story to the reader and the author’s choice of narrator and point of view affects how the reader interprets and understands the events of the story. There are three main points of view:

  • First person—The narrator uses first person pronoun “I” and is usually a character in the story.
  • Second person—The narrator speaks directly to the reader using second person pronoun “you.”
  • Third person—Using third person pronouns he and she, the narrator may be an outsider looking in at the action of the story or the narrator may have a limited view and follow over the shoulder of just one character.

Literary Non-Fiction

Literary nonfiction is writing that creates factually accurate narratives using literary styles and techniques usually associated with fiction. Literary nonfiction would include things like biographies, autobiographies, personal essays, and even sports writing. When literary or figurative elements are applied to nonfiction writing about real events or people, literary nonfiction has been created. Within the genre of literary nonfiction, test-takers will be asked to analyze how literary nonfiction texts like personal essays interweave an author’s personal ideas and examples with factual information to explain an idea, present a particular perspective, or describe a real-life situation or event.

Sensory Language

Sensory language is language that appeals to a reader’s five senses and helps the reader “see” or connect with an image by creating a mental picture. It is important to be able to identify examples of sensory language in a text because providing evidence from the text helps to support any claims about an author’s use of sensory language and its effect on the reader. You will also need to be able to recognize non-sensory elements, like paradox, irony, and sarcasm. For a review of those, please refer back to the Poetry section of this study guide.

Media Literacy

Reading and literacy apply to more than just words on the page. Media literacy is the ability to read and understand how words, images, and even sounds can work together to impact meaning for an audience. The same comprehension skills used to analyze words can also be applied to images, graphics, and sounds used in various types of media.

Presentation Differences

There is a saying, “a picture is worth 1000 words,” and the essence of that saying is key to media literacy. Different forms of media rely on different forms of presentation to sell their message to an audience. The STAAR® test measures your ability to analyze how effectively words, images, graphics, and sound work together in various forms to impact meaning and the impact of visual images on the message being communicated.

Non-visual texts—Non-visual texts are considered to be “word-only” texts. Though you might think of them as being visual (you have to look at the words to read them), texts that are only words and do not have extra visual accompaniments like charts, graphs, or pictures are non-visual.

Visual texts—Visual texts are those that include images, pictures, illustrations, photographs, etc. There may or may not also be words accompanying the visuals, but the idea is that the images communicate a message, with no words needed.

Graphic art—Graphic art is art created on a two-dimensional plane (not sculpture, which is three-dimensional) like drawing, painting, computer graphics, calligraphy, photography, etc. It is a visual artistic representation with no words required.

Illustrations—Illustrations are drawings, sketches, paintings, etc., that “illustrate” or provide a visual example or explanation of something. For example, a book about sailing may have illustrations of a variety of sailing vessels from several centuries.

News photographs—News photographs or images of the world taken by photojournalists may be used as a powerful visual text. Capturing just the right moment, giving a visual to the audience of a situation or place with which they are completely unfamiliar, can “speak volumes” for which there may not be sufficient words.

Formality and Tone

When images, graphics, words, and sounds are used together in any combination, a critical reader will be able to evaluate the changes in formality and tone that may take place within the same medium but for different audiences or to achieve a different purpose. For example, the tone set by an image of the participants in a Woman’s Day march may be different for an audience of women vs. an audience of men. It may change based on age or because of other factors present in the image. Considering audience and purpose when evaluating the effectiveness of visual texts is an important analytical skill

Metacognitive Skills

The same metacognitive skills outlined earlier in this study guide are still applicable to reading literary texts, so be sure to employ them as you make your way through the test: think about your thinking and how you tackle a text.

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