AP English Language Arts Literary Analysis Literary Terms Reading Teaching Theme

SCOUTing a work of art or writing

The dreaded sea of stares. Clutching my podium like a sea captain in a storm I brace myself for the eye of the storm. An ominous silence looms overhead…


(Quickly scan the room to see if anyone can tell I’m praying inside)

“Any thoughts?”


Getting a class to read something is just the first wave in a squall. Now we have to negotiate the entire work and yet find our way back home to the main themes. (For a discussion of my Topic/Tone/Theme [T3] initial approach click here)

When we ask students to comment on a work of art we want them to talk about theme and purpose, but we need evidence. We want students to find something specific to anchor their thoughts, insights, suppositions. In Advanced Placement English there have often been acronyms like SOAP (Subject/Occasion/Audience/Purpose) but that doesn’t really work for me with works of fiction or general art. The acronym that I like to use lately (and I’ve created many different ones) is:


S: specifics (Locations, Characters, Time, Words, Choice of Details)

C: comparisons (symbols, metaphors, imagery, allusion etc…)

O: organization both sequential, what comes first and what comes last; and spatial, don’t bother looking it up, for me spatial organization is repetition, contrast, and questions like why is this paragraph or sentence so short or so long in comparison to the ones next to, or before, or after it. Organization also encompasses syntax.

U: unusual– this one is of course more difficult to explain, but I find it crucial. I want students to notice when things are different than expected. I want them to notice when generic conventions are broken, when something seems modern or just off. Those glitches in the matrix are often breadcrumbs leading down a potentially interesting rabbit hole.

T: Theme examples– This takes us full circle back to T3 (Topic/Tone/Theme) What are the quotes, symbols, plot events, motifs, characters etc… that point us back to theme and ultimately purpose.

Ideally I want students to find one or two of each of these. I might have them work in expert groups or I might just pick one or two of the SCOUT ideas to focus on for a particular work. After SCOUT-ing a work I want them to write their SCOUT discoveries in the form of a short paragraph of analysis. Before they write it down I want them to write down the page number and whether it is at the top, middle, or bottom of the page so we can quickly find the source of the evidence during class discussion.

Here is a list of literary terms for the S.C.O.U.T. process that I also use for the B.R.A.W.L (Battle Royal All Will Learn: a competitive team based Socratic Seminar process)

Here’s an example of how it works. I’ll use William Carlos Williams’ famous poem:

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten the plums that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

S (specific) Line 2

In the poem “This Is Just To Say” the speaker has eaten some plums even though it appears that he/she wasn’t supposed to eat any or all of them. A plum is a stone fruit and is usually refrigerated after it has reached an almost too ripe stage. This plum was probably juicy and messy which evokes something that is not gentile or polite; in addition it’s not just a plum, but plum(s) that were eaten. In fact, it seems that all of the plums were eaten, not even one was saved. So however badly the speaker felt while eating the communal plums, it wasn’t bad enough to stop them at one, or two, or even three. There is something mischievous, almost transgressive going on here. Something beyond a single fruit shared by two innocents in a garden long ago.

U (unusual) The entire poem

It is unusual to read a poem that seems to lack any obvert symbols or metaphors. The language of this poem is so simple that it instantly raises the hackles on the back of my neck. Something wrong happened when someone was away and yet no effort at circumlocutions, no euphemisms to shuffle the truth under. No clever metaphors to soften the blow with a wink and some playful wit. This poem is more than meets the eye and yet there are no loose threads left behind waiting to be unraveled. The simple choice of details, the sweet and easy description of the plums speaks of an acceptance of the things we do when someone turns their back and the temptation is just too delicious to ignore.


That is what I want when I ask students to SCOUT a piece of art. Getting them to hang on and survive the process of reading and finding is just the beginning. What I really need them to do is learn to dig, to dig deeper than they are use to digging. To do that I give them a tool called the Thee Whys technique. But that exploration is on the horizon.  Sleep calls.


  1. While I have known what SCOUT actually meant, I never knew how to actually do it. In my previous English classes, we never went over it very much (besides in Ziebarth’s class) and even when we did it went over my head. Thank you for writing this post and I will be using it for future references in reading novels for school.

  2. Thank you for this resource. I do have a question for clarification –
    are students working on this throughout the reading process or do you use this as a culminating review of the work (say for novels)?

    1. You can do both. Sometimes I might assign it for a chapter. Then ask them to write a small paragraph of analysis for how each of the SCOUT elements ties into the overall purpose of the work.

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