10 Discovering What a Text is Saying

All texts—whether fiction or nonfiction—carry layers of information, built one on top of the other. As we read, we peel those back—like layers in an onion—and uncover deeper meanings.

A drawing of a house, a tree, and a box labelled "A." Underground beneath the box is a chest labelled "B."

Take a look at the image to the right. I use this in the classroom to explain the “deeper meaning” concept to students. All texts and stories have surface meaning. In the sketch, this surface meaning is represented by all the things we see above ground: the tree, the house, and the box (A), along with whatever is in it—even though the box may be closed, anyone who walks by can see it and explore it. These items are concrete and obvious.

But stories and essays also have deeper, hidden meanings. In the image, there’s a buried treasure chest (B) deep underground, waiting to be discovered and opened. Texts are much the same—they each contain obvious, surface level meanings, and they each contain a buried prize as well.

When working with a text, be aware of everything that is happening within it—almost as if you’re watching a juggler with several balls in the air at one time:

  • Consider the characters or people featured in the text, their dialogue, and how they interact.
  • Be aware of the plot’s movement (in a fictional story) or the topic development (in a nonfiction article or essay) and the moments of excitement or conflict as the action rises and falls.
  • Look for changes in time—flashbacks, flash-forwards, and dream sequences.
  • Watch for themes (ideas that occur, reappear, and carry meaning or a message throughout the piece) or symbols (objects or ideas that stand for or mean something else; these carry meaning that we often understand quickly without thinking about it too much).

Examples of themes: coming of age, redemption, the nature of honesty, conflict, sacrifice.

Examples of symbols: full moon (typically suggests mystery), dark forest (danger or the possibility of being lost), white flag (surrender), a path or road (journey).

As you read, always look for both surface meanings and those buried beneath the surface, like treasure. That’s the fun part of reading—finding those precious hidden bits, waiting to be uncovered and eager to make your reading experience richer and deeper. Even if you just scratch the surface, you’ll learn more.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter was adapted from “Discover What a Text is Saying” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.

Media Attributions

  • “Hidden Meanings” by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence.


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Advanced English Copyright © 2021 by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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