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Using Symbolism to Deepen Comprehension

By Angela Bunyi on February 24, 2010
  • Grades: 3–5

Is it possible to read something but not really read something? I wrote a post about this time last year about blending a Dr. Seuss study with a study on symbolism. As an upper grade teacher, I knew I wanted to go beyond the colored hats and games on his birthday, and I knew Dr. Seuss could help us learn about the fantastic power of symbolism while reading. Since classic books develop a deeper meaning for us as we grow older and gain life experience, I wanted to give my students an opportunity to read his books again with new eyes. This can be completed successfully with the lens of a symbolism study. Who would have figured that Yertle the Turtle represents Adolph Hitler, or that The Sneetches was a result of a childhood of feeling different (he was German growing up in America during WWI)?

To build on this, I am including several lesson possibilities from our classroom. Anchor charts, book suggestions, and photos are included in this post.


Love Is Like a Zit . . .

I was meeting with a student a few years back, and she was writing what she believed to be a powerful poetry piece. It was a deep piece on a developing love, and as I read it, I was impressed. But I can still recite the line that made me burst out in an unexpected laugh. "And our love will continue to grow / like a zit ready to explode." Who knew? Thank you, Madison, for that lovely memory and moment. However odd that connection was, at least this student understood the importance of symbolism/metaphors in writing. Her poem creates a powerful imagery connection that takes an intangible item (love) and ties it to a tangible item (a zit).

This anchor chart is one quick idea that can help develop the concept of symbolism in writing:



Tangible and Intangible Items

Here is another anchor chart we created to break down the meaning of tangible vs. intangible items found in writing:



Creating Your Own Symbolism Unit of Study

I believe one of the best ways you can create your own unit of study is by finding pieces of writing that mean something to you and that you admire. For example, I rated the story The Blue Stone my favorite 2009 published book. The tangible blue stone is symbolic in many ways as it gets broken down and changed over and over again. I am including a review of this book:

The Blue Stone

Blue_stone_2 Publisher Review

A large, beautiful blue stone is discovered in a forest. It is cut in half, and one half stays in the forest while the other starts on a long and mystical journey through many places, many owners, and many transformations. It begins as a statue of an elephant, admired by museum goers, and then becomes a carved bird residing in an elderly woman's garden. It becomes a moon, a cat, a necklace, and more. Throughout it all, the stone longs to return home, and finally it crumbles to dust and flies with the wind back to rest with its other half in the forest.

Breathtaking illustrations and a haunting story by world-renowned illustrator Jimmy Liao take readers on a magical journey around the world. Adults will marvel at the life stories revealed in this book, and children will delight at seeing the different manifestations of the blue stone. This is a powerful story of different life paths and possibilities, a longing for home, and love.


The Sound of Colors: A Journey of the Imagination

Written by the same author, this book can open up a lot of discussion on what a blind lady, a train, and various colors really represent. A lovely read-aloud study.



51FB4Z782DL._SL500_AA240_Baseball, Snakes, and Summer Squash: Poems About Growing Up

This is one of my reading staples. Not only does Donald Graves' story cater to the boys in my classroom, but it also incorporates symbols that means something to students. There is one piece in particular that I have read three times this year. Each time for a different reason. The piece is about a memory of taking some abandoned wood from a cemetery and creating a magical world of fortresses, weapons, and tools, only to have the cemetery owner come back to claim the wood. Graves deliberately makes that connection of the wood coming to life, only to return to the cemetery. This book is filled with an abundance of pieces ready to share and discuss in your classroom.



A Huge Mentor: Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4–12

I purchased this book a few years back and simply forgot about it sitting on my shelf. Wow, was I happy to dig back through it and discover all the jewels (practical jewels, at that) that really help readers grasp, tackle, and understand writing at a deeper level. It is geared for grades 4–12, and I highly recommend it.

Within this book there is an entire chapter dedicated to the study of symbolism and metaphors in challenging texts. There are sample passages, such as "Love" by  William Maxwell, along with several anchor chart ideas.



Digging Deeper With Dr. Seuss: A Symbolism Study


Dr_seussHere is my post from last year. I hope you can use it next week with Dr. Seuss' birthday!


Theodor Seuss Geisel's birthday is coming up this week, so I thought I would share how powerful and relevant his stories can be to growing and developed readers. I recommend five of his books to discuss symbolism, history, and schema; these books show that there is more than meets the eye when we read.


Dr. Seuss BioThe Boy on Fairfield Street

The first book you will want to pick up and share with your class is The Boy on Fairfield Street: How Ted Geisel Grew Up to Become Dr. Seuss by Kathleen Krull. Through discussion you can talk about the influence of his life and his books and see where his story connections came from.  This book is well written and weaves his life with his stories throughout.

Read a quick summary of his life.

After reading this book, your class would have some background information on World War II and his experience as a political cartoonist. This is important to know because it will prepare you to read the other books I am recommending for discussion.




Yertle the Turtle

I made this connection a few years back, and I was happy to see it supported by some Internet research. This story can be tied to Adolph Hitler, and focuses on how power is gained. With or without the historical connection, this book has a great message to discuss in regards to peer pressure and bullying.

Read about the plot, learn why Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle, and make connections between the story and real historical figures.


The Butter Battle Book

This story of the Yooks and Zooks also has a historical connection to World War II, as Seuss tackles weapons of mass destruction and the causes of war. In fact, the connection is so obvious that when students watched a portion of the cartoon clip on a rainy afternoon, all was quiet in our room.

Learn more about the book's plot and make historical connections.


The Sneetches

Using the knowledge gained from The Boy on Fairfield Street, students will remember how Theodor was teased for being different as a child. He was Jewish with German parents in America. I am sure his firsthand experience of feeling different helped him write this story later in his life. The star symbol can be connected to the Jewish star of David.

Read more about the plot of this story and learn why Seuss wrote the book.


The Lorax

No need to discuss the importance of this book and where this message came from. I speak for the trees, and this book is enjoyed by readers of all ages. Link through to make connections between the story and environmental issues of the early 1970s.

Yertle_turtle_statue  Oh_the_places

Additional Books and Music That Support Discussion on Symbolism


Scarecrow by Cynthia Rylant

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Any Kate Di Camillio book (in fact, I heard an awesome interview from her discussing why a mouse is so often used in children's stories).

Riding the Tiger by Eve Bunting (about gangs and peer pressure — excellent)

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White


"Cats in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin

"I Believe I Can Fly" by Seal

"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (Israel Kamakawiwo'ole for a modern version)

"I Hope You Dance" by Lee An Womack (portions due to a questionable word)

"Long December" by Counting Crows

Poetry, Nursery Rhymes, and Fairytales

Just about any fairytale/folktale is going to include some strong symbolism. A quick Google search will assist you with the signifance in animals and setting.

Humpty Dumpty: If you research this online, you will find various interpretations as to who Humpty Dumpty represents. Interesting stuff!


Fantastic Dr. Seuss photos found on Flickr.

Comments (11)


I just included a few ideas for addressing symbolism. After introducing this, students have been quick to point out examples of symbolism (eg- weather changes and gets gloomy to showcase a character's feelings). With this said, I hope you have found some great resources along the way.

I added some songs and rhymes that just came to mind without much thought. Symbolism is just everywhere. :)



Oh, it's not too late. I am coming back to the topic right after our state testing. And your book comment reminds me that songs are SO filled with symbolism and could work in your room too. For example, "I Believe I Can Fly," is a healthy song to share with your class. It is filled with several elements of symbolism.

Thanks for sharing!



That's great to hear. I will need to check edhelper when I revisit this again after our state testing.



Hi! I love reading about your ideas and what you do with your students in the classroom. Thanks for opening your classroom. I was using the book Wings by Christopher Myers for a big think aloud and open forum the other day. We have been studying determining importance. Our main focus for the open forum was discussing what the author wanted us to learn/main idea. The next day we came back together to discuss Wings again. Well, during our discussion someone said, "well you can't have wings in real life." It was a great way to introduce symbolism. Anyway we had a mini-discussion at the time, but I just got done reading your post and love the ideas, anchor charts, as well as books you mentioned. I don't know if you need another text, but Wings is a great starter. Your kids are probably past the point, but maybe next year. :) Thanks for your time and sharing ideas! I really appreciate it! Cassie

Thanks for this idea! I never thought about going deeper with Dr. Seuss. My kids are loving it. I found some response questions on edhelper to go with the unit too. I can't wait to see your plans. Thanks again!

Wow. That's great to hear! It looks like you are ready to go. Let me add a great book to add to the discussion table:

~ Riding the Tiger by Eve Bunting. Growing up in L.A. I quickly knew the tiger was a symbol for gangs, but with no prior schema around here...this was a great book that involved a close ear. My students seemed to notice every tiny detail of this story.

Besides that, think of any books you adore that involve strong emotions (feelings-love, hate, etc.). Today I just starting pulling out a whole bunch of books (it was a fieldtrip day with some time to kill). With prior read-alouds, students quickly caught on.

And sorry for the delay on my plans. With the crashing of my hard drive, I am currently without Microsoft Word. :( It is looking like Thursday before my laptop returns.



I just wanted to let you know that so far, two days into the lesson I have had a great time with this unit. My kids are engaged and interested in it, most importantly. They had time to write yesterday and work on some symbolism in their writing and they came up with some fabulous ones! I was overwhelmed with their openness to try something new, and their honesty. Thanks for the suggestion.


Good question. Because I teach 3rd this year, my plans are pretty short. I started last week and will end this week...this week will only be a 3 day school week for us (fieldtrip and an inservice day. However, once it has been addressed I heavily address this for the remaining portion of the year. I think it is one of the MOST important skills we can address with our students. It's the meat behind all that we read, and it's why books mean more to us when we get older and reread something again (like Charlotte's Web).

And, after a quick nap I will be posting some sample plans for you...




How long are you giving yourself to complete this unit? Would you do it in one week...or more?

Hey Grace,

No problem...sort of. My teacher laptop's hardrive just crashed on Friday. I have lost EVERYTHING including the lesson plans I have completed thus far. However, I will add a link sometime this week that recaps what I have completed so far and will complete this week too.

And to answer your question on symbolism, I recently just asked students to be on the lookout for it while reading, and make note of the things students most likely will not notice (eg- colors to depict sadness). For the Lorax, as an example, we stuck with some of the obvious things. They discussed the seed given at the end at how it represented hope, a future generation, etc. I simply wrote this on chart paper, and we add to it as we read more books.

I hope that helps. Let's hope for a speedy recover of computer #2 dying this year.




I love this idea! How wonderful! I do have a few questions? When you read each book, do you make a list of the symbols you see as you read? Do you have a lesson plan that you used that I might be able to look out for more of a structured ouline?

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