3 Reasons Why You Should be Teaching Allusions

As a high school English teacher, I'm always looking for ways to engage my students and make them enthusiastic about literature, and I’m willing to bet that we have that in common. We recognize the importance of developing our students' reading and cultural literacy skills, but also wonder about the best way to get them engaged. While there are a myriad of options, one of my favorite ways to help students make connections and get them excited about what we’re reading is by teaching allusions. Allusions teach students about the world they live in, help them to better understand literature, and engage them in the process of critical thinking and reading.

So, if you’re still wondering if you want to invest the time to teach allusions, let me give you 3 reasons why you should:

1. Allusions teach Cultural Literacy:
Allusions help students to understand and appreciate literary references to historical events, myths, and classic works of literature. This helps them understand and connect with the greater cultural context of the text they are reading. But, there’s so much more to it than that! Knowing common allusions helps students to fit into society because they’ll be able to understand the greater context of what is being discussed.

While newspapers are no longer as common as they once were, Saturday morning comics and political cartoons are always full of allusions to current and historical events. And memes? You have to understand the reference in order to find the meme funny.

Don’t believe me, yet? Turn on the television: SNL, Family Guy, The Simpsons–their content is heavily based on allusions. And to watch the opening monologue of any late-night talk show, one has to be familiar with current events and allusions. How about the radio? I’m willing to bet that you’ll find multiple allusions in songs by your favorite artists. Taylor Swift? Check out “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” or even "happiness." Do you recognize The Great Gatsby, anyone? (Actually, T Swift is an allusions queen) How about Mumford and Sons? “The Cave” alludes to both The Odyssey and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave!

2. Allusions help students understand literature:
Allusions can also help students to better understand literature. Allusions can be as simple as "the big bad wolf" in the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood," or they can be more complex: The character Frodo Baggins from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series has been compared to Odysseus from Homer's The Odyssey because both protagonists travel through dangerous lands on quests to get home. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, students might recognize the biblical allusions, including the book’s title to Beelzebub and Simon as a Christ figure When students understand allusions, they are able to fully grasp the meaning and intent of an author's work. Allusions can add layers of symbolism and metaphor that can be lost if they are not understood. For example, a reference to the story of Prometheus in a novel can convey a message about individuality and rebellion, but if students don’t know the Greek myth, they fail to grasp the bigger meaning of the text.

Allusions help students understand literature by making it relatable to their own lives and experiences--and not just their own lives but also those of people around them who may have different backgrounds than them or live in different parts of the world. Allusions also teach students about cultures other than their own by introducing them to characters and situations familiar yet foreign enough that they must think critically about what they're reading rather than simply accepting everything at face value. And lastly, allusions allow us all--even those who aren't native speakers of English--to connect with one another through shared knowledge about pop culture references like Star Wars characters or Game Of Thrones locations!

3. Allusions increase student engagement:
Allusions add an element of surprise and excitement to reading, making it more engaging and enjoyable for students. When we read Romeo and Juliet in my 9th grade English class, we treat looking for allusions in the text as a scavenger hunt. Not only do we find and identify the allusions (which tend to be heavily based in Greek mythology), we take time to look up the myth and discuss why Shakespeare would have chosen that allusion. What added knowledge does the allusion provide to the reader? How can we further dig into the character’s motives based on the author’s purpose?

This increased understanding often leads to a deeper appreciation of the text, leading students to be more excited about literature as they see the connections between different works and the world around them. Additionally, learning about allusions also helps students develop their critical thinking skills as they analyze the use of these references in the context of the story.

If you are like me and see the value in teaching allusions to your students, but are a little hesitant to invest the time, I’ve got just the thing to help you! My Allusion of the Week Resource - Volume 1. This resource provides you 15 weeks of allusions to explicitly teach to your students (I use these as Bell Work on “Myth Mondays,” which is just what I call every Monday in my English class).

TpT Allusion of the Week provides 15-weeks of Allusions to increase student reading comprehension and cultural literacy.

My students add the allusion to their English notebook’s table of contents, take the provided notes and examples, and then respond to the short writing prompt. 10 minutes of dedicated class time is all we spend on the week’s allusion, but as we see the references pop up in our lessons, we stop and discuss. Students are learning and are super excited to share when they see the allusion “in the wild.” 

 Would you like to try out a sample? Click here for Allusion #1 - Achilles' Heel to see for yourself.

Teaching common allusions in your English class can greatly benefit your students by expanding their cultural knowledge, improving their reading and writing skills, and engaging them in the material. I hope this helps!