4 Ways Teachers Misuse “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”

You’ve probably heard of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor and may already use it in your classroom. Foster’s text, while not originally written for classroom use, has become a staple for many AP Lit teachers. Foster puzzles over this phenomenon in the preface of the book’s second edition, saying he is flattered by the new audience but did not anticipate the book being a tool for teachers.

Because How to Read Literature Like a Professor (henceforth called HTRLLAP for the sake of my sanity) is neither textbook or novel, AP teachers have integrated it into their classes in many different ways. I’ve been teaching it for a few years and have deduced some excellent strategies for incorporating HTRLLAP into the AP classroom. Furthermore, I’ve learned four consistent ways to effectively kill HTRLLAP’s joy and knowledge. Here are four ways that AP teachers misuse Foster’s text:

#1 Assign it as summer reading

This one is going to ruffle some feathers, but I think the worst mistake AP teachers make when using HTRLLAP is assigning it for summer reading. That being said, I totally understand the reasons behind doing it. Foster’s book is not exactly short, and a universal truth among AP Lit teachers is that we are always running out of class time. However, exporting it to summer reading introduces a new set of problems:

  • Some kids will not read it
  • Many kids will not fully grasp all of the book’s meaning
  • Some information may be forgotten in the summer months
  • Chapters blend together, making individual lessons hard to remember
  • SOME KIDS WILL NOT READ IT

That first one seemed so obvious I felt it needed mentioning again. Personally, I find HTRLLAP too valuable to let students rush it, skim it, or skip it altogether. Instead, I devote the first three weeks of AP Lit to studying the book, usually 3-4 chapters at a time. Each day the students take a short quiz on the reading, then we go over notes and breakout texts from each chapter (available for purchase from my Teachers Pay Teachers store, see below). By including it in the school year my students learn that the book is important. In fact, we treat it as our textbook, referencing it often enough that some students buy their own copy so they can annotate the text permanently. For these reasons and more, I cannot allow Foster’s text to be doomed to die on the summer reading list.

#2 Confine it to the page

Another common crime committed by AP Lit teachers is to simply discuss HTRLLAP as it is, when I believe teachers should model intertextuality skills and connect Foster’s lessons to their own favorite books. Foster does an amazing job of this in his book, which is one of the reasons people love reading it. He throws in allusions as well as Master Shakespeare, and clearly he has done his reading homework before writing the book. However, not many teenagers have read Lolita, “Sonny’s Blues,” or Dubliners in their spare time. To say it frankly, some of Foster’s textual references are too highbrow for teenagers.

To combat this, I move HTRLLAP beyond Foster’s text and connect it to novels and plays that I know my students have read before coming to my class. To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm are popular choices in my lessons. Another thing I love to do is use Foster’s lessons to analyze film and television. Some of my students were more insightful in their analysis of Breaking Bad and Inception than any other text we read throughout the year. See below for some examples of the connections to television and film I make in my notes:

©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019
©AP Lit & More, 2019

One of my favorite memories was of a student running into my classroom and joyfully telling me that his family wouldn’t watch television with him anymore–because he couldn’t stop analyzing the shows. He was using Foster’s methods to make predictions and spoiling the endings of live television! I was so proud!

Foster’s appeal grows when modeled and expanded. I urge you as a teacher to model understanding of Foster’s lessons with books, plays, movies, songs, television shows, and other references from your experience. By showing them that you can make these connections with HTRLLAP, they’ll begin to make their own.

#3 Use the One-and-Done Approach

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Typography Poster, available for purchase on TpT

Probably the most common crime against HTRLLAP is analyzing it as the beautiful resource that it is–and then abandoning it on a shelf for the rest of the year. In my use of the text, we study it at the beginning of the year for a reason. The students are told to use each of Foster’s lessons (there is one per chapter) to guide them throughout the year. At the end of the unit, I give students smaller versions of a classroom poster I designed, showing each of Foster’s chapter lessons on one document. My students look to this poster throughout the year and use the handout to study for the AP Lit exam.

Just last year, we were discussing a detail from All the King’s Men when all of a sudden a student shouted out, “He’s going South!” The rest of the class was puzzled for a moment, until another kid lit up and responded, “He’s going to run amok!” The poster reminded them of one of Foster’s chapter lessons, and all at once the class was making predictions as a group. I almost cried.

For more details on this poster see the links at the bottom of this blog post!

#4 Skip the Writing Assignment

The final misuse of HTRLLAP is skipping Foster’s last chapter, which contains a short discussion of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” I understand the motive to skip it, since Mansfield’s story is 1) long, and 2) hard. However, Foster included it in his text for a reason. AP Lit students need to practice close reading paired with analytical writing.

In my classroom, I ask students to read “The Garden Party” only, without the commentary afterwards. They come in to class ready to discuss it and we spend 20 minutes drafting an on-demand essay analyzing the story. They partner up and share their insights, and then we return to HTRLLAP. Together we read the rest of Foster’s text and his insightful take on Mansfield’s short story. My students usually have a dramatic reaction to his chapter, and it is always one of despair and anger. I have yet to have any student make the connection to hell that Foster makes in his book. However, this exercise is not designed to break their spirits. It is to show how a story can be interpreted in varying ways, and how looking for patterns can yield such interesting results. I follow this lesson with our first prose timed writing of the year (I prefer the 2009 prose question based on Ann Petry’s The Street). Overall, consistently pairing HTRLLAP with writing trains students to read closely, looking for patterns and predictions like Foster trains them in his book.

If you already use How to Read Literature Like a Professor in your AP classroom, I commend you for finding such a rich resource for your students. I hope this blog has convinced you to use it purposefully in order to make the book more than just a book but a valuable resource in your AP students’ toolbox.

If you are looking to add How to Read Literature Like a Professor to your AP Lit curriculum (or your own lessons need an overhaul), I have a ready-made unit available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store. This resource has recently been modified to match the College Board’s new course description and hits several of their essential skills. I actually count this unit as a short fiction unit in my own course planning. You can purchase my How to Read Literature Like a Professor bundle here, or the typography posters alone here.