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Boost Background Knowledge to Understand Author Allusions

May 02, 2014

Boost Background Knowledge to Understand Author Allusions

An allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing, or idea of historical, cultural, or literary significance. It does not describe in detail the person or idea to which it refers. It is just a passing comment, and the writer expects the reader to possess enough background knowledge to spot the allusion and grasp its importance in a text. For example:

  • “Don’t act like a Romeo in front of her” is a reference to Shakespeare’s Romeo, a passionate lover of Juliet, from the literary classic Romeo and Juliet.
  • “This place is like a Garden of Eden” is a biblical allusion to the perfect and glorious garden detailed within the book of Genesis.
  • “If you do that, you will be opening Pandora’s box” is a reference to the mythological character Pandora whose curiosity got the better of her. She opened a sealed jar given to her by Zeus, releasing evil into the world.

An allusion allows the writer to communicate information to the reader quickly; it’s a shortcut. Allusions allow the writer to give an example or get a point across without going into a lengthy explanation.

However, the reader must recognize the idea the author is referring to. And that’s the problem; some students lack the background knowledge to appreciate or comprehend an author’s allusion. To boost background knowledge, consider the following:


If students understand the story of Pinocchio, then they will better understand an author’s allusion to another character who is “lying like Pinocchio.”

  • Fairy tales provide a wealth of resources for allusions.
  • Introduce students to the traditional rhymes of Mother Goose and other well-known characters and ideas from common nursery rhymes.
Fairy Tale Allusions
Nursery Rhyme Allusions

Beyond just reading various fairy tales and nursery rhymes, you’ll want to plan time to discuss the significant events and memorable characters from each one. For example, from Cinderella you might discuss the evil stepmother, the helpful fairy godmother, the stroke of midnight, the fitting of the glass slipper, etc. Each of these is a common allusion referenced in other texts. If you spend time discussing their significance when reading the original text, students are more likely to recognize them in future allusions.


Bolster older students’ background knowledge of well-known biblical, literary, and historical concepts.

Literary Allusions - Downloadable Resource
  • The Bible is referenced again and again in books and movies. Introduce students to major characters (Adam & Eve, David & Goliath, Doubting Thomas, the Good Samaritan, etc.) and concepts (Garden of Eden, walking on water) from the Bible.
  • Because the works of Shakespeare are so well known, his quotes are iconic and often referenced in other texts.
  • And it’s important for secondary students to have a vast knowledge of classic literature. They need to recognize allusions made to memorable characters (e.g., stingy like Scrooge, romantic as a Romeo) and memorable lines (e.g., “Call me Ishmael,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”).
  • Texts frequently reference mythological events (e.g., Trojan horse, Pandora’s box) and characters (Achilles’ heel, Herculean power). TIP: There are several great resources available to build background knowledge in short passages. Consider Mythlopedia: Oh My Gods!, Z is for Zeus: A Greek Mythology Alphabet, or Gifts from the Gods.
  • Historical allusions reference well-known people or events that carry certain connotations. For example, an author might refer to a character in his text as a “Benedict Arnold,” alluding to him being a traitor. An author might refer to a character’s lying and secrecy as “another Watergate.” Such historical references cross generations and make for common allusions.

To help students comprehend the allusion in one text, you’ll want to reveal the original text or excerpt where the character or idea is initially described. This is essential in helping students understand the purpose and meaning behind the allusion.

(TIP: It’s easy to look these things up online. When an author references something unfamiliar, show students how to turn to the Internet to find the original text excerpted in order to learn enough to grasp the allusion.)

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