Exploring Story Elements
In our fourth grade Reading Workshop, I’m set to teach a brand new mini-unit this week about story elements. I’m writing this to help myself fully think it through, and I hope it can be useful to you as well. My team and I developed this unit after we noticed our students struggle with the following standard:
- 4.RL.2.3 Describe a character, setting, or event in a story or play, drawing on specific details in the text, and how that impacts the plot. (This is the Indiana version, but I believe Common Core has one that is similar, or maybe identical.)
Our students struggled with two parts of the standard when it came up on our state and district assessments. Some weren’t sure about the vocabulary used, including the terms character, setting, and plot. We certainly worked with all these concepts throughout the year, but as we reflected, we discover that we often used the term “events” instead of plot or “where the story takes place” instead of setting. Combine these decisions with the fact that around half of our students were English Learners, and we had made a story elements mess.
Second, we failed to clearly teach how characters, setting, and events impact the plot. This concept can be confusing, even to an adult seeing it for the first time like we were. Unless you have been teaching this recently, answering the question, “How did the setting impact the plot of the last book you read?” is probably not the easiest thing to verbalize.
So, we put heads together, did some research, and developed our plan for the week:
Monday – Story Elements – This day focuses on the precise vocabulary students need to use to meet this standard: character, setting, plot, and impact (a verb our state lists as one to know). I’ll start with a book we have already read, naming each element. We’ll read a fun story, My Lucky Day, and name the elements, creating an anchor chart together. Students will then complete a graphic organizer using their own books during independent reading.
Tuesday – A Character’s Impact – Last year, as third graders, my students learned a lot about character traits. I plan to build on this knowledge in Tuesday’s lesson. A video I watched online suggested using a story were two different types of characters react differently to the same problem. Two examples that would work are The Ant and the Grasshopper and The Tortoise and the Hare. Students can examine how a character’s qualities affect how they attempt to solve the same problem. These texts should illustrate this well.
Wednesday – The Setting’s Impact – This is the most complex of the week’s lesson. As I mentioned earlier, the impact of a story’s setting can be hard to verbalize. Honestly, I needed to learn more about this practice myself, so I read about different ways the setting can impact a story. First, a setting can change the decisions characters make – think secret passages in the movie Clue (but don’t use that with students!). Second, the setting can affect the mood – think The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Finally, the time period a story takes place can affect what is acceptable for characters to do – think any Underground Railroad or Civil Rights Movement picture book. Now, how am I going to do this in one day? I’m not yet sure. I’ll probably have to make tough decisions.
Thursday – An Event’s Impact – This one will be the easiest for students to understand because students already have a strong background on important events in fiction through our work with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s signposts described in their book Notice and Note. I imagine this lesson being a lot of hypothetical “what if” questions, such as, “What if this didn’t happen? How would the book be different?” Hopefully we can spend time discussing the more complex issue of setting today as well.
Feel free to pluck this week out of my classroom and use it in your own. Let me know if any adjustments you make really work for you!