While nonfiction, poetry, and author studies are very important components of my curriculum, my 3rd graders still get totally excited about fiction texts. However, as students mature as readers, it is important to move beyond reading fiction just for fun and really encourage them to think more deeply about their fiction texts. Focusing on character development, building comprehension through reading partnerships and book clubs, and weaving in technology can make your fiction genre study very powerful for your students.
READ ON to see highlights of my fiction genre study and to look at reading partnerships and mystery detective clubs. You will find lots of printables, links to useful Web sites, lesson plans, and photos.
1. Flat Characters vs. Round Characters
When students read picture books in kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade, the books tend to have very few characters with distinct personalities. However, as students begin reading chapter books, the number of characters increases and the characters become more complex. Before we begin studying these characters on a deeper level, I encourage my students to categorize their characters as “flat” or “round.” Flat characters have no real impact on the plot, and the author does not develop their personalities. On the other hand, round characters are well-developed, can be identified by specific character traits, and often change in some way during the story. Download PDFs of the flat characters and round characters posters below.
As an independent reading task, my students organize the characters in their chapter book into these two categories. (Some students may find that certain characters fall in the middle, so they write those characters’ names on the line between round and flat.) Once they identify their round characters, we move on to the next lesson in this post.
Download the round & flat characters T-chart.
2. Inferring Character Traits From Actions and Dialogue in the Story
Too often, students can identify character traits for the characters in their stories (e.g., mean, rude, cheerful), but they do not use examples from the text support their ideas. I teach my students to “show, not tell” in their writing, and I explain that good authors do the same thing in the books in our classroom library. Since good authors do not just list specific traits for the characters in the books they write, it is up to the reader to infer the character traits based on things the characters do (actions) and say (dialogue).
Using my character traits handout, students find specific actions or dialogue in their books and use sticky notes to mark the “evidence.” You can also have students complete the recording sheets "Inferring Character Traits—Action" and "Inferring Character Traits—Dialogue" so that you actually see your students’ thinking and can assess their ability to infer character traits using evidence from the text. (While I do not love worksheets, I find that a written exercise holds my students more accountable than just attaching sticky notes to pages in their book. And since I can’t always confer with every child during the days we are practicing this skill, looking over the recording sheets after workshop helps me determine which students may need additional instruction.)
Download my fiction resources" SMART Notebook file, which includes an "Inferring Character Traits" lesson using examples from Patricia Polacco's book Rotten Richie and the Ultimate Dare.
3. Studying Different Types of Conflict in Fiction Texts
In her lesson "Using Picture Books to Teach Plot Development and Conflict Resolution," Lisa Storm Fink encourages students not to just state the conflict in the stories they read but to identify the specific type of conflict (character vs. self, character vs. character, character vs. nature, character vs. society). This forces my students to look more closely at the problem/conflict in the stories they are reading and to compare and contrast the conflicts in different stories.
In Lisa’s lesson, she provides a list of good picture books to use when studying the different types of conflict and a PowerPoint presentation that goes along with her lesson. You will also find a recording sheet similar to the conflict chart I recreated below. As students read books independently during Reading Workshop, they add the titles of the books they read to their own chart in the appropriate conflict column.
I use the posters below to introduce the types of conflict. You can also download PDF files of each poster: "Character vs. Character," "Character vs. Self," "Character vs. Society," and "Character vs. Nature."
Once my students are familiar with each of the four types of conflict, I assign reading partners a specific picture book to read together. They receive a copy of the book cover and must place it on the correct conflict poster as seen in the photo below.
Download my fiction resources SMART Notebook file, which includes the lesson you see in the photo above.
4. Using an “Interactive” Story Mountain to Track Plot Development
Since my students take part in a fiction writing unit soon after we finish our fiction reading unit, it is really important that they understand the idea of plot development. I like using a story mountain because students are able to see that in a good fiction text, the author does not just describe a problem and immediately have the characters solve it. The story mountain shows students the important (and predictable) parts of a complete story including the rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Download story mountain.
To make my story mountain lesson interactive, I made a poster version of the story mountain and move a sticky note along the mountain as I read a picture book aloud to my class. Students are able to see how the plot progresses as I read the story, and we can really pinpoint and discuss the climax. The climax makes much more sense to students with the mountaintop metaphor. After teaching the lesson to the class, students are given an individual copy of the story mountain and use a small sticky note to track the plot development in the story they are reading during independent reading time.
With the addition of a SMART Board in my classroom, I was able to make this lesson much more interactive. As I read aloud the book Julius, the Baby of the World, a student helps move a clip art drawing of Lilly, the main character, up and down the story mountain.
Again, my fiction resources SMART Notebook file includes the story mountain you see in the photo above.
5. Finding Common Themes in Fiction Texts
Most children’s authors write not only for the purpose of entertaining their readers, but also to teach readers important lessons. Finding the theme (or lesson) in a fictional story encourages students to really focus on the heart of the story. Thinking about how a character changed in the story or how a character’s actions in the story affected others helps my students determine the theme.
Common themes are introduced as I read aloud carefully selected books to the class. (Visit Nancy Keane's Web site to find recommended books with common themes.) At the end of every book I read aloud, we discuss the theme as a class. If we think the book fits into one of the common themes, I print out a color copy of the book cover and add it to a specific theme poster in our classroom (see pictures below). I have found Google Images to be the best place to get quick copies of the front covers of the books. To make the best use of space in my classroom, I use the cupboards in the back of my classroom to display the theme posters.
You can give the "Common Themes in Books" handout to your students to help them identify themes they will likely find in many of their fiction texts. However, it’s important that your students know that these are NOT the only themes that exist. As the year progresses, we add new themes to our list and make additional posters when necessary. You can download PDF files of the theme posters you see below:"Honesty," "Perseverance," "Cooperation," "Acceptance," "Compassion," "Courage," "Friendship," "Kindness," and "Responsibility."
For those of you interested in my other theme posters, including “Overcoming Challenges,” “Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things,” “Believe in Yourself,” Accepting Other’s Differences,” “Be Happy With What You Have,” etc., see my classroom Web site.
6. Reading Partnerships
Students love to talk about what they are reading, especially when it comes to fiction. In our classroom, students take part in a reading partnership unit where they choose a double-copy chapter book to read with another student in the class. The students meet throughout their reading of the book to ask each other “thick” questions and discuss the plot. This is one of my favorite units of the school year, as students take the reins and really use all of the strategies and skills they have learned to share a unique and valuable reading experience with a fellow classmate.
You can visit the Reading Partnerships section of my classroom Web site to see exactly what this unit looks like in my classroom, download printables for your students to use in their reading partnerships, and watch a video clip of an actual reading partnership discussion. You can also check out the unit "Reading Partnerships" that I created for the Scholastic Web site in 2007.
7. Mystery Detective Clubs
I love using mysteries in my classroom for so many reasons. First of all, as a 3rd grade teacher, there are many options: lots of the beginner chapter book series that are “just right” for my students are mystery series, including A-Z Mysteries, Jigsaw Jones, Boxcar Children, Third-Grade Detectives, Calendar Club Mysteries, Nancy Drew Notebooks, etc. Mysteries also promote the use of so many important reading strategies including inferring, asking questions, making predictions, etc.
To make this unit most exciting for my students, they become real detectives working together in detective clubs to solve a mystery in a book club setting. Students read their own copy of a chapter book mystery and keep track of important clues and suspects, but they meet multiple times throughout their reading to discuss the book with fellow reading detectives.
Check out the Reading Detectives section of my classroom Web site for more information. You can see exactly what this unit looks like in my classroom and download tons of printables to use for your own mystery genre study. You can also check out the unit "Exploring the Mystery Genre" that I created for the Scholastic Web site in 2007.
8. Class Book Awards
I wrote a post about this last year, but it’s so fun that it’s worth mentioning again. While my students are able to nominate any genre of books when it comes to our Class Book Awards, fiction texts tend to populate the ballot. Perhaps that is because of the memorable characters, the valuable lessons learned, the silly plots, or the suspenseful drama. Whatever the reason, fiction texts seem to bring students together, as they often find a common interest in particular books of this genre. As you read my post, "Class Book Awards: Bring the Red Carpet to Your Classroom," you will find out how my students determine book award categories, nominate books from the classroom library, and take part in a special book award ceremony that includes an exciting red carpet event!
9. Weaving Technology Into Your Reading Curriculum
If you read my "Movie-Making in the Classroom" post from last year, you know that I enjoy making movies with my students. One year my students created a movie called “Lost in a Book.” We wrote and then filmed a fictional tale in which students actually went inside the books they were reading. Visit my classroom Web site to go behind the scenes of that movie to see how it was produced. You can also watch the final movie in Windows Media Player.
My awesome Top Teaching colleague Megan Power recently wrote a blog post "Reading Book Projects With Flip Video, Digital Cameras, Web 2.0, and More." Her awesome project ideas help students practice comprehension skills, vocabulary, reading response, word work, and fluency through the use of very cool technology. What’s most impressive is that she is doing it with her kindergarten students!
10. Scholastic Author Interviews
Bring real authors into your classroom. That sounds expensive, right? Not when you use Scholastic’s Authortube! What better way to get your students excited about fiction texts than to show them real interviews with some well-known authors. Check out Scholastic’s Author Video Index to see which authors you will invite to your next Reading (or Writing) Workshop mini-lesson!
Suzanne (comment #12) asked for resources for teaching students about a story's setting. Below are some things that I use with my own students.
Check back next month for my Nonfiction Resources Top Ten List!