Elements of Literature

Here in Colorado, we go back to school within the first week or two of August. Summer vibes are still in full swing, and it takes a concentrated effort to get students (and teachers?) back into learning mode. One of my favorite ways to do that is through stations! Our first unit in 6th grade is on the literary elements, so I’m going to share with you how I facilitate teaching the elements of fiction using a station rotation model.

Elements of Fiction: The Basics

Because I teach 6th grade ELA in a middle school setting, this is students’ first formal Language Arts course. I work to bridge the gap between what they learned and practiced in elementary with what they will need to know as they prepare for higher-level English courses. I am a licensed elementary teacher, so I actually LOVE this part!

My goal with this first unit is to lay a solid framework for literary elements in an engaging, hands-on, and interactive way so students feel more confident with literary analysis and narrative writing later in the school year. I want students to understand the plot, conflict, characters, setting, point of view, and theme. I also want them to eventually see how these elements interact and influence/rely on one another!

Launching the Unit

I launch this unit whole-class to make sure everyone is on the same page with the basics. We start the unit with an interactive lecture/presentation using sketch notes. Sketch notes (like Doodle Notes) are a great way to spice up the note-taking process (read more about my love for sketch notes here).

For the first two days of the unit, I front-load information about the essential elements of a story, and we fill out our note-takers together. The key to helping students be successful with sketch notes is to model the process and set boundaries. Always add the essential content first. Adding color, bubble letters, doodles, etc., can only come once the content is down.

Next, set a timer and work alongside the kids. Five minutes per section of notes is plenty of time! This also helps break up the lecture portion because it keeps students involved.

Teaching an Elements of Literature introductory lesson with Powerpoint, Sketch Notes, and Reference Posters

Digging Deeper Through Stations

After students have built their sketch notes with the fundamental concepts for the unit, I give them movement, choice, and low-pressure activities to build familiarity with each element. Over the next few days, students rotate through four station activities. I’ve facilitated this where I’ve set up physical stations around the room and had students rotate every 20-30 minutes, and I’ve also assigned them on Google Classroom and let students rotate on their own time. I encourage you to find a method that works for you!

Station 1: The Components of a Setting

At this station, I provided three cups of strips. The first cup contained a variety of places in which a story can be told. The second cup contained a variety of times in which a story can take place. The third cup contained a variety of moods a reader can feel when reading the story. I instructed students to draw three random slips and write a scene that established that particular setting.

This activity is a hoot! If you want to see 6th-grade boys squirm, watch them draw the “romantic” mood strip. My students actually added a “PG” requirement on this slip. So many students loved what they started during this activity and later chose it as their story seed they wanted to turn into a complete narrative later in the year!

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Station 2: Types of Conflict in Literature

At this station, students have a series of task cards posted around the room. They grab a recording sheet and start anywhere they want. After reading a short passage, students determine the main type of conflict present. Students record their answers, then move on to a new card. In 20 minutes, most students might get through 15 cards. My faster students might finish all 28, but my slower students need support to get through around 10. That’s okay! The point is to get practice, so I don’t sweat it, and neither do they.

Teaching Conflict in the Elements of Literature Unit Using Task Cards

Station 3: Character Analysis & Character Development

Elementary students are quite used to describing a character’s traits, but they have a hard time moving into the next standard, analyzing a character’s development. So I first have them review a presentation on static vs. dynamic characters and flat vs. round characters. Then, I have students do a graphing activity that I learned about at a Gifted Ed conference with Ian Byrd.

In a nutshell, here’s what they do: given a list of famous characters and a graph, students must evaluate each character on the x-and y-axes and place them on the graph accordingly. For this activity, the x-axis is labeled Flat & Round. The y-axis is labeled Static & Dynamic. Students consider a character from the list, say Cruella Deville, and they place her somewhere on the graph according to how well she is developed. You really can make quite a case for many characters. For example, Matilda is a round character, but one could also argue that her changes are minimal. So she’s not totally static, but she’s also not very dynamic. After plotting the characters, students must choose three and explain their placement on the back using evidence and reasoning.

As an alternative, I’ve also had success with having students develop flat/round and static/dynamic characters by creating fake social media profiles. Using images, captions, comments, and messages, students can show who a character really is. So speak their language and give it a try!

This activity is also quite fun to do with text messages, emails, and more. I keep these organizers on hand and reuse them with short stories!

Station 4: Point of View Scavenger Hunt

This station is fun & requires little prep (my favorite). Students are challenged to go on a scavenger hunt through the class library and find books narrated from three different point of views. Getting a book written in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited is the easy part. Finding a book written in 3rd Person Limited is a little more difficult, and finding a book written in 2nd person is the hardest, but it’s not impossible. I offered my kids a candy jar reward if they found one, and I could tell they’d done it when the whispers started! I ran out of candy after that, ha!

On their recording sheet, students must identify the book, the author’s name, the point of view, and they must use evidence to support their answer. This activity usually goes quickly, so I follow up with an extension task in which students have to rewrite a scene from a different point of view.

I’ve also had groups that need to be challenged a bit more, so I’ve had them watch a short clip (“The Ridge” featuring Danny Macaskill is my FAVORITE), and have to describe the point of view the clip is told from, what is revealed through that point of view, and why the author may have chosen it.

Jumping Into Plot Structure

I usually pause after students have made it through the first four elements of literature (setting, characters, conflict, and point of view). We review the plot elements as a whole class, and then we complete a couple of diagrams together. We watch a Pixar short like “For the Birds” or “Partly Cloudy,” and I model how to watch the first time for the gist and the second time to identify the different elements of the plot.

Then, we try diagramming the plot of something a bit more complex: a Greek Myth podcast. I LOVE these Greeking Out podcasts by NatGeo, and they make the perfect “next-level” challenge for students.

At this point, I allow students to practice diagramming another plot either with a partner or on their own. They can choose a Pixar short, a Greeking Out podcast, or a Greek Myth. I love using Greek myths because they have clear inciting incidents, and they don’t always end happily-ever-after, so students have to think carefully about the resolution.

Wrapping It Up With Theme

The final piece of the pie is one that 6th-grade students have worked on so many times before that I almost feel bad reviewing it. However, it is completely necessary. This is another activity that I’ve found just works best whole group – and that’s because reviewing themes through skits is the. way. to. go. What do I mean?

Elementary kiddos work really hard with morals and lessons. But taking those concepts a step further and thinking about the author’s message can be tough. It’s not so cut and dry (nor, dare I say… canned). So I give students dozens of examples – and they have to pick one and work backward to create a skit that conveys that theme!

Middle school students are so quirky – God bless them – and the skits are a hit. After groups create theme skits, they work on a theme comic or theme story. They choose another theme and work backward to convey it through a comic or a short story. I’ve seen some really incredible work with this activity!

Once we’ve finished diving into all of the elements, the real work begins! We spend a couple of weeks reading several short stories, discussing the literary elements and how they are developed, how they impact one another, and so on. We usually finish our unit at the end of September or Early October. It ends up being perfect timing for a culminating activity and escape room using Roald Dahl’s ‘The Landlady,’ which is a post for another day!

I hope you have found new and invigorating ways to teach the elements of literature or with and without stations. If you’d like to make your teaching life easier, you can all of the resources mentioned in this blog by clicking the link below or by finding them on TPT here.