Improve reading comprehension and analysis in a 6th grade language arts classroom by teaching these foundational elements of literature.

6th grade reading comprehension

If you want to improve reading comprehension in your 6th grade Language Arts classroom but aren’t sure where to start, I know how you feel. I’ve been there. 

The truth is, most sixth-grade students enter middle school with an elementary background in reading composed of phonics, decoding strategies, and general reading strategies like inferencing, summarizing, sequencing, etc. 

They are met with enthusiastic secondary teachers eager to dig into meaningful literature and discuss things like the author’s use of language, literary devices, idea development, and more.

But there’s a gap between those two worlds, and bridging that gap between basic reading comprehension and complex literary analysis is often overlooked. 

Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered because I’ve thrived in this space. I’ve used my background in teaching reading in elementary along with my experience in middle school ELA to help transition students from emerging readers into knowledgeable consumers of literature.

The secret? I started treating my 6th grade Language Arts class like an Intro to Literature course. Shifting my mindset allowed me to think about how I could bridge the gap between what students had learned and what they really needed to know about literature to succeed in their secondary career.

I started building my units around the elements of literature: fiction, nonfiction, argument, poetry, and drama. 

Here’s what I found. By teaching students the foundational elements of each type of literature, they began to see patterns from one text to the next. These patterns built familiarity, and familiarity gave way to competence. 

Does this sound like something that might transform your teaching? Grab my free Elements of Literature Handbook, and let’s dive in.

First Stop: The Elements of Literature Defined

The Elements of Literature are the various foundational components that make up different genres. They are the predictable and repetitive elements in fiction, nonfiction, arguments, poems, and dramas. Teaching students to identify these foundational elements will boost reading comprehension because it sets students up for success no matter what text they are reading.

As students gain familiarity with the essential elements of each genre, they can think more critically about what they read by monitoring idea development, identifying connections, and analyzing the author’s craft. 

The best part? This approach keeps the art and craft of literature intact instead of boiling it down to a series of skill-based comprehension questions. (And that’s not fun for anyone…)

Elements of Fiction

When teaching reading comprehension with fictional literature, start with introducing students to the five elements of fiction. Most 6th graders have some background knowledge with this because they likely learned them as story elements in elementary.

There are five essential elements of fiction students should be able to identify and explain in any text:

  • Characters 
    • Protagonist, Antagonist, Direct & Indirect Character Development, Round vs. Flat, Static vs. Dynamic
  • Setting
  • Time, Place, Mood
  • Conflict
    • Internal vs External, Man vs. Man/Self/Society/Nature/Supernatural/Technology
  • Plot
    • Exposition, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution
  • Theme
elements of literature

These five elements are present in all fictional texts. Therefore, they are critical foundational concepts that students should understand and be able to identify and explain. 

In addition, when we ask students to analyze a text, we are often asking them to analyze the author’s development or craft with one or more of these five elements. 

Reading comprehension questions can become much more purposeful when students understand the elements of fiction. Consider how the following questions encourage students to think through the heart of the literature and consider how they influence one another: 

  • How does the main character change as the plot progresses?
  • In what way is the conflict related to or influenced by the setting?
  • How do the characters react or respond to the conflict?
  • What is the climax of the story? How does this event lead to the resolution?
  • At what point in the plot does the theme become apparent?

By structuring your unit around the elements, you have complete freedom with the texts you select. This approach is very flexible. For example, once I’ve taught the elements of fiction, I might practice with a few favorite short stories like The Landlady or Lob’s Girl, or I might choose texts with a particular theme or common topic. This could be related to current social issues, topics of study from another class, or what’s trending.

Elements of Nonfiction/Informational Text

Boosting 6th grade reading comprehension in regards to nonfiction or informational texts is quite the undertaking, am I right?!?

The elements of nonfiction are a bit more difficult for students to remember simply because their exposure to and familiarity with them is more limited. As a teacher, I try to keep in mind that my goal is to help students see how the key ideas are developed through the structure and features of the text. Only then can they integrate and synthesize information on a higher level.

There are four essential elements of nonfiction students should be able to identify and explain in any text:

  • Author’s Purpose
  • Author’s Point of View
  • Text Organization
    • Structures such as Description, Chronological, Compare/Contrast, Problem/Solution, & Cause/Effect
    • Features such as graphs, timelines, diagrams, bolded words and definitions, headings, subheadings, maps, etc.
  • Key Ideas
6th grade language arts

The purpose of teaching these four elements in relation to nonfiction texts is ultimately getting students to understand the complexity of the text’s topic, why the author wrote it, and how the author shapes the information in the text.

To get students thinking about the elements of nonfiction, you might ask them questions like:

  • What is the main idea of the text?
  • Why did the author write this text? What were they trying to achieve?
  • How does the author’s point of view influence the information in the text?
  • How might the events in the text be different if the text were told from [person’s] point of view?
  • How did the author organize the information?
  • How does [text feature] show the relationship between [idea 1] and [idea 2]?

When teaching these foundational elements, you can utilize content from just about any subject! 

Elements of an Argument

It’s been said that the argumentation unit is the most important unit of ELA each year, and the bulk of instructional time should be spent understanding, tracing, and evaluating arguments. The rationale behind this is that arguments are the primary text type consumed in adulthood, and we want to equip our students with the knowledge to discriminate between valid arguments supported by sufficient, appropriate, and verifiable evidence and reasoning and invalid arguments that are…. not. 

When teaching the foundational elements of an argument in a 6th grade language arts class, there are six elements to teach (in varying degrees):

  • Claim
  • Evidence
  • Reasoning
  • Counterclaim
  • Rebuttal
  • Audience
6th grade reading comprehension

Students should have experience thinking through questions such as:

  • What is the author claiming? 
  • What reasons does the author use to support the claim that _______?
  • Are the author’s reasons sufficient? Valid? Relevant?
  • What type of evidence does the author include?
  • What counterclaims does the author acknowledge? 
  • Has the author considered their audience? How can you tell?

It’s important to remember that while reading is the primary delivery method of content in an ELA class, arguments can take shape in many additional forms that might include commercials, podcasts, documentaries, news clips, text messages, and so on. Helping students transfer their knowledge from texts to other forms of media is crucial in helping to set them up for success later on.

Elements of Poetry

Something happens between elementary school and secondary Language Arts where students lose interest in poetry and shy away from any mention of it. I have my theories, but I believe it boils down to how we approach teaching and react to our students when we ask them to interpret it. 

Poetry is the artistic expression of human language that combines ideas with emotion, rhythm, and imagery. While it may be perceived as a very creative right-brained experience, we can still understand it in a logical left-brained way.

To start, there are six elements of poetry your 6th grade students can and should learn to understand:

  • Speaker
  • Structure
    • Lines, Stanzas, End-Stop, Enjambment, Specific Forms (Couplet, Triplet, etc.)
  • Sound Devices
    • Rhyme, Meter, Rhythm, Repetition, Consonance, Assonance, Alliteration, Onomatopoeia, etc.
  • Sensory Language/Imagery
  • Figurative Language
    • Oxymoron, Metaphor, Hyperbole, Simile, Personification, Idioms, etc.
  • Theme
reading comprehension

Having a basic understanding of some of these elements will give your students a boost of confidence when reading and interpreting poetry. You might consider asking them questions such as:

  • What does the poem reveal about the speaker?
  • Is there a pattern in the structure of the poem? If so, how might this relate to the topic?
  • What elements does the poet use to create a musical quality in the poem?
  • How does the use of [figurative language] contribute to the poem’s tone?
  • What is a possible theme of the poem? How is it developed?

Boosting reading comprehension when it comes to poetry can become more manageable if students understand the essential elements. Pair these elements & question stems with engaging poetry your students are sure to love, and you’ve got a winning game plan.

Elements of Drama

The last and final piece of literature 6th grade language arts students need to be equipped to comprehend is drama. 

Drama is often a neglected form of literature in the language arts classroom because it’s not something students encounter as frequently. However, should you choose to address it, there are five elements specific to dramas students should be aware of:

  • Stage Directions
  • Dialogue
  • Acts & Scenes
  • Set
  • Props
elements of literature

You can encourage students to think critically (from a literary point of view) about a drama with questions such as:

  • How do the stage directions help you understand what [character] is doing?
  • What can you conclude about [character] based on their dialogue?
  • How does [act/scene] move the plot forward?
  • What does the set reveal about the setting of the play?
  • What props might be necessary to this drama?

As a final note on dramas, a powerful instructional move is to invite students to experience a fictional short story like “The Monkey’s Paw” and then provide them with a secondary experience of the short story in the format of a drama and compare the two experiences. What was or was not revealed about the characters in the short story? What was or was not revealed about the plot in the drama?

Your students will love seeing the same piece of literature portrayed differently and will usually prefer one over the other.

Don’t Forget Your Free Elements of Literature Handbook

If you’re a 6th grade Language Arts teacher, and this approach to reading comprehension sounds like just the thing you’re looking for, be sure to grab my free Elements of Literature Handbook. I’ve recapped (and expanded on) all of the elements listed above, plus included bonus question stems for each element.

I hope this post provides you with clarity moving forward in teaching reading comprehension to your middle school students. Questions or comments? Feel free to drop them below or find me on IG/FB.

Happy Teaching!

All the best, Natayle