Story Puzzler

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.1; RL.4.3; RL.5.1

Objective: Analyze photos to make inferences about stories

What You Need: Enlarged photograph cut into five puzzle pieces, iPads (optional)

What to Do: Fourth-grade teacher Kerry Smith, of Herbert Hoover Elementary School in Kenmore, New York, uses photos to get students to make inferences, explaining that each story element is one piece of the puzzle that tells the whole tale.

Smith, a 20-year veteran, says she spends a lot of time with her students on making inferences. “I usually start with real-life pictures. We talk about what we see, what we know, and what we think is happening. Once we are pretty good at making inferences with the pictures, I tie this into teaching story elements. When we make those inferences,” she adds, “we are almost writing the story of the picture!”

To get students to understand that each story element is part of the puzzle, Smith says, “I will enlarge one of my photos to poster size and cut it into five pieces, for setting, plot, character, conflict, and theme.”

Each piece is labeled on the back (keep in mind that the images won’t necessarily correspond to the element). As a class, students discuss the narrative elements and write definitions on the puzzle pieces. While kids talk about each element, they start building the puzzle, with the story element and definition sides face up. After discussing how all the elements are necessary, says Smith, “I turn the completed puzzle over to show how we put together that picture’s story. We then go back to our inferencing!”

Smith reinforces the narrative elements the class has just learned by bringing the puzzle to life digitally. Students are given a digital puzzle on their iPads (you can easily create one from any photo on They make inferences about the photo based on what they see and think—in essence, creating their own story. They then share their ideas and use the photo puzzle as a template to write a tale that goes along with the picture.

Smith says that her students love solving these digital puzzles, and the results are notable. “They are not fully masters at it after the first time—it takes practice! But each story is usually different in some way, just like my students.”

Listen and Watch

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.1; RL.4.3

Objective: Identify the narrative elements of a story with the help of a plot diagram

What You Need: For the read-aloud: A Bad Case of Stripes, by David Shannon, or The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka. For viewing: Soar, by Alyce Tzue, or The Present, by Jacob Frey; Plot Diagram template

What to Do: The combination of great picture books and videos makes this lesson a home run. Start by choosing a picture book that your students will love, such as A Bad Case of Stripes or The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! and read it to them before you introduce the idea of narrative elements. Heather Renz, a former long-time elementary school teacher from central Oregon, believes that starting the lesson this way “allows students to really enjoy the book and listen to the story without thinking about the lesson.”

After reading the book, introduce the Plot Diagram, with all of the parts labeled and defined; it charts the beginning, middle, and end of a story, showing conflict, climax, and resolution, as well as rising and falling action. This will help students understand and visualize the narrative elements.

Once you have reviewed the diagram, challenge students to think about the story elements and read the picture book a second time.

“I like to read the book again because students are now able to focus on story elements, rather than the suspense of the book—they now know what to expect,” says Renz.

Then, in small groups or as a class, have students identify and discuss the elements in the story. Write these on an enlarged Plot Diagram.

Next, knock this lesson out of the park by showing a short video with rich story elements, such as Soar or The Present. Have students jot down notes and identify narrative elements in the film as you discuss as a class.

“[Using the video] is another way to get their gears turning. It really helps your students who have a hard time connecting with reading, books, and written language,” says Renz. “I find that a video often helps my struggling readers grasp the concepts, and my students have a blast watching a movie in school!” Even though the picture book and video are not thematically connected, both are great examples of story elements. (You may decide to choose another book-movie pair with a stronger thematic connection.)

Finally, have students work in pairs to read a second book and complete a Plot Diagram. “At this point, students have had two chances to diagram a story, and have improved confidence,” notes Renz. “They also have a buddy to assist and help fill in the pieces that might be missing. It’s a great opportunity for students to lead and guide others who may be struggling.”

Narrative Sketch Notes

Standards Met: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.3; W.5.3

Objective: Listen for narrative elements during a class read-aloud and sketch story ideas

What You Need: Paper, colored pencils, clipboards

What to Do: Another way Smith reinforces story elements is by teaching students how to take “sketch notes.”

“Sketch notes are a wonderfully motivating way to keep students engaged in their reading or listening!” Smith says. She recommends using this technique at any time when reading a passage or story to the class. During the reading, students draw what they are thinking about the story as they listen. (For more examples of sketch notes, read teacher and blogger Vicki Davis’s post on it at The Cool Cat Teacher.)

Smith allows students to sketch important narrative elements using any method they choose. “With sketch notes, students can draw, use words, symbols, or whatever they want,” she explains. The important thing is that “they can go back to their sketch notes later on and recall the story from their doodles.”

Smith introduces sketch notes by modeling how she does her own notes while students take on her role. “I always start by modeling with short stories that I have the students read to me. We talk a lot about how we can use words or pictures to help us remember what we are hearing. Then I have them practice with short stories.”

To have students focus their sketch notes on the narrative elements of a story, try placing prompts on each student’s desk. Pause intermittently during reading to remind students to include sketches about character, setting, conflict, and so on.

Smith believes that sketch notes really work wonders when reinforcing story elements. Often, she says, students include narrative elements in their sketch notes in some form or another without even really thinking about it.


Photo: Adam Chinitz (original images courtesy of Kerry Smith)

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