Teaching Literary Elements: Plot & Setting

August 04, 2017

Plot and setting are the first literary elements that I teach at the start of the school year. Whether you are teaching these as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, read on to find activities and resources that will benefit all levels of students.
Plot and setting are the first literary elements that I teach at the start of the school year. Whether you are teaching these as new concepts for your students, diving in deeper, or just reviewing the basics, you'll find activities and resources below that will benefit all levels of students.

Terms to Teach
At the start of my teaching career, I taught primarily ninth grade students at an urban, Title 1 high school. My students came from a variety of K-8 schools, which meant they came with varying English Language Arts experiences. To ensure that all of my students started high school with a strong foundation in the literary elements, I found it best to give direct instruction followed by ample opportunities to apply terms and practice skills.

During my direct instruction, I introduced students to the following terms: plot, chronological order, flashback, flashforward, foreshadowing, setting, mood, conflict, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Many of my students were unaccustomed to taking notes so I provided them with a guided note taking template. This three column sheet provided a structured space for the term, definition, and examples.

Activities for Reinforcement
Before applying these newly learned terms to a short story or novel, I like to give my students opportunities to practice using shorter texts or media. For plot, using Pixar Shorts provides great visual reinforcement. Pixar has two Short Film Collections, Volume 1 and Volume 2, for purchase, but you can also find many on YouTube. I have collected many of them in this playlist. While watching, students are responsible for identifying one part of the plot at first, and eventually all of it using a plot mountain diagram.

Another fun, but quick way to reinforce the elements of plot is to have students use the same plot diagram to plan out a very, very short story. I challenge them to write just one sentence per part of the plot. We use these very, very short stories to create mini-books like these scary story ones.

Incorporating Movement and Hands-on Activities
One year I taught at an all boys school so giving them opportunities to move around and get some of that energy out was a must. Using stations focused on plot and setting is one way I did that. I pushed together desks, but you can also use tables, to set up six stations around the room. At each station, students completed activities such as matching terms and definitions, placing a series of events in chronological order, and analyzing the mood of settings. Because all of the station activities involve matching, sorting, or sequencing, they are easy to check and offer feedback to students on their mistakes.

Another way to incorporate movement is having students act out scenarios in different settings so that students can see the impact that setting has on the events in a story. For example, I might first have a student act out what it is like to get to school in modern day if you live in the city. Then I'd switch up the place and ask a student what it's like to get to school in modern day if you live in a rural area, on a tundra, or in a rainforest. Then I'd switch up the time period and ask a student what it was like to get to school in the 1850's in the city. And then switch up the place again, but keep the same time period. Many of students love acting and these scenarios give some of my students who don't ordinarily participate a chance to do so.

Texts to Read
Plot and setting skills can be taught with just about any text, but a few of my favorite short stories to use are: "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, "The Sniper" by Liam O'Flaherty, and "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. In each of these pieces, the climax comes late in the story and the setting has a major impact on events.

"The Most Dangerous Game" is set on a jungle covered island, which is frequently the site of shipwrecks. The island is the home of General Zaroff, who has found a new "animal" to hunt. The isolation of his island creates the possibility of his new sport. The original version of this short story is lengthy and all of my reading is done in class, so I use a 6 page adapted version.

“The Sniper” is set in the 1920s during the Irish revolution. A sniper is stationed on a rooftop contemplating how he will get down before the light of dawn exposes him to the sniper on the rooftop across the street. This short story is just a few pages long, perfect for in class reading.

"The Gift of the Magi" is also set in the early 1900's, but in New York City on Christmas Eve. The approaching holidays sets off a chain of events that reveals how deeply a young couple cares for each other. This short story is also just a few pages long, perfect for in class reading. After reading, I challenge students to write a modern retelling of the story, paying careful attention to how an updated setting affects the plot.

Creative Application
Once students seem comfortable with the terms or if students need a challenge, I introduce students to a digital breakout, "Escape from Plot Mountain" for additional practice. A digital breakout is an online scavenger hunt-like game where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open a series of locks.

In this breakout, students are lost on Plot Mountain when the weather takes a turn for the worse and the battery on their phone dies, so they can't rely on their GPS to help them find their way. They have to interact with a variety of text and media to find the codes that will unlock a series of locks on the ranger's cabin they've stumbled across. Inside there's bound to be a map that will help guide them back to safety!

In addition to needing content knowledge to successfully complete the game, breakouts require students to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and use creativity. I also love breakouts because they provide students with many opportunities to fail and try again. Every unsuccessful attempt to open a lock forces them to reexamine their information and their thinking.

While many of the activities described above allow students to show their understanding of skills and terms, as a summative assessment I use a set of text-based assessments, each with a reading passage and 10 multiple choice questions, to assess my students’ knowledge of plot and setting. The variety of passages and text complexity levels allows me to retest students as needed and make accommodations for struggling readers. The variety was also helpful in the years that I had classes whose eyes tended to wander during quizzes or tests.

You can find all of my resources for teaching plot and setting here.

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