The University of Iowa

Effective Literacy Lesson: Improving Comprehension Through Story Mapping

Sad girl wearing a red sweater

Middle school students can use a story map graphic organizer to comprehend narrative elements, such as pinpointing the red sweater thrust upon the main character as a source of external conflict in Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven.”

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Posted on: February 25, 2020

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of an ongoing series entitled “Effective Literacy Lessons.” In these posts, we provide a brief summary of the research basis for an approach to teaching reading or writing skills. Then, we outline the instructional sequence for the approach and script how a teacher might “think aloud” to model what students should do or guide students in completing portions of the lesson. The intent of these posts is to provide teachers a starting point for designing their own effective literacy lessons.

Research Basis

Many adolescents who have reading difficulties struggle with reading comprehension (Cirino et al., 2013). When helping students improve their comprehension, it is important to consider the characteristics of the texts students are reading (Schmitz et al., 2017). Texts of different genres (e.g., literary, informational) may place different kinds of demands on students’ reading comprehension. Literary texts may require students to identify and make inferences about cause-effect events, conflicts, characters’ motivations and emotions, and elements of the setting (Graesser et al., 2001). In contrast, comprehension of informational texts may require students to evaluate textual information and compare it to prior knowledge (Kendeou & van den Broek, 2007).

Story mapping instruction is a type of comprehension strategy instruction that has demonstrated positive effects on the reading comprehension of secondary students with reading difficulties (Boon et al., 2015). A story map is a graphic organizer students use to organize and display narrative elements (e.g., setting, characters, conflict) in a literary text. During story mapping instruction, students learn to identify textual details related to story elements and use that information to complete a story map (Fore et al., 2007). Importantly, story mapping instruction may help students visualize and identify narrative elements, thus improving their comprehension of the text’s meaning (Boon et al., 2015).

This post describes an effective literacy lesson for teaching students to use a story map graphic organizer to organize important elements of a literary text.

Lesson Materials

For Teachers:

For Students:

  • Story Map
  • Short narrative texts

Instructional Sequence

Lesson Appropriate for Grade 6

For this sequence, Sandra Cisneros’s short story “Eleven” was used. Reading or listening to (video timestamp 2:49-11:28) the story may be helpful to understand the sequence below. In initial modeling and guided practice, using short literary texts is ideal because students have the opportunity to practice mapping several different stories. However, subsequent guided and independent practice might involve mapping short sections of novels or longer stories.

1. Establish the Purpose

Teacher script: Today you will learn to identify and map elements of literary texts. We will be using short stories for our lesson, but we may use a novel or a drama in the future. Mapping story elements in literary texts is important because it will help you identify and visualize important elements when reading independently.

2. Introduce the Concept and Skill

Before reading the story, introduce the story map by displaying it with an interactive whiteboard or document camera.

Teacher script: A story map is a graphic organizer that displays narrative elements of literary texts, such as the characters, setting, or conflict.

I chose this strategy because it gives me a way to make sure I am understanding the text. If I can identify these basic story elements, like the characters, setting, conflict, and resolution, then I know I am comprehending the text. If I cannot identify some of the elements, then I know I need to do something else to improve my understanding of the story.

3. Model Story Mapping

Before reading the story, provide a brief overview of each narrative element and explain its importance to understanding the story. All elements you include in the story map and the lesson should have been taught explicitly to students in previous lessons. Students need to learn one element at a time, so the lesson presented here assumes that students are ready for a cumulative review of characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and point of view by using the story map. As you review each element, indicate its location on the story map. If a student provides an inaccurate response to a question, provide the correct response reflected in the suggested student responses below. Then, pose the question to the student a second time to ensure that the student corrects the inaccurate information from the initial response.

Teacher script: When we read stories, it is important to identify main characters. What is a main character?

Suggested student response: A main character is involved in the story’s events, conflict, and resolution. A character can be a person, animal, or even an object that is involved in the story’s plot.

Teacher script: Why is it important to identify main characters while reading a literary text?

Suggested student response: Identifying the main characters and recording important information about them will help me understand their roles as the story progresses.

Teacher script: The setting is also a key element of literary texts. What is the setting?

Suggested student response: The setting is the environment in which the story takes place. It includes the time and location of the story, or where and when the story takes place.

Teacher script: We learned about two types of conflict, or problems, that may occur in literary texts. The first was an external conflict. What is an external conflict?

Suggested student response: An external conflict is a problem that comes from outside forces, meaning it is caused by someone or something other than the character.

Teacher script: What are some examples of external conflicts?

Suggested student response: A character might have a problem caused by another person, a group of people, or even an animal. In addition, a problem might be caused by forces of nature, like a tornado or a hurricane.

Teacher script: The second type of conflict is an internal conflict. What is an internal conflict?

Suggested student response: An internal conflict is a problem that happens inside of a character’s mind, like when a character struggles with something that he or she is thinking about or feeling.

Teacher script: What are some examples of internal conflicts?

Suggested student response: An internal conflict may happen when a character has to make a difficult decision or feels different kinds of emotions at the same time.

Teacher script: In addition to conflicts, it is important to identify resolutions in literary texts. What is a resolution?

Suggested student response: A resolution is how a conflict is solved.

Teacher script: Do all literary texts have just one resolution?

Suggested student response: No, there may be multiple resolutions in a story because there may be multiple conflicts.

Read the story aloud as students follow along on their own copies. As you come to important textual details related to the story map elements, pause your reading and think aloud about how you identified these details. In addition, demonstrate to students how you annotate or mark up the text in order to capture the details you identify. As you identify textual details related to the story elements, record them on the story map.

The following provides an example of a think aloud for each of the story map elements.

Main Characters

Teacher script: When a story is told from a first-person point of view, I know that the narrator will be a main character. Therefore, I am going to look out for textual details that give me information about the narrator. In the first part of the story, I learn that the main character is an eleven-year-old girl named Rachel. I know this because the narrator states, “Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box.”

Underline this sentence on the displayed copy of the text.

Teacher script: Then, a few paragraphs later, another student says the sweater belongs to Rachel, and Mrs. Price responds by giving it to the narrator.

Underline this sentence on the displayed copy of the text. In the margins, identify the related story element by writing “Main Character.”

Teacher script: On my story map, I will record that one main character is an eleven-year-old girl named Rachel. It is also important to note that she is the narrator.

Display the story map and record this information under “Main Character(s).”

Main Character(s)
Rachel: 11-year-old narrator

Setting

Teacher script: Throughout the beginning of the story, the narrator talks in general about what it is like to be 11, and we realize that she is 11 years old. However, later in the story, she directly tells the reader that the story is taking place on her eleventh birthday. She says, “Today I am eleven, eleven. Mama is making a cake for me tonight, and when Papa comes home everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you.”

Underline these two sentences on the displayed copy of the text. In the margins, identify the related story element by writing “Setting: When.”

Teacher script: On my story map, I will record that the story takes place on Rachel’s eleventh birthday.

Display the story map and record this information under “Setting: When?”

Setting

When? 

Rachel's eleventh birthday

Where?

Teacher script: Sometimes an author does not explicitly tell the reader where the story takes place. However, the author of this story has provided several important clues about the setting. The narrator, Rachel, identifies Mrs. Price as a teacher (underline this word on the displayed copy of the text) and describes how Mrs. Price puts the sweater right on her desk (underline this sentence in the displayed copy of the text). Therefore, I can infer that the location of this story is Mrs. Price’s classroom at school.

Identify the related story element by writing “Setting: Location” in the margins.

Teacher script: On my story map, I will record this as where the story takes place.

Display the story map and record this information under “Setting: Where?”

Setting

When? 

Rachel's eleventh birthday

Where?

Rachel's classroom at school

Conflict

Teacher script: I know that a conflict is a problem in the story. Here, I think it is clear the problem is that Mrs. Price and Rachel’s classmates believe the red sweater belongs to Rachel, and Mrs. Price forces it into Rachel’s possession. I know it is a problem because Rachel protests and tells Mrs. Price that the sweater is not hers, but Mrs. Price does not listen. This is a problem that is coming from outside forces, so I know it is an external conflict.

Underline these sentences on the displayed copy of the text and identify the related story element by writing “External Conflict” in the margins.

Teacher script: On my story map, I will record that the external conflict is that everyone thinks the red sweater belongs to Rachel, and Mrs. Price makes her keep it.

Display the story map and record this information under “Conflict: External”.

Conflict

Internal:

External:

Everyone thinks the red sweater belongs to Rachel, and Mrs. Price makes her keep it.

Teacher script: I also think that there is an internal conflict in this story. I think this because there is quite a bit of reflection in which the narrator talks about having mixed emotions or feeling different ways at the same time. The narrator is turning 11 today and believes she should feel joyful and mature enough to stand up for herself. However, the conflict with the sweater is making her feel embarrassed and timid, as if she were much younger. She says, “This is when I wish I wasn’t eleven because all the years inside of me —ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one —are pushing at the back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese.”

Underline this sentence on the displayed copy of the text. Identify the related story element by writing “Internal Conflict” in the margins.

Teacher script: On my story map, I will record this information as the internal conflict: Rachel thinks she should be joyful and mature enough to stand up for herself but also feels embarrassed and timid.

Display the story map and record this information under “Conflict: Internal.”

Conflict

Internal:

Rachel thinks she should feel joyful and mature enough to stand up for herself but also feels embarrassed and timid.

External:

Everyone thinks the red sweater belongs to Rachel, and Mrs. Price makes her keep it.

Resolution

Teacher script: In order to identify the resolution, I need to find out how Rachel’s internal and external conflicts are resolved. Toward the end of the story, another student, Phyllis Lopez, “remembers the red sweater is hers.” Rachel finally gets to take off the sweater and give it to its rightful owner. Therefore, the external conflict has been resolved. Mrs. Price can no longer force Rachel to keep the sweater.

Underline these sentences on the displayed copy of the text. Identify the related story element by writing “Resolution” in the margins.

Teacher script: On my story map, I will record the resolution of the external conflict is that Rachel gives the sweater to its owner, Phyllis Lopez.

Display the story map and record this information under “Resolution,” across from the related conflict.

Resolution

 

Rachel gives the sweater to its owner, Phyllis Lopez.

Teacher script: However, this does not resolve the internal conflict. In the last two paragraphs, Rachel is no longer feeling mixed emotions. Instead, she feels deflated and decides that her birthday has been ruined. She reflects on the resolution of the red sweater incident, saying, “There’ll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it’s too late.” This is an example of a resolution that is not what we call a happy ending. Instead, conflicting emotions, some positive and some negative, are resolved by giving way to purely negative ones.

Underline these sentences on the displayed copy of the text. Identify the related story element by writing “Resolution” in the margins.

Teacher script: I will record this on my story map as a resolution to the internal conflict: Rachel feels deflated and decides that her birthday is ruined.

Display the story map and record this information under “Resolution,” across from the related conflict.

Resolution

Rachel feels deflated and decides that her birthday is ruined.

Rachel gives the sweater to its owner, Phyllis Lopez.

4. Provide Guided Practice in Story Mapping

After modeling, provide guided practice opportunities in which students practice applying the story mapping strategy to new stories. Ask students to work in pairs to read aloud the story, identify key textual details, and complete the story map. As students work, circulate among students and monitor their annotations and story map responses. Support their application of the strategy by probing their responses (e.g., Why did you identify ______ as a main character?) and asking guiding questions about the narrative elements (e.g., What are the two parts of a story’s setting?). In addition, be sure to correct any inaccurate or incomplete story map responses. Throughout guided practice, re-teach story mapping skills or content with which students are struggling in order to improve implementation of the strategy. For example, students may require additional practice annotating important textual details or correctly identifying internal and external conflicts. Importantly, students may require multiple guided practice opportunities before they are ready to independently practice the story mapping strategy.

5. Provide Independent Practice

Once students have demonstrated that they are ready to independently apply the story mapping strategy, provide independent practice. Ask students to read and map a new literary text without peer support. Although students are working independently, it is important to continue to provide feedback on the completeness and accuracy of their story maps. After students have completed a story map, provide feedback and ask them to revise any responses that are inaccurate or incomplete.

Supplemental Materials for Teachers

PDF iconStory Map

Students can be taught to use this graphic organizer to show the elements of a narrative text and check themselves for understanding of those elements.

References

Boon, R. T., Paal, M., Hintz, A. -M., & Cornelius-Freyre, M. (2015). A review of story mapping instruction for secondary students with LD. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 13, 117–140.

Cirino, P. T., Romain, M. A., Barth, A. E., Tolar, T. D., Fletcher, J. M., & Vaughn, S. (2013). Reading skill components and impairments in middle school struggling readers. Reading and Writing, 26, 1059-1086. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-012-9406-3

Fore, C., Scheiwe, K., Burke, M. D., & Boon, R. T. (2007). Teaching a story mapping procedure to high school students with specific learning disabilities to improve reading comprehension skills. Learning Disabilities: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 14, 233-244.

Graesser, A. C., Wiemer-Hastings, P., & Wiemer-Hastings, K. (2001). Constructing inferences and relations during text comprehension. In T. Sanders, J. Schilperoord, & W. Spooren (Eds.), Text representation: Linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects (pp. 244–270). John Benjamins Publishing.

Kendeou, P., & van den Broek, P. (2007). The effects of prior knowledge in text structure on comprehension processes during reading scientific texts. Memory & Cognition, 35, 1567–1577. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03193491

Schmitz, A., Gräsel, C., & Rothstein, B. (2017). Students’ genre expectations and the effects of text cohesion on reading comprehension. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 30, 1115–1135. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-016-9714-0


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