Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

Story Elements: Describing Characters


Improving Comprehension Through Character Analysis

Understanding the characters in a story is essential to students’ overall reading comprehension.  Characters provide many clues for the reader to determine what is happening in the story, and they also help us to understand the author’s message or theme.

Authors introduce characters in a variety of ways. We can help students describe these characters by teaching them how to make inferences based on the actions, dialogue, responses, and thoughts of the characters.

How Readers Learn About Characters

Authors don’t usually tell the reader a character’s traits in a direct way.  Students will need to analyze the characters as they read, and that means they will need to know what to look for.

Some methods of describing characters are done in a direct way by the author:

  • Physical description- How does the author describe the character’s appearance, what he or she is wearing, any distinctive features?
  • Dialogue- What does the character say, how does the character interact with others in the story?
  • Actions- What does the character do? How does the character’s actions affect others?

Some methods of describing characters require students to analyze and make inferences about the character:

  • Responses to other characters- How does the character react to events or actions of others?
  • Personality- What do the character’s actions and dialogue tell the reader about what type of person the character is?
  • Emotions- How does the character feel about what is happening in the story?
  • Dynamic or static- does the character change or stay the same?  Did the character grow and learn?
  • Make connections-Is the character like anyone from another story or real life? How are they alike or different?

Activities For Students

  • Character cards- students can create cards with an illustration or a list of the character’s traits.
    • In small groups, students can chose a card and play a game of charades as they act out the traits.
  • Character book- students can create their own book dedicated to the characters in the story.
    • They can draw a picture of the character, list the traits, feelings, ideas, etc of the character, and write a descriptive paragraph.
  • Compare and contrast- use a graphic organizer or chart paper to compare and contrast the characters in the story.

Books in a series work particularly well for units on characterization.  Students can compare the characters at different points in the series, chart the growth and changes of the character, make predictions about the character’s actions and responses to upcoming events, and make inferences about the author’s message and how the characters and the theme are intertwined.

I particularly like the Ghost Detectors Series:


Malcolm and his best friend Dandy aren’t like other 10-year-old boys. Malcolm would rather avoid his older sister, experiment in his lab, and read his science magazines than play sports. In one magazine, he comes across an advertisement for an Ecto-Handheld-Automatic-Heat-Sensitive-Laser-Enhanced Specter Detector. Its arrival is the beginning of the boys’ new career as Ghost Detectors when they discover a practical-joking poltergeist! Calico Chapter Books is an imprint of Magic Wagon, a division of ABDO Group. Grades 2-5.



This article addresses the following CCSS for English Language Arts:

Key Ideas and Details

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.3 Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.9 Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series)

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.9 Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.

What’s the Big Idea? : Teaching Theme


Theme and The Common Core

After reading a story, students may be able to retell the events and describe the characters, but how do we teach them to think about the ‘big picture’?

The CCSS for literature extend beyond retelling facts and require students, starting in grade 1, to be able to summarize, identify a central message, and use details to support their explanation.  So, even at this early age, students need to comprehend the text enough to determine what the author’s message is to the reader.

What Is Theme?

A theme is a message that the story teaches the reader about being human. It is a lesson about life, and it requires students to understand the text beyond a literal level.  Students need to be able to answer broad questions, such as:

What is the author trying to say?

What is the story about?

Themes are not words or sentences, they are ideas,  and this can be very challenging for students for several reasons.  Students who struggle with any of the following will find this particularly difficult:


  • Reading comprehension
  • Abstract thinking
  • Insufficient background knowledge
  • English Language Learners
  • Attention deficit disorders

Teaching students to recognize “What is the point of the story?” can be challenging at any grade level.  Here are some ideas that we can use as we help students build their reading skills and strategies.

How to Teach Theme

  • Give students a clear definition of theme with examples from familiar texts- explain that the theme is a message or a lesson the author is trying to share with the reader.
  • Explain to students that the author will not tell the reader what the theme of the story is; the reader has to think about what happened and decide what it means for other people in similar situations, for example.
  • Compare and contrast actual events from the story and ideas about the story. Discuss the events and details of the story showing students how to use those details to support the idea of the theme.  Use examples to show the difference between surface level thinking and ‘real world’ application.
  • Provide guiding questions as students practice figuring out the theme(s) within a story.  Use small group or whole class discussion to allow students to brainstorm, make connections, and analyze information.
  • Organize books by theme- once students identify the theme of a story, keep a running list in the classroom where books can be organized according to theme.
  • Give students plenty of practice and clear instructions.  Identify students ahead of time who may need additional support or more challenging tasks so that class time can be used in the most effective way for different learners.

Many stories share common themes, and it may be helpful to provide a list of themes that they could look for as they read.  Students may benefit from generating a class-made list of themes they have encountered in movies, books they have read, television shows, etc.  

Chances are, many students will be able to make a personal connection with one or more themes, and that is essential for critical thinking and higher order thinking skills.

As always, Big Universe Learning has a diverse and comprehensive library available for students from various backgrounds and reading abilities.  Finding texts that relate to each student’s background knowledge is key to making these essential connections.

CCSS ELA: Literature

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.2 - Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.2.2 - Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2 - Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.4.2 - Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.5.2 - Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.2 - Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.

What should you be doing while you are reading?

I am a big fan of graphic organizers for promoting critical thinking and encouraging comprehension and organization of thoughts. I wrote on the Big Universe Blog before about Graphic Organizers: What Do You Know?

I found some Graphic Organizers that I had not seen before, so I decided to share them with you!

All of the ones on this Education Place page are good, but I thought I would highlight a few of them (the words in parentheses are just my thoughts and ideas about some ways they could possibly be used … there are lots of other ways too) :

  • E-Chart (for emphasizing main idea and supporting details … could use with reading to have students identify the differences in those things and/or with writing as a way to brainstorm specific parts)
  • Goal-Reasons Web (this could also be used for main idea and supporting details as well as for explaining the reasons a decision was made … it could also be used to place inferences made in the goal circle and then details that led to the inference in the reason circles)
  • Observation Chart (this one has 5 columns for the 5 senses … when teaching descriptive writing, I would encourage my students to not only think about the way something looked, but to also think about how it tasted, felt, sound … this chart would have been very helpful … think about the ways students could use it when encountering information about a new topic or place)
  • ISP Chart (3 columns for students to take notes of information, sources, and pages … great for teaching the basics of research, pulling in ideas from various sources, or just taking notes to remember things)

So I encourage you to go explore and find different way to keep track of thoughts and to represent thinking ….. but most of all …. THINK while you READ!

Developing Readers and Writers

Are there connections between thinking, speaking, and writing? Do students realize those connections? What can we do to help students make those connections?

According to Alane Jordan Starko in Creativity in the Classroom (2005), “The links among thought, speaking, and writing  are at the heart of current balanced literacy approaches.  Students learn that if they can think it, they can say it.  If they can say it, they can write and read it. Writing is, above all, communication. As students develop as readers and writers, they can approach the processes of finding and expressing ideas with increasing sophistication.”

I think reading aloud to students and having conversations with students while reading aloud can play a very big role in helping to establish those connections.  In my experience, students of all ages enjoy read alouds.  Just this week, I used skype to read aloud a story to a 4th grade class in a city several hours away from me. The adults in my department enjoyed that read aloud time as much as the 4th grade students.

When you are reading a story aloud, you can model the thinking processes that take place while reading a story.  I will stop at the end of a paragraph or even at the end of a sentence to share what I am thinking and to ask students what they are thinking.  I encourage students to jot down their thoughts on paper or a graphic organizer while we are reading.  Too many times I have waited until the end to write down my thoughts and ideas, and those ideas have just floated away by then.

I like to make use some of the ideas and thoughts students have while reading or listening to a story. We could use those for journal topics. We could use those for story starters. We could use those to start class discussions.

We can talk and write about what we read. We can talk about what we read and write. Our talking and reading can serve as inspiration for writing.

Helping students make those connections helps them develop as readers and writers!

The best way to become a better reader  …  is to read!

The best way to become a better writer  …  is to read and write!

Starko, Alane Jordan. Creativity in the Classroom: Schools of curious delight. 3rd ed. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005. 280. Print.

image from

Sort it out!

Person holding a stack of booksSorting is one of my favorite activities to do with young people in the library at the beginning of the school year.  It encourages scientific and critical thinking and it’s a great way to reinforce the concepts of the Dewey Decimal system. Each year I place piles of different types of books on the library tables and my only instruction to students is to work together to “sort the books.” I give them 2 minutes to sort the books and then I ask for a group member to share how they sorted the books and why. Most of my younger students will sort according to color and size. The older students are more sophisticated and tend to sort by subject. I repeat this procedure until we have completed 3-4 cycles of sorting. By this time, it becomes challenging to figure out new ways to sort the books…but this is where their creativity comes to play. Try this activity with your little ones and see what they come up with.

This Big Universe title, Sort it Out!, by Barbara Mariconda is a perfect book to read just before the sorting activity. Sort it out book cover

Keisa Williams (aka Ms. K) is a K-5 School Librarian at Monarch Academy, a public charter school in Oakland, CA. She is certified in secondary and elementary education (MLIS and MEd) and loves collaborating with teachers and integrating technology into her library lessons. She considers herself a “Technology Diva” and “Gadget Junkie”.

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