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Story Impressions: Judging a Book by its Key Words

Lesson Question:

As a pre-reading activity, how can students piece together a plausible narrative based on a list of key words from the novel Holes?

Applicable Grades:

3-12

Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, small groups of students write original narratives based on a short list of key words and names from the Louis Sachar novel Holes. This pre-reading activity builds word awareness, hones predictive skills in reading, and reviews the basics of narrative structure.  

Length of Lesson:

One hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • review the components of narrative structure
  • use the Visual Thesaurus to define a list of key words
  • compose and share original narratives
  • compare and contrast original narratives with the plot teaser for the novel Holes

Materials:

  • student notebooks
  • computers with Internet access
  • white board
  • copies of the novel Holes by Louis Sachar (one per student)

Related resources:

This lesson was modeled after McGinley and Denner's "Story Impressions" strategy, as described in their article "Story impressions: A prereading/writing activity" (Journal of Reading, December 1987).

Read more about the award-winning novel Holes at Louis Sachar's web site.

Warm-up:

Reviewing Narrative elements:

  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word map for narrative, pointing out the synonym story.
  • Briefly discuss the basic elements of a narrative by posing the question: What does every story have?
  • List students' responses on the board, establishing that most narratives have a beginning, a middle, and an end that usually all hinge upon a central character facing and resolving a problem. (You might also want to review the more traditional narrative terms: point of view, setting, plot, characterization, conflict, climax, and resolution.)

Instruction:

Introducing a novel through a set of word clues:

  • Explain to students that instead of examining a book's front cover art or its description on the back cover as a way to "size up a book," they will be examining a set of words and names from a book as a means of introduction.
  • Reveal the following list of words and names to the class and inform them that they will have to use this set of clues to construct a short narrative to explore how the words could relate to one another in a story sequence.

Stanley Yelnats

arrested, innocent

great-great-grandfather

curse

desolate

juvenile correctional facility

digging

blister

Zero

friends

the Warden

venom

refuge

climbing

precipice

onions

destiny

treasure

Using the Visual Thesaurus to explore word clues:

  • Depending on the availability of computers, organize the class into small groups or partnerships to look up any unfamiliar words on the list.
  •  Emphasize that students should not only explore words' multiple meanings but also their usage – since they will need to know how to use the words smoothly in their original stories. For example, if students learn the meaning of refuge as "a safe place," they might want to right-click on the word in order to search the internet for usage examples showing how refuge is often used in phrases such as "house of refuge" or "to seek refuge in...."
  • Have students identify which items on the list might indicate characters (i.e., Stanley Yelnets, great-great-grandfather, Zero, the Warden).

Writing original narratives:

  • Once students are familiar with the words and names on the list, direct them (either individually, in pairs, or in small groups) to take 15 or 20 twenty minutes to compose original stories with the words – keeping them in the same order as they appear in the list (and as they originally appeared in the novel).
  • Remind students to keep the elements of a narrative in mind. Which words help establish setting? Characterization? Which words set up the original conflict or problem? Which words will be used to describe the climax or the story's final resolution?

Sharing stories:

  • If time permits, have volunteers read their stories aloud.
  • Compare and contrast students' stories in a brief discussion. Which interpretations followed similar patterns? Which authors took a different narrative path with the same set of clues?

Wrap-up:

Comparing and contrasting student stories with Sachar's novel:

  • Distribute copies of Louis Sachar's novel Holes and read aloud the back cover's plot teaser. Compare and contrast the content of students' stories with the plot developments that are revealed on the back cover.
  • Here is a sample story written by a 6th grader named Mona, with the words and names from the list in bold letters:

And here is the plot teaser from the inside cover flap, available on Amazon.com:

Extending the Lesson:

  • During and after students' reading of the novel Holes, have them note when the words and names from the assigned list appear in the story. Which words and names ended up taking on the most significance in the novel? How did writing the original stories change the experience of reading the actual novel?
  • Using Venn Diagrams, students could compare and contrast elements of the novel Holes with elements of their own stories.

Assessment:

  • Check students' original stories to assess narrative elements and use of words and names in the assigned sequence.
  • As students read the novel Holes, assess their comprehension of the key word list in the context of Sachar's story.

Educational Standards

Language Arts

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level II (Grades 3-5)
2. Establishes a purpose for reading (e.g., for information, for pleasure, to understand a specific viewpoint)
3. Makes, confirms, and revises simple predictions about what will be found in a text (e.g., uses prior knowledge and ideas presented in text, illustrations, titles, topic sentences, key words, and foreshadowing clues)
5. Use a variety of context clues to decode unknown words (e.g., draws on earlier reading, reads ahead)
6. Uses word reference materials (e.g., glossary, dictionary, thesaurus) to determine the meaning, pronunciation, and derivations of unknown words
7. Understands level-appropriate reading vocabulary (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homophones, multi-meaning words)
8. Monitors own reading strategies and makes modifications as needed (e.g., recognizes when he or she is confused by a section of text, questions whether the text makes sense)

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Establishes and adjusts purposes for reading (e.g., to understand, interpret, enjoy, solve problems, predict outcomes, answer a specific question, form an opinion, skim for facts; to discover models for own writing)
2. Uses word origins and derivations to understand word meaning (e.g., Latin and Greek roots and affixes, meanings of foreign words frequently used in the English language, historical influences on English word meanings)
3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)
4. Uses specific strategies to clear up confusing parts of a text (e.g., pauses, rereads the text, consults another source, represents abstract information as mental pictures, draws upon background knowledge, asks for help)
5. Understands specific devices an author uses to accomplish his or her purpose (e.g., persuasive techniques, style, word choice, language structure) 6. Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to texts

Standard 6. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts.

Level II (Grades 3-5)
1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fairy tales, folktales, fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fables, fantasies, historical fiction, biographies, autobiographies, chapter books)
3. Understands the basic concept of plot (e.g., main problem, conflict, resolution, cause-and-effect)
4. Understands similarities and differences within and among literary works from various genre and cultures (e.g., in terms of settings, character types, events, point of view; role of natural phenomena)
5. Understands elements of character development in literary works (e.g., differences between main and minor characters; stereotypical characters as opposed to fully developed characters; changes that characters undergo; the importance of a character's actions, motives, and appearance to plot and theme)
6. Knows themes that recur across literary works

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, drama)
2. Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, drama)
3. Understands complex elements of plot development (e.g., cause-and-effect relationships; use of subplots, parallel episodes, and climax; development of conflict and resolution)
4. Understands elements of character development (e.g., character traits and motivations; stereotypes; relationships between character and plot development; development of characters through their words, speech patterns, thoughts, actions, narrator's description, and interaction with other characters; how motivations are revealed)
8. Understands point of view in a literary text (e.g., first and third person, limited and omniscient, subjective and objective)
9. Understands inferred and recurring themes in literary works (e.g., bravery, loyalty, friendship, good v. evil; historical, cultural, and social themes)

See also the Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy (PDF, pages 29, 53, and 55)


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