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Introducing Students to Literary Nonfiction

Lesson Question:

How can students use VocabGrabber and the Visual Thesaurus to help them analyze an excerpt of literary nonfiction?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

This lesson introduces students to the genre of literary nonfiction and has them analyze the literary elements of a cell description in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Students use VocabGrabber and the Visual Thesaurus to examine the particular language of the excerpt that is used to creatively and figuratively describe a cell's anatomy and functions.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • compare and contrast literary nonfiction with more conventional nonfiction
  • analyze word choice in an excerpt of literary nonfiction
  • identify and analyze examples of literary devices in an excerpt of literary nonfiction


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access or iPads
  • "Two Descriptions of a Cell" handouts (one per student) [click here to download]


Comparing and contrasting two descriptions of a cell:

  • Distribute the following pair of descriptions of a cell (link to handout) and explain that each description is an example of nonfiction, but it is the students' task to identify which description could be characterized as having literary elements.
  • As they read the two descriptions, direct students to underline or circle any words, phrases, or sentences that seem "literary."

Cell Description #1

A cell is enclosed by a plasma membrane, which forms a selective barrier that allows nutrients to enter and waste products to leave. The interior of the cell is organized into many specialized compartments, or organelles, each surrounded by a separate membrane. One major organelle, the nucleus, contains the genetic information necessary for cell growth and reproduction. Each cell contains only one nucleus, whereas other types of organelles are present in multiple copies in the cellular contents, or cytoplasm. Organelles include mitochondria, which are responsible for the energy transactions necessary for cell survival; lysosomes, which digest unwanted materials within the cell; and the endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus, which play important roles in the internal organization of the cell by synthesizing selected molecules and then processing, sorting, and directing them to their proper locations. In addition, plant cells contain chloroplasts, which are responsible for photosynthesis, whereby the energy of sunlight is used to convert molecules of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) into carbohydrates. Between all these organelles is the space in the cytoplasm called the cytosol. The cytosol contains an organized framework of fibrous molecules that constitute the cytoskeleton, which gives a cell its shape, enables organelles to move within the cell, and provides a mechanism by which the cell itself can move. The cytosol also contains more than 10,000 different kinds of molecules that are involved in cellular biosynthesis, the process of making large biological molecules from small ones.

(source: Encyclopædia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/101396/cell)

Cell Description #2

Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) that's full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and a yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. It's crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. All the while, little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7, cranking out sugars, fats, proteins, and energy to keep the whole thing running and feed the nucleus—the brains of the operation. Inside every nucleus within each cell in your body, there's an identical copy of your entire genome. That genome tells cells when to grow and divide and makes sure they do their jobs, whether that's controlling your heartbeat or helping your brain understand the words on this page.

(source: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, p. 3 )


Sharing examples of "literary nonfiction":
  • Display the Visual Thesaurus word maps for "literature" (meaning "creative writing of recognized artistic value") and "nonfiction" (meaning "prose writing that is not fictional") and establish that a work of literary nonfiction must have artistic or creative literary elements AND be true.
  • Search for popular literary nonfiction books on Goodreads.com, and display the list of titles on the white board, emphasizing that the list includes many memoirs (like Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life), some more journalistic books like Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and even one book that tells the story of the first "immortal" human cells grown in culture: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Using VocabGrabber to analyze word choice:

  • Explain to students that Cell Description #2 is an excerpt from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
  • Copy and paste Cell Description #1 into VocabGrabber, click "Grab Vocabulary," click "List View," and point out the words that are prioritized at the top of the word list as highly relevant (all scientific terminology).
  • Copy and paste Cell Description #2 into VocabGrabber, click "Grab Vocabulary," click "List View," and point out the words that are prioritized at the top of the word list as highly relevant.

  • Discuss how in the more "literary" description of a cell from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Skloot uses words like "crank out" and the expression "24/7" in combination with scientific terms to describe the functions of a cell, while the encyclopedia excerpt only relies on scientific language in its explanation.
Cell Description #1:
top five words identified by VocabGrabber
Cell Description #2:
top five words identified by VocabGrabber
organelle cytoplasm(ic)
cytosol crank out
Golgi apparatus fried egg
cytoskeleton 24/7
mitochondrion genome


Identifying literary devices:

  • Display the "figure of speech" Visual Thesaurus word map on the white board and then click on its meaning to reveal the different types of figurative language literary authors tend to use (e.g., metaphors, similes, personification, etc.).

  • Have students work in partnerships or small groups to compare their notes from the warm-up, to consult the Visual Thesaurus, and to identify the different types of literary devices that Skloot used to enliven her description of a cell. For example, "The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street." is an example of a simile [defined in the Visual Thesaurus as "a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds (usually formed with "like" or "as")].
  • Students should annotate the passage from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, labeling and briefly explaining each literary or rhetorical device they identify in the paragraph.


Sharing examples of literary devices:

  • Ask each pair or small group of students to orally share the literary devices they identified in the paragraph, along with a brief explanation of how Skloot used each device to make a specific point about how a cell is organized and how it functions.
  • Make sure that students mention similes (e.g., "a cell looks a lot like a fried egg"); metaphors (e.g., "little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7"); personification (i.e., ‘the genome…makes sure cells do their jobs'); and how Skloot uses 2nd person to engage the reader (e.g., "the genetic information that makes you you).

Extending the Lesson:

  • A fun way to extend this lesson on literary nonfiction would be to challenge students to choose another scientific process (e.g., photosynthesis, the mechanics of blood circulation, the nervous system, etc.) and to describe that process using literary devices.
  • Have students read the entire prologue of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (or at least pages 2-4) to see how Skloot describes how her interest in HeLa cells and Lacks's life developed when she was a teenager who was failing out of high school and making up credits by taking a biology class at a local community college. How does Skloot's story of her own life as a failing but curious student engage readers? How does she weave scientific content into her personal narrative and into the story of Henrietta Lacks's life? What effect does this blending of genres have on your students as readers?


Assess students' annotations on the paragraph from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Did they accurately identify and explain each literary device in the paragraph?


Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Reading: Informational Text (Craft and Structure)

4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.

5. Analyze in detail the structure of a specific paragraph in a text, including the role of particular sentences in developing and refining a key concept.

6. Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.

Language: Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

5a. Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.

5b. Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.

5c. Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).

6. Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) Standards:

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

Level III (Grade 6-8)
1. Reads a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, historical fiction, drama)
2. Knows the defining features(e.g., setting in science fiction, soliloquy and stage directions in drama, conflict in narratives, perspective in biographies and autobiographies) and structural elements (e.g., chapter, act, scene, stanza) of a variety of literary genres
5. Understands the use of specific literary devices (e.g., foreshadowing, flashback, progressive and digressive time, suspense)
6. Understands the use of language in literary works to convey mood, images, and meaning (e.g., dialect; dialogue; symbolism; irony; rhyme; voice; tone; sound; alliteration; assonance; consonance; onomatopoeia; figurative language such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, allusion; sentence structure; punctuation) 
7. Understands the effects of an author's style (e.g., word choice, speaker, imagery, genre, perspective) on the reader

 Level IV (Grade 9-12)
1. Reads a variety of literary texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, American literature, British literature, world and ancient literature)
2. Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of literary forms and genres (e.g.,the dramatic elements of staging, breaking the fourth wall, expressionism, minimalism, and dramatic irony; the syntax, narrative structure, people/nature relationships, and male/female roles used in mythic traditions; the range of poem structures, such as fixed and free forms, rhymed and unrhymed, narrative and lyric)
7. Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view; voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator; poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification)


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Comments from our users:

Sunday April 28th 2013, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Megan N. (Solon, OH)
This is fabulous. I just assigned this book as summer reading for next year's high school seniors (class of 2014), and am extremely grateful for this lesson. I'll post more feedback after I use it!
Sunday April 28th 2013, 4:57 PM
Comment by: Mary E. (San Jose, CA)
This is a great lesson for my English as a Second Language adult students. Anticipate more lessons like these.

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