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Teaching Plot to 3rd Graders: 9 Tips to Help Them Master It

Forty percent of my students failed the plot assessment.

I stared wide-eyed at the grade book with a lump in my throat, fighting back the tears. I had taught the story elements to these 3rd graders all week. What happened?

After some reflection, I realized I had made a fatal mistake.

I had taught the story elements in isolation.

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Sure, they could name the parts of the plot structure and could even identify them in the stories we read, but they had virtually no understanding of how they all fit together or their significance to the development of the plot. I needed to make some big changes in my approach to teaching plot to 3rd graders.

Thankfully, the kids had much better scores once I implemented these changes.

And every class I’ve taught since owes a debt of gratitude to those first 40 third-grade guinea pigs I taught back in 2011. Poor things. We all learned a lot that year.

Use these tips to learn from my mistakes and help your students achieve mastery – without you needing to reteach an entire week of instruction.

1. Buckle Up to Ride the Plot Roller Coaster

How much longer until lunch? When’s recess? Why’s the man across the street mowing the lawn with his shirt off?

We’ve got a lot to compete with when it comes to the things weighing on the minds of eight and nine-year-olds. The introduction to our plot lesson needs to grab their attention quickly or we’ll lose them to whatever’s going on outside the window.

Feed their desire for excitement by leaning into the plot roller coaster.

This relatable and exhilarating adventure helps paint a picture of how all the pieces work together to create one magnificent experience.

The plot roller coaster is such a simple and engaging introduction when teaching plot to 3rd graders.

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Here’s how you connect it to plot:

Pretend you’re all going on a roller coaster ride. Go through the ride piece by piece with them. Don’t be afraid to ham it up. The more you get into it, the more engaged they’ll be.

  • Setting: First, describe your surroundings – the cold metal of the seat against your skin, the clicking sound of the seat belt, the view of the giant track reaching into the sky.
  • Characters: Then talk about looking around at the other people on the ride with you, their excited & terrified faces, their trembling voices as they talk to those around them.
  • Rising Action & Problem: As the roller coaster rolls forward, you realize how high the track rises and a bead of sweat drips down your forehead. The tension builds. Your heart pounds harder with every click of the cars. The people around you are anxiously moaning and groaning. How much further is the top?
  • Climax: You reach the top of the roller coaster, and for a moment your car seems to come to a stop, allowing you to look for the end of the roller coaster. Your heart still pounding, you think, “Here we gooo!” This is the turning point.
  • Falling Action & Resolution: You feel the tension release as the roller coaster goes downhill. You put your hands in the air and enjoy the ride down. You realize the roller coaster will come to an end and you’re going to survive.
  • Conclusion: Finally, the roller coaster comes to a stop at the bottom. The seat belt releases, and the ride ends.
  • Pull it all together: That roller coaster wouldn’t work without the giant rise before the fall. Just like all those pieces create the full experience of being on a roller coaster, all the story elements work together to build the plot structure. You can’t have a resolution without a problem.
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An Important Note About the Shape of the Plot Roller Coaster:

Give some thought to the shape of your roller coaster. Mental models help students understand and remember important skills and topics, but they can do harm if they send the wrong message.

The symmetrical witch’s hat and/or roller coaster shape gives students the wrong picture of how the plot develops throughout the story. The climax is almost never in the middle. Rather, the author spends a great deal of time developing rich characters and building their problem(s) with mounting tension, leading to the inevitable moment when the tension breaks and a resolution is born.

Shaping the mental model correctly gives your students a clearer picture of how the story elements work together to develop the plot.

2. Let Hollywood Lend a Helping Hand

No, I don’t mean show movies during class time. Don’t we all wish?

Instead, map out or discuss the story structure of a movie your kids have already seen. This will help solidify their understanding of the elements of the plot.

Plus, they’ll be crazy engaged. Anyone who’s ever listened to the “and thens” of an eight-year-old’s retelling of Moana can tell you kids love talking about movies they’ve seen.

Not sure if there’s a movie all your students have seen?

Use a picture book you’ve previously read as a class. The point is to use a story the kids already understand.

I know, you’re short on time, and this doesn’t involve actually reading a text. It may seem like an added step that wastes time.

But it’s not. Hear me out.

Mapping out the plot structure of a story your students already know helps them focus on understanding the concept since it takes away the stress of having to read and understand the text first. Solidifying this understanding helps students identify and analyze the plot structure of texts they will read in the future.

It also takes less than five minutes.

Trust me, those are five minutes well spent because they help prevent the days of reteaching that’ll be necessary if you don’t help your students develop a solid understanding of the story elements and plot structure.

3. Set Students Up for Success with This Effortless Step

Knowing the dress code at a social event helps you walk into the room more confidently. Knowing the dietary needs of your dinner guests helps you find a recipe you can be certain will please everyone. And knowing what you’re looking for before you read something helps you locate the answers more easily.

Like adults, kids go into things more confidently and find themselves more capable when they know what to expect. We can set them up for success by helping them predict the genre and anticipate the structure of the texts we read.

After you teach the story elements and plot structure, you can begin teaching the students to mentally prepare to read fiction.

Before we read anything in our classroom, we preview the text and predict the genre. Once we identify the text as a fiction story, we “prepare a space in our brains” for the story.

I ask the students what kinds of things they can expect to find when reading the story. I usually hear a few of the plot elements shouted out and use those pieces to lead them to the plot structure. We then physically move our hands in front of our brains to form the (realistic) shape of the plot structure.

This helps the students prepare to analyze how the author uses the story elements and events to develop the plot.

4. My Favorite Tool for Teaching Plot to 3rd Graders

The walls are covered in anchor charts. There isn’t room for one more to be put up. And your students aren’t using them as a reference the way you want. They’ve become wallpaper.

Poorly drawn wallpaper. (I’m no artist.)

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting we do away with anchor charts. They serve an important purpose in our instruction.

And they best serve that purpose when we make them interactive.

Enter the Reading Interactive Notebook

My favorite tool for making anchor charts interactive and reading lessons engaging.

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Plot Interactive Anchor Charts

I love having the kids can create their own mini anchor charts in their interactive notebooks along with me. It also serves as a resource the students can continue to reference as needed throughout the year. – No more wallpaper.

I still make the larger one.

But it doesn’t have to be the size of the full chart paper since the kids won’t have to strain their eyes (and probably their necks) to reference it. Instead, they’ll have their own at their fingertips. And if they do want to look at the one on the wall, it will mean more to them since they shared the experience of creating it.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I plan out what I want my anchor chart to look like ahead of time.
  2. Then I create an outline of sorts, leaving keywords and big ideas blank for the kids to fill in as we create our charts. Minimize the amount of writing/copying they’ll need to do so this doesn’t end up taking forever.
  3. Most times, we use this framework with a mentor text during the lesson. Sometimes it serves as more of a notetaking page for them to learn and understand the academic vocabulary being introduced. Take the plot structure page shown on the left. This page can be used for both purposes.

Practice with Interactive Notebooks

Using interactive notebooks to practice identifying the story elements and examining their importance and influence on the plot gives students a central place to share and store their thinking.

The best interactive notebook pages create valuable visual representations and involve memorable activities. Incorporating interactive notebooks takes careful selection in the pages you’ll use. They shouldn’t be a cute, but pointless “craftivity” or involve a bunch of cutting and pasting of unrelated clipart. That’s a waste of time. And I am not about wasted time in the classroom.

These interactive notebook pages for fiction help you get your kids thinking about how the story elements work together to develop the plot. They can be used throughout your fiction unit, from how the setting influences the plot to how character relationships change throughout the story.

5. The Lesson That Made the Most Impact with My 3rd Graders

After they’ve mastered sequencing, help them dig deeper by analyzing how those main events influence each other and the plot structure.

This is probably the lesson that made the most impact on my students’ understanding. A hands-on activity, perfect for your observation.

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These sequencing strips for Kat Kong by Dav Pilkey can be found in this 5-day Plot Unit.

And, it’s surprisingly simple.

  1. Start with sentence strips of main events from the story arranged in sequential order. Bonus points if they’re the same one you used during your sequencing lesson.
  2. Remove an event and ask, “How would the story be different if this event never happened?” They’ll easily see how all the following events depended on the missing one.
  3. Then discuss how that event led to the problem, resolution, lesson, etc. Explain how this shows the event’s influence on the plot.
  4. Replace the event in the sequence and remove a different one. This time have the students discuss how that event infuences the plot with their partner or table group.
  5. Come back together as a class to share their thinking and review how author’s use the plot elements and events to build the plot structure of their stories.

6. Get Your Students to Share and Expand Their Thinking

Reading responses encourage higher-order thinking and give students a place to comfortably and confidently share their thinking about the text. You can provide differentiation with varying levels of text and questioning.

Use these reading response prompts for read alouds, buddy reading, and independent reading. Whether you choose to house these responses in reading response journals or use them as exit tickets, you’ll get good insight into your student’s level of understanding.

Grab the free printable with plot structure questions for reading responses. I’ve separated them into easy-to-cut strips to be glued into your students’ notebooks for your convenience.

You can also retype the questions on post-its for a quick check at the guided reading table. See how to print on post-it notes in this video from We Are Teachers.

7. Learn from My Biggest Mistake with Graphic Organizers

One of my biggest mistakes that first year? Not selecting an appropriate graphic organizer. I copied a flipbook that I found with a quick Pinterest search because it had all the plot elements stored in an organized way. More honestly, I thought it was cute.

So, my students and I went on our merry way making our brightly colored flipbook, recording the story elements as we read. And they did a great job! Bursting with pride, I hung them all up on the wall outside our classroom.

Those perfectly created flipbooks caused the biggest punch to the gut when I saw their scores for the weekly assessment. How could the same kids who showed their understanding so well do so poorly on the test?

I pulled one of my higher readers who failed the test aside and quizzed him. After only a few questions, I realized what went wrong for him. He could tell me all the story elements from the passage but didn’t even understand the question when I asked about how an event influenced the plot.

He didn’t get the bigger picture because I hadn’t taught him how to see it.

The flipbooks and I taught the kids how to identify the pieces of the plot, not how they all fit together. Not to say flipbooks are always bad or that I hate them or anything. They just didn’t serve the right purpose for teaching plot to 3rd graders.

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I saw the best results with the graphic organizer shaped like the roller coaster from the introduction lesson. It breaks apart the elements of the plot into smaller pieces while still illustrating how they all fit together. So simple, yet so effective.

Whatever graphic organizer you choose, be sure it visually represents the concept and isn’t too busy or overwhelming.

8. Increase Engagement from Everyone in a Class with a Wide Range of Reading Abilities

I love using wordless picture books to build literacy and comprehension skills. They’re a great tool for talking about plot structure with reluctant and struggling readers because they’re accessible to everyone. Wordless picture books increase engagement and bring all your students into the discussion.

My favorite wordless picture books for teaching plot structure are Journey, Quest, and Return all by Aaron Becker. We’ve had some incredible discussions about how the events build on each other and develop the story with these books. And since they’re accessible to everyone, everyone gets involved in the discussion.

Never read a wordless picture book with your students? Check out Aaron Becker’s Wordless Picture Book Guide for some great tips. You can find it on his website here.

Side note: Wordless picture books are also perfect books to put in your stations after you’ve read them as a class!

9. Help Them Develop the Plot in Their Own Writing

Remember the graphic organizer I mentioned earlier? Use it as a planning page for your students’ fiction writing. Writing their own fiction stories helps them develop a deeper understanding of how all the plot elements work together to develop the story structure.

Be sure to ask similar questions about your students’ stories during writing conferences as you do when analyzing the plot structure of a text during your reading lessons. This helps them develop the structure of their work while solidifying their overall understanding of the story elements.

Download this cheat sheet for questions to ask about the structure of your students’ fiction writing.

The 9 Effective Tips for Teaching Plot to 3rd Graders

  1. Use a mental model – the roller coaster.
  2. Teach your students to anticipate the structure of the text.
  3. Practice with movies and familiar texts.
  4. Use interactive notebooks!
  5. Have discussions about how the events influence the development of the plot structure.
  6. Use reading responses for independent reading and/or as exit tickets.
  7. Use graphic organizers that visually represent the plot structure.
  8. Discuss the story elements and plot structure of wordless picture books.
  9. Connect it to their writing!

Help your students put it all together and avoid the mistakes I made with my poor third-grade guinea pigs.

Want your plot lesson plans done for you?

Grab my 5-day plot unit here! It includes your reading, vocabulary, and mentor sentence lessons for the week. Teaching plot to 3rd graders just got easier!

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This 5-day TEKS and Common Core aligned plot structure unit will help you teach your students to identify, sequence, and understand how the main plot points work together and influence each other to develop the plot structure of the story.

This plot unit covers several components of your ELA instruction: read aloud, detailed reading lessons, vocabulary, and grammar (using mentor sentences). There is also a connection to writing with response to text and writing station prompts!

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These plot structure interactive notebook pages include 4 interactive notebook pages, a book list, and lesson ideas. They are sold separately and inside the year-long Reading Interactive Notebook.

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Teaching Plot to 3rd Graders: 9 Tips to Help Them Master It
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