How to teach literary elements
What are literary elements?
Literary elements refers to the concepts that make up a story. Some people call them the elements of story or elements of narrative. It all boils down to what your district and standards calls them, or how you were taught it yourself. Literary elements are the foundation of a good narrative unit, and are great to review throughout the year.
There is some debate on what should be included in literary elements; things like tone, mood, and perspective. However, I think literary elements can be boiled down into 5 key topics to avoid overwhelming students with all the things.
Why is it important to teach literary elements?
Literary elements give students the tools to identify good writing and derive meaning from it. Knowing literary elements will set students up to write strong literary analysis essays, text dependent analysis, and teach them skills that will be useful to them as adults, like recognizing patterns and communicating what they are in an effective manner.
Literary elements also give students the foundations of understanding a text beyond basic comprehension. When students are adults, it won’t matter if they remember what happen on line 12 of the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, in fact, just type that line my eyes already glazed over. What will matter is the skills they learn in your class, like being able to tell what a climax is so when they are older they can talk about their favorite movies with friends, or learning what the universal human condition is so that they can extract meaning and understanding from narratives.
What are the main literary elements?
There are five main literary elements that students should know: plot, setting, conflict, character, and theme. These five elements are essential to a students understanding of a story beyond comprehending the narrative. I am always preaching that reading fiction is more than memorizing the facts of a story. I impress upon students that we read stories to be able to have big conversations and think critically.
We have all seen it and talked about it till we are blue in the face: plot. But what is it? Plot is the sequence of events that occur in a story. From exposition and establishing a character’s life and making them likeable, to introducing the inciting incident and reaching the big climactic event of a story, plot is an essential component of any literary element unit.
Setting is the place in which a story is situated. Students think they understand setting, but do they really? Setting seems like the easy literary element to go over, but it requires students to begin to unpack who characters are, how the setting reflects character, and how the setting is uniquely chosen to help craft the story.
Undoubtedly a student favorite. Conflict is all about how characters struggle. Conflict covers internal and external conflict.
Character types abound in this literary element. Character is also where students will begin to look at modes of characterization. What is direct characterization? What is indirect characterization and what do we need to infer by how the character moves through their world?
Arguable the hardest of the literary elements, theme is often confused with main idea and motif. Theme is the larger commentary being made in a story about the human condition and not specific to a story. Themes are commentary on the universal human condition.
How can I teach literary elements?
For my classroom, I like teaching literary elements using a presentation and scaffolded notes. I go over literary elements at the beginning of the year and review them as needed. At the end of the year when testing roles around, I review the presentations again as part of my test prep.