Exploring Literature Genres in the Elementary Classroom
Exposure to texts from a wide variety of genres opens up new worlds to readers! Encourage your students to expand their reading habits, as well as recognize the importance of each genre, with these practical tips you can implement today!
Often, students will find one type of story they enjoy reading, and never take a chance to break out of their reading rut. By exposing your students to different genres of texts, you can open so many new worlds of reading! If that alone is not reason enough to begin a genre study in your classroom, consider how every genre has its own purpose and set of features. If your students are never exposed to traditional literature such as fables and myths, they may never know the wonder of oral storytelling and passing stories on from generation to generation. If they never read biographies, they may not understand the value of telling a story in chronological order. If they don’t read informational texts from an early age, they may struggle later on with research skills and understanding content-specific vocabulary. These are just a few examples of why understanding genre is so important.
Now that you know the importance of teaching genre from the early elementary grades, let’s discuss the how! What will this actually look like in your classroom? According to Fountas and Pinnell’s “Behaviors to Notice, Teach, and Support in Reading”, there is a general progression of the skills related to understanding genre. As early as Level E, typically in first grade, students are able to recognize the difference between fiction and non-fiction. By Level F, students can further distinguish the category of fiction into realistic fiction and fantasy. And as early as Level G, still typically in first grade, they begin to identify characteristics of other genres including plays and traditional literature. This recognition of characteristics continues through Levels O and P where they begin to identify genres in hybrid texts than combine more than one genre. We will explore each of these levels in more depth with practical strategies you can implement right away!
Distinguishing Between Fiction & Non-Fiction.
The first skill is distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction. One strategy you can use to teach this in class is with a book sort. Divide your class into groups of 3-4 students, and have a stack of books for each small group to explore. Be sure to include both fiction and non-fiction books, and ask them to browse through the books and discuss what they notice about each one within their group. Next, ask them to sort the books, but don’t tell them specific categories to sort them into…just see what happens naturally. Come back together for a class discussion about what they noticed and how they sorted the books. As they share their what they noticed with you, write them on sentence strips or large index cards. Some common things they may point out, or that you may need to guide them to, include:
- Some books have drawings or illustrations, some have real photographs
- Some books have people talking
- Some books tell about made up things like talking animals
- Some books tell about real things like animals or weather or famous people
At this point, you can introduce the words fiction and non-fiction to your students, explaining that fiction writing is the work of an author’s imagination and is meant to entertain the reader. Non-fiction writing is meant to inform readers about the real world. Spend a few minutes sorting the sentence strips or index cards into a two-column anchor chart labeled Fiction and Non-Fiction. Knowing these two labels now, encourage your students to resort their books into fiction and non-fiction categories. Visit with each group briefly to check for understanding, and to scaffold as needed.
Distinguishing Between Realistic Fiction & Fantasy.
The second important lesson in genres involves delving more specifically into fiction, and dividing it into realistic fiction and fantasy. One way you can teach this is by sharing two picture books with your class (one realistic fiction, and one fantasy) and having a comparison discussion immediately afterwards. Create a two column chart, but do not label each column to start, and list the features the students notice about each book, one book per column. Finally, introduce the terms “Fantasy” and “Realistic Fiction” as you label each column. With your class, come up with a student-generated definition of each term to include on this anchor chart. The most important thing to emphasize and make sure is evident in your definition, is that realistic fiction CAN happen, but fantasy CANNOT.
Recognizing Other Genres
The third skill is identifying characteristics of other genres. Creating an ongoing class anchor chart is a great way to teach a variety of genres, and can be adapted for any elementary grade level. All you need to get started is a simple three column chart with the following labels: Genre, Features, and Examples. See the included resource for an example of this anchor chart.
You can introduce one genre at a time based on your school or district’s curriculum. If you choose this method, share 2 or 3 examples of the particular genre, and have a class discussion about features that all of the books have in common. If students cannot name the particular genre, name it for them, adding it to the chart, and come up with a student-generated definition. List the stories you shared as examples, and add others throughout the year as you come across them.
If you prefer to introduce several genres at one time, or you are teaching an upper elementary grade and only need to do a basic genre review, you might prefer to begin with a book sort or scavenger hunt. For a book sort, provide small groups of students a set of books, from a variety of genres. Ask them to flip through the books and jot down features they notice in each one on sticky notes. Then have them sort the books according to common features. Come together as a class to discuss how they classified the books, and add these genres to your anchor chart. If you choose to begin with a scavenger hunt, give students a set amount of time to search through the school library or your classroom library. You may ask them to record a list of as many genres as they can find, or you might want them to pull specific examples for a variety of genres. To wrap it up, lead a class discussion of what they found, and add the examples to the anchor chart.
Teaching genres to elementary students is not a one-day lesson by any means. It will be an ongoing progression from grade to grade, and even month to month within one school year. If you make it a priority to share rich examples of a wide variety of literature genres with your class, they will become better readers and learn to appreciate the unique value of each genre.
How will you use these strategies in your classroom? Use the Suggested Book List (Below) to find appropriate books that you can share with your students, or check with your school librarian for more ideas. Remember, genre can’t be taught in a day, so take your time and enjoy exposing your students to a great variety of books!
SUGGESTED BOOK LIST
Activity One: Distinguishing Between Fiction and Non-Fiction (This list contains very general suggestions of the types of books to pull for the sorting activity.)
- Fiction Examples:
- Fairy tales and fables
- Well-known series such as Junie B. Jones, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Magic Tree House, My Weird School, Owl Diaries
- Chapter books by well-known authors such as Andrew Clements, Beverly Cleary, Roald Dahl
- Picture books, both realistic fiction and fantasy
- Non-Fiction Examples:
- Guinness Book of World Records, or other compilations of interesting facts and records
- Books about animals
- Books about different habitats such as forests, oceans, deserts
- Books about outer space
Activity Two: Distinguishing Between Realistic Fiction and Fantasy
- Realistic Fiction Examples:
- First Day Jitters by Julie Danneburg
- Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
- No, David! By David Shannon
- Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
- Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
- Fantasy Examples:
- Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
- The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
- Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
- Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg
Activity Three: Recognizing Other Genres (This list contains a couple of well-known and widely available suggestions for each major genre.)
- Realistic Fiction – Matt Christopher sports books, Dear Dumb Diary series by Jim Benton, Ramona series by Beverly Cleary
- Fantasy – Magic Fairy series by Daisy Meadows, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
- Mystery – Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol, Nancy Drew series by Caroline Keene, Cam Jensen series by David A. Adler
- Science Fiction – City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, Space Case by Stuart Gibbs, Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith
- Historical Fiction – I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis, Sarah, Plain and Tallarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, The Watsons go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
- Traditional Literature – any fairy tales, myths, or legends
- Biography – Who Was series, Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges, Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote by Tanya Lee Stone
- Informational – cookbooks, science experiment books, non-fiction books about animals or habitats
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