Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Understanding Setting

As fourth grade readers encounter more challenging texts, they need to pay close attention to setting details. Sometimes, these details will help them to discover the setting, as I wrote about last time. But setting details will also help readers to build background knowledge about places and time periods.

This only works if kids are consciously collecting these details, though. Readers who are reading sentence by sentence often just think about the setting in small terms (the bedroom, the playground, the house) instead of taking a broader view. They often don't catch the setting details that build a bigger picture. Over the long run, think about how this impacts their schema and their comprehension!

I created this graphic organizer to help kids think about setting and time details. (Well, okay, I sketched it out, and my husband did the formatting!) On one side, students collect details about the time period in which the story is based. On the other side, students collect details about the place. This helps them to pay attention to the details in both the text and the pictures to help them learn more about the time and place.

What books work well with this? I started with The Librarian of Basra, available on Tumblebooks. (If your school library doesn't have access, try large public libraries.) We read the book together twice. On the second viewing, we started to add setting details. I told them that the book takes place in 2003, as discussed in this newspaper article.  Then we mined the text and the pictures for all of the details we could find about the setting. It led to some interesting discussions--one student said that the houses looked like houses in Mexico; a student who has been to Mexico disagreed. We talked about the palm trees in the pictures, and what they meant; we talked about how the story is deeply connected to the setting.

For guided reading, I wanted my group to work with an easy text, so that they would be able to put all of their energy into locating setting details. Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie was my choice--admittedly because there are many copies of it in the bookroom. It turned out to be a good choice for this group. Just like in The Librarian of Basra, the setting contributes to the conflict. It was a quick read, but one that led to interesting discussions. (Just for fun, I also showed them parts of the Reading Rainbow. It's old, but such a great way to build background knowledge!)

Helping students to go beyond just place-based thinking about setting is an important step. But I can't just relax and work setting...because plot is on the horizon. And understanding plot brings a new set of challenges!


  1. Could I have a copy of this organizer?

    1. Hello! I've uploaded the organizer to Slideshare. Here's the link:


      If that doesn't work, drop me a line at elkissn at yahoo.com and I'll send it to by email. Thanks for writing!

  2. Thanks :)
    I teach ESOL to adults and use a lot of video material in my class and I am always on the look out for material I can modify to use with that. I have found a lot of parallels between written stories and video :)