The Importance of Character
Early in the school year, one of the first elements of fiction that students are asked to identify is character. The foundation of comprehension is being able to identify ‘who’ is in the story in the primary grades.
From there, we want students to be able to describe what a character is like, how they act, how they feel, etc. We know as adult readers that understanding a character’s personality and motivations makes reading a more enjoyable experience. But, more than that, it helps a reader understand the story the author was trying to tell. Being able to recognize that a person acted a certain way, because they are inherently unkind in the book, helps a reader make sense of the text. Then, when that same character suddenly does something wonderful, it makes an impact.
The first step in creating deeper readers who know and appreciate storylines and character development comes with teaching traits in the early years. Today, I have three different ideas on how to teach this skill to your students.
Evaluate Traits in Real People
An early lesson to help students cement the idea of character traits, is to help them see it in themselves and others. External character traits are easy to see around the classroom. Have students look at a picture of themselves, or look at the people at their table, and jot down a list of external traits. This could be height, hair color, eye color, etc. These are things you can see, and you don’t necessarily need evidence to prove that they exist.
Internal traits are trickier. In a book, you need text evidence to say that a character is behaving a certain way. In real life, you need the same…otherwise you run the risk of making assumptions about people. One quick exercise in this would be to give students a prompt that is tied to an emotion. Example: “Write a quick story about a time you were scared”. Or, “Tell a story about a time you were proud”.
Students can journal about these prompts. Then, ask students to notice the traits they had in the story. Bravery, because they were scared but they did something anyways? Were they excited, because they won something big? This will help students start to see that character traits are things you can see on the outside, but also feelings that push people to act in different ways!
Map Out Character Traits + Evidence
When students are ready to start examining character in a text, start with one book to be read whole group. In this text, choose one, main character to focus on. As you read the story, have students notice the traits the character is displaying. Make a chart or map of all of the traits you see.
That may be all students are ready for in your first lesson, depending on their grade level and familiarity with character. So, you could stop there and choose to do the next part of the lesson as a close read on a different day. But, you want students to see the evidence of the traits. Reread the text, and pull out sentences that helped students know the character had a certain trait.
This is a great activity to use in the ‘I Do, We Do, You Do’ model. Start by doing this in whole group, and over time release responsibility to allowing students to try the same exercise in pairs or small groups. And finally, you can spiral review throughout the year by having a character mapping activity in centers for independent work.
Use a Variety of Texts
As you teach and reteach character throughout the year, some students will grasp the concept faster than others! Be sure you are using a variety of texts, with a wide range of character types to connect to all readers in your classroom. As we know in reading, the more connections a child can make to the text, and they more they can relate to it, the easier it is to understand. If a child is struggling with character traits, be sure they have characters who look like them, and have lives that mirror theirs. Then, build up to asking them to find the traits of characters whose lives are different.
And, students who are great with character traits need to be challenged with more complex texts over time. So, introducing those students to a wide range of characters and genres is important for their growth, as well!