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Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Story Based Literacy is my favorite way to incorporate access to grade-level text and literacy standards! It's a fun, hands-on approach to teaching comprehension and vocabulary. Unfortunately, there's no curriculum out there that we can purchase and use, so it's up to special education teachers to create their own units. Here are the steps I follow when planning & creating a Story Based Literacy unit.

Choose a book.

I generally try to stick to a 4th-5th grade reading level. Anything below that can be a little too "young" for my middle schoolers. I've found that this is the sweet spot to keep them engaged and be able to comprehend the story. I also always pick a book that has a movie that goes with it. This is really helpful for comprehension.

If possible, find a book with a movie that is closely aligned. Once, we tried to do "Mr. Popper's Penguins," and the movie is so different than the book that it was a disaster.

I've also learned that as much as I love fantasy books, they often add a layer of difficulty because of the made-up vocabulary or the complex fantasy world. Not only do students have to understand the text, but they also have to be able to visualize this complex world that is very abstract. So as much fun as it is to read "Harry Potter" or "The Lightning Thief" or "BFG" my students have been a lot less successful in the years that we've read those books.

Identify Story Elements.

After you've decided on your book (and read it), begin by identifying all of the characters and settings. I create visuals for all of these. If there is a movie that goes with your book, it can be fun to use images of the actors as your visuals.

Create an interactive notebook.

I create an interactive notebook with a section for characters and setting, chapter vocabulary, and each chapter's summary. We complete these as we read each chapter, and then the students can take them home at the end of the unit.

Charlie & the Chocolate Factory interactive notebook

Start working on chapter content.

Next, I start working on the content, chapter by chapter. For each chapter, I do the following:

1. Break down the chapter plot into 4-5 events. I create plot cards that we can sequence after reading.

Winn Dixie plot cards for sequencing

2. Pick 2-4 vocabulary words per chapter that reappear throughout the text or are words that your students will be able to use in their daily life. I create vocabulary cards for these words with a visual.

story based literacy vocabulary cards

3. Write 10-15 comprehension questions per chapter. I usually do 2 levels of questions- one set is very explicit and the other set is higher-order thinking questions. You can do a quick Bloom's Taxonomy search to learn more about higher-order thinking. It's much easier to ensure that your comprehension questions target the skills you are wanting to teach if you write them out ahead of time.

4. Create a chapter communication board. I always include the characters and setting of the chapter, some basic core vocabulary, the chapter vocabulary words, and some key details from the chapter (these can be answers to your first set of comprehension questions). You may want to vary the size of your boards depending on your students and their levels.

communication level 1

communication board level 2

5. Write a repeated line for each chapter. This is basically the main idea of the chapter in one sentence.

6. Write a chapter summary and find a picture that aligns. Sometimes, we write our own summaries, and sometimes we cut and paste the ones I've written. I also give my students the choice to draw their own pictures or color the picture that I have.

7. This is optional, but depending on the level of my students each year, I will create vocabulary worksheets or matching tasks. I like to create several levels so all of my students can participate- matching picture to picture, matching picture to word, and fill in the blank sentences.

vocabulary puzzles match word to word and word to definition

8. Create chapter activities if you'd like to. I love to incorporate other subject areas into our SBL lessons weekly. For Winn Dixie, we wrote party invitations, made egg salad and Dump punch, and planted "Wait and See" seeds. For Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, we used shrink art to shrink Mike Teavee, did a science experiment to increase the size of gummy bears (like Violet blowing up into a blueberry), and learned about budgeting with a candy shop budgeting activity.

Mike Teavee shrink art activity

Prep your unit.

And finally, print and prep your unit, and start teaching! This can be a time-consuming process, so if possible, involve your paras (and your spouse or your children).

Creating a Story Based Literacy unit is time-consuming but so worth it! If you want to skip all the planning and prep time, I have the following units available in my store.

Questions about Story Based Literacy? Let's chat! Feel free to reach out to me via email or on Instagram.




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