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Seven sensational ideas for teaching characterization in upper elementary

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Teaching characterization is one of my favorite parts of teaching fiction in upper elementary. I love to dig deep into the characters with my students. It helps students to be better readers, but also to be better people. If they can comprehend the characters on a page, they will also be able to understand the people around them a lot better. 

Often when we teachers think about teaching character analysis, we think about teaching character traits. But there is so much more to it! Especially in upper elementary, we want students to move beyond just being able to identify character traits and begin thinking about what causes characters to behave the way they do (character motivation), what causes them to change throughout the story, and how they interact with other characters. In this post, I am sharing some of my favorite lesson ideas and activities to help you with teaching characterization in a way that is fun and engaging, but still rigorous. 

But before we dive into this week’s blog post, have you seen my FREE set of reading graphic organizers? I have included ten graphic organizers in English and Spanish that work with just about any fiction or nonfiction text. They are perfect for upper elementary students. Click here to get your FREE copy! You can thank me later! 

Tips for teaching characterization 

1. Start with a real-life example

A great way to get students to “buy-in” to any lesson is by starting with a real-life example. It helps them immediately connect with what you are saying. 

My favorite example to use when teaching characterization is to ask students to think about this possible scenario:

“Your best friend walks into the cafeteria during lunch. But instead of sitting right next to you like he always does, he sits at another table by himself. You find that odd, but you figure maybe he is just not feeling great and wants some alone time. You ask him what happened during recess, and he says nothing and walks away to be alone again. The next day, your friend does the same thing again. Now you are concerned. You are probably wondering, “Why is my friend behaving this way?”

After sharing this example with students, ask them to talk to a friend about some of the possible things that could be happening in this scenario. Then, share as a class. Bring it all together by saying, “Boys and girls, what we did today was analyze someone’s behavior. We looked closely at the things this person was doing and saying to figure out what was happening internally. That means we are trying to figure out what they are thinking and how they are feeling. We do that all the time, and we should do the same when we are reading.”

2. Hall of Fame or Hall of Shame?

This is an amazing activity to review character traits with your students. By the time students get to upper elementary, they have already learned about character traits, but I still find that I need to review this concept with them every year. 

I begin by explaining to students what a Hall of Fame is. Sometimes I show them this website and talk about how some of the best baseball players have been chosen to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I explain to the kids that it is a great honor to be chosen to be in a Hall of Fame. You can even talk about other Hall of Fame examples. I explain to my students that today we will be choosing characters to be inducted into “our” hall of fame. These are characters who exhibit great character traits. We take a second to review what character traits are using a story we read recently as an example. 

Then, I divide your students into groups of 3-4. You can choose to give each group a different short story, or you can give them the same story but assign different characters. My favorite places to go for short stories are CommonLit and Storyworks

Tell students that today we will be focusing on the characters in the story. If they are all reading a different story, I tell all groups to focus on the main character. If they are all reading the same story, I assign a character to each group. I ask students to write a list of character traits that describe the character they were assigned based on how they are behaving in the story. When they are done, they must look at the list and decide if that character belongs in the Hall of Fame or Hall of Shame. 

Once all groups are done, it is time to get the characters inducted into the Hall of Fame or Hall of Shame. Each group has to share with the class where they think their character belongs and why by giving text evidence to support their thinking. 

Students love this activity, and it’s a great way to begin the conversation about characters. 

Possible misconceptions about character traits

When teaching character traits, I often notice that some of my students think of physical traits as character traits. I always remind them that character traits are personality traits – they relate to behaviors and actions. They don’t describe what a character looks like on the outside. 

Other students confuse traits with feelings. I explain to them that feelings can change from one minute to the next, but character traits are harder to change. For example, I can come to school one day feeling sad because I lost my favorite pair of earrings, but if I find my earrings, that sadness will go away. Character traits don’t change that easily. Characters often have to go through a big, life-changing conflict to have a change of heart. 

3. Social media profiles – Charactergram 

Teaching characterization is all about teaching kids to make inferences about characters. This Charactergram activity is a great way to do that. 

For this activity, I usually allow my students to work with a partner. We begin by focusing on a specific character. This can be a character we already read about, or we may read a new story together before we begin the activity. It honestly depends on how much time we have. 

Once we are done reading, my students work with a partner to create an Instagram page for that character (Charactergram.) They need to think about the pictures and posts that character would be sharing and why. My students love this activity! The last time I did this one with my students was after we read the book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” They did such a great job capturing the essence of the character! 

4. Character dissection 

Ok, this sounds creepy! I don’t tell my students that we will be dissecting characters like frogs in a science lab, but that is in essence what we are doing. This is when we start to take a deeper look at our characters and lay down the foundation to later discuss character motivation and change. 

This activity is not a one-and-done! We look at a lot of different characters throughout the course of a week. Each day, we read a new story (or pull out something we already read to save time) and talk about how the character feels, what the character says, what the character is thinking, and what we can infer about the character based on those details. I like to go back to the real-life example I shared when we first started our characterization unit and use that as our first example. You can also choose movie characters first, and then move into characters in a text. The idea is to get students to start thinking about why characters do what they do. 

5. Look for motivation 

When teaching character analysis, it is important to teach students to get to the root of the character’s behavior. I want students to think like the character. This is not just a great reading strategy but also a great life strategy. Kids should be able to empathize and understand why people act the way that they do. 

To do this, I like to begin by posing some questions to my students to get them to think about “common motivators.”

Some of these questions could be: 

  • What would you be willing to do for a million dollars?
  • What would you be willing to do to make sure people are treated fairly?
  • What would you be willing to do if someone made you angry?

These questions get students talking about the actions that could result from specific motivators. Once we have discussed some of these questions as a class, I tell students that these are motivators. They make you want to do something in response. They motivate you to act a certain way. Characters have motivators, too. Their actions are often a response to something that they want, need, or how they feel about something. 

We then start looking at characters to identify their motivation. You can start with movie characters and then add text, especially if you have some struggling readers. This is another lesson that needs to be repeated for a few days before we can move on, but the payoff, in the end, is huge.

6. Analyze their interactions

Once I am done teaching character motivation, I start teaching character interaction. I find it helpful to focus on one character before we start looking at how they relate to others. 

When we are thinking about character interactions, I want students to understand that characters affect one another. What one character does can cause another character to respond in a specific way. We talk about the real-life example I gave them when we first started learning about characters. That’s the example I describe in step 1. Then, I ask students to think about what the next interaction between those two people would be. What would they do or say if their friend was behaving that way? How do they think that friend would respond? During this discussion, we talk about different scenarios, and how those interactions may develop depending on how each character is responding. We also make inferences about the characters’ relationship based on those interactions. 

After that, we start practicing with a story. One of my favorite stories to talk about character interactions is “Babu’s Song.” I love the relationship between the two characters, and how the grandfather reacts to his grandson after he makes a mistake. I also love that it describes life in another country. It’s a great way to get students to see life through the eyes of characters who live in a very different “world.”

7. Look for contradictions and changes 

My last on teaching characterization is to focus on character contradiction and change. 

Let’s start with contradictions. This is actually one of the Notice and Note signposts, which is a strategy for close reading. If you would like to learn more about Notice and Note signposts, check out the book by clicking here. This is a fantastic book with easy-to-implement strategies that actually work! 

A contradiction is when the character behaves in an unexpected way. What the character does goes against his values and morals. The signpost reminds us that when we notice a character behaving in an unusual way, we should stop and try to figure out why. This is a great strategy to further discuss character motivation and internal struggles. The book “Babu’s Song” is also great for teaching this strategy. 

As for character changes, it is important to explain to students that characters often change throughout the story because they learn a lesson. One of my favorite picture books to teach character development is “Mr. Peabody’s Apples.” This ties beautifully to theme as well. Authors often teach the reader a lesson through the character. By the way, if you would like to read about ideas on how to teach theme, I have an entire blog post about it. 

FREE graphic organizers for teaching characterization (and other skills too!)

Whenever I teach character analysis (and pretty much any other reading skill), I love to use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers are an essential tool for helping students organize their thinking and make sense of the text they are reading. 

If you are looking for graphic organizers to teach character analysis and all sorts of reading skills, I got you covered. Click here to download ten FREE graphic organizers in English and Spanish for fiction and nonfiction texts. Some of the graphic organizers in this blog post are included in this sample bundle. 

There you have it…

Seven sensational ideas for teaching characterization in upper elementary. I hope you found this blog post helpful. Let me know in the comments which activities you will be trying in your own classroom. And don’t forget to grab your FREEBIE by clicking here! 

Happy teaching! 

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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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