Teaching a Historical Fiction Unit: Getting Started

One of my favorite units to teach is my historical fiction unit.  I love it for SO many reasons!

  • Historical fiction is a new genre for many elementary students, so they get super excited!
  • There are SO many great comprehension strategies to teach as you read.
  • Fortunately, there are TONS of amazing books to share with students–from picture books to chapter books.
  • I love being able to weave informational reading (building background) into narrative reading.
  • Historical fiction is AMAZING for teaching about character and setting.Teaching historical fiction blog post

I thought I’d share how I kick off my historical fiction unit by going through a quick overview of the first two lessons.

Historical Fiction Lesson Idea 1

Consider starting this unit with an overview of the genre of historical fiction.  Depending on your students’ background knowledge, this may be a brief review, or it may include more in-depth studies.  Some of these could be done before reading, others as you work through the text, and others after a text is finished.

I create a slide show with background information about the genre.  I want students to understand that historical fiction is a TYPE of fiction so it has all the characteristics of fiction.  There are characters, settings, key events, problems, solutions, themes, and more.  What makes it different than other forms of fiction is the focus on setting.  This forms one key part of our historical fiction studies.

historical fiction poster characteristics of historical fiction Historical fiction studies

Historical Fiction Lesson Idea 2

To build off of this, I work with the class or small groups to sort picture books into realistic fiction, historical fiction, information texts, and fantasy texts.  We work together to generate anchor charts that list characteristics of each.  What are the “telling features” of each?  I keep the “historical fiction” chart accessible throughout the unit and add to it if needed.

It’s interesting to watch students discuss the different books as we skim and scan them.  It’s a great time to clear up misconceptions such as:

  • Informational books don’t ALWAYS have photos and text features.
  • Some fictional texts DO have photos, not just illustrations.
  • Many students struggle with the difference between fantasy (“made up”} and realistic fiction and informational.  For example, in a novel where the character “seems” real–many students fail to recognize that it’s a made-up story, even though the character seems real.  It seems easier for them to identify “fiction” when there are animals that talk or magical things.  This is important to help students see.

What happens next?

As the unit unfolds, we get into more and more depth about the genre.  Here are a few more of the lessons we do!

  • We study different “eras” to help build background information.
  • I create a challenge where we try to read as many historical fiction books as possible.  We create a paper chain of titles as we read them.  Our goal every year is 100 books–picture books and novels.  We accomplish it every year!

Tracking our historical fiction reading! Number the Stars

  • We read a variety of different books together and study narrative features such as characters and setting.
  • I plan a round of book clubs/literature circles where students are reading and discussing historical fiction texts that are a “just right” level for them.
  • We write about historical fiction books in different ways. (See THIS BLOG POST for more!)
  • Discussions about theme happen all the time.  It’s a key part of the unit.
  • We practice tracking our thinking about books so that we are ready to discuss and write about texts.
  • I even give students who are looking for more a differentiated menu board with additional challenges.

Students learn SO much about genre, about history, and about comprehension through this unit and they absolutely LOVE it.  Not only that, but students feel very “grown up” as they read these books.  It’s also a GREAT chance to talk about perseverance and overcoming obstacles as we read and learn about the challenges people have faced in different times in history.

If you need help teaching historical fiction, I’ve put all my plans for the minilessons I teach and the book club planning I do together in a resource.  Everything is in one place and it saves so much planning time.  Whether you want to use the printed copies or use the digital access, I hope it can help some of you learn to love historical fiction as much as I do! Just CLICK HERE or the image below to learn more!

Historical Fiction Unit