As I have mentioned in several posts last month, one of my favorite genres to use with my students is historical fiction. There are many interesting yet informative picture books and novels written in this genre for adolescent readers. Years ago, I noticed that my students seemed to really enjoy reading a historical fiction together, but that when it came time for independent reading, they rarely selected books from that genre. I also noticed that my students who were choosing historical fiction books to read often abandoned the books before finishing them. I was determined to find out why...
After careful observation, conferring with my students, and group discussions, I found the road-block: a lack of background knowledge about the time period was leading to a comprehension breakdown. It was this lack of understanding of the time period that was deterring my students from selecting and finishing historical fiction books.
3 Tips for Teaching Historical Fiction
Now I knew the reason, but I was still faced with a question, “How do I teach thousands of years of historical information to my students, so that they have the ability to better comprehend historical fiction texts?” I am ambitious, it’s true, but that was obviously going to be impossible. I decided that the best way to solve this problem would be to give my students a set of strategies that would enable them to access quickly and effectively the background knowledge they needed in order to understand the text. I also wanted to encourage my students to use the events of the time period to help them better comprehend the story, rather than having those same events discourage them from reading the book. My goal was to get them to embrace the time period of the book to build a deeper understanding of the text. Here are the three strategies for teaching historical fiction I use with students so that they can better understand the time period of a historical fiction novel.
1. Activate Background Knowledge
I tell my students after they have found a historical fiction novel to read, the first steps are to examine the cover and then read the synopsis of the book. The synopsis will almost always give the time period during which the novel takes place. I ask them to think really hard about anything they might know about that historical period (and as it happens, most students are surprised that they already know something about the time period). Next, they should make a brief list in their head or on paper of what they already know about that time period in history. If they feel confident they have enough background knowledge they should start reading the book. If not, it's time to do some “rapid research.”
2. Rapid Research
I call this step “rapid research” because for most students the word “research” means extra work, but “rapid” signals that it will be quick. I tell my students there are many ways to find more information about a time period.
If they have access to technology, the easiest way to find information is to do a “safe search” on the Internet.
Find a nonfiction text about the same time period to skim and scan for information.
Look in the novel they have chosen. Many historical fiction novels have an additional “Notes from the Author” section or an “Afterword.” I do caution the students that reading that section of the book before reading may spoil some of the “surprise” aspects of the novel for them.
*When reading historical fiction, I really try to drive home the strategy of utilizing the Author's Note if one is provided. Often the Author's Note will help improve comprehension of the text and/or provide additional information about the time period. Even as an adult, my knowledge has increased about both World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Depression, etc., by reading children's books.
3. Tracking the Time period to Increase Understanding
Instead of letting its distant time period discourage my students from reading historical fiction, I try to encourage them to embrace the historic events taking place during the novel to increase their understanding of it. I give my students a graphic organizer to help them track how the historical events taking place during the book’s historical time period impact the characters and storyline. Download the “Time Period T-Chart” historical fiction graphic organizer to share with your students today!
If you have tips for teaching historical fiction, leave a comment! I love hearing from other educators.