Simple Ways to Plan and Teach a Fairytale Inquiry Unit
Learning about fairytales and other fictional genres are important parts of a language arts program. In particular, fairytales are the type of stories that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of age groups. This is partly due to their strong moral underpinnings and the lessons they teach students about life, ethics, and friendship. For younger students, fairytales are a fun genre to explore; they are filled with magic, fantasy, and imagination. They also serve as a great inquiry unit, where students ask questions, explore ideas, and more deeply understand what makes fairytales so magical and memorable. Below are some ways to plan for a fairytale inquiry unit for students of all ages, with an emphasis on younger learners.
It is important to map out your inquiry so that you know what your end goal is. Here are some Ontario curriculum objectives to inform your planning:
Reading 1.1: Read some different literary texts (including fairytales from diverse cultures)
Reading 2.1: Identify and describe the characteristics of a few simple text forms (with a focus on fairytales)
Writing 1.1: Identify the topic, purpose, audience, and form for writing (e.g a fairytale to entertain another class)
Writing 2.1: Write more complex texts using a variety of forms (including fairytales)
Reading 1.4: Demonstrate understanding of a variety of texts by summarizing important ideas and citing supporting details (e.g plot details in fairytales)
Grade 7 and 8
Writing 2.1: Write complex texts of different lengths using a wide range of forms
Of course there are other expectations in the curriculum that focus on developing reading and writing skills; these include using a wide range of vocabulary, varying sentence types and structures, using vivid language, and so forth.
The secondary curriculum (grade 9 and 10) also allows for investigations into genres, forms, and writing for particular audiences; this could include studying fairytales if structured thoughtfully.
Planning Your Fairytale Inquiry
A fairytale inquiry for a class in grades 2-5 should take approximately two weeks, but of course this depends on the age of students, time allocations, and other factors!
* Since fairytales fall more into a younger age category, the stories included below are tailored towards students in grades 2-5. Some links may be affiliate links. Read more about our affiliate disclosure here*
Set up your classroom
Before diving into your inquiry, let students get familiar with fairytales. Some ways to gradually introduce them to these stories include:
- Borrowing books from the local library, or asking students to bring in their favourite fairytale to share with the class
- Stick fairytale-related vocabulary words (magic, fantasy, royalty, castle, etc.) on your working wall. You can download a set of word cards here: Fairytale Vocabulary Cards
- Begin reading common fairytales during circle time or whole-class reading time
- Hang pictures of castles, royalty, animals, and forests around the room to begin introducing some features of fairytales
- Pose a question on your working wall such as “What is your favourite fairytale?” Stick a whiteboard and marker next to the question for students to write down their favourites
- Print photos of fairytale characters and hang on the walls; leave an index card and pencil beneath each photo and encourage students to write the names of the characters they know. Go further by asking them to write adjectives to describe the characters they know
You could also set up some “exploration stations” filled with learning provocations to get students excited about fairytales and learning.
Below is a suggested timeframe for introducing fairytales and guiding students through the inquiry unit:
Spend 1-2 periods letting students read the fairytales around the room. Encourage them to discuss the stories they read. A good way to encourage discussion is by setting up two chairs in a reading nook (or anywhere in the room) and placing a book between the chairs or on a table next to the chairs. Leave a note on the front of the book instructing the student that they must read the story together and then talk about it. Leave some suggestions like:
- Ask your partner what their favourite part of the story was
- Tell your partner what you think the lesson of the story was
- Ask your partner who their favourite character was, then tell them yours
Bring students together at the end of the period and ask them “What is your idea of happiness?” Chat with them about this, and note some ideas on flipchart paper. Students will revisit this later.
Bring students together and explain that they will be investigating fairytales and writing their own. Students complete a pre-assessment activity:
As a class, brainstorm a list of fairytales together. Choose one to read together, such as Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, or Little Red Riding Hood. Read the story aloud. Give students an index card or post-it note and a pencil. Ask students the question “What makes a fairytale different from other stories?” and ask them to write their answer down on their card. Collect them after a few minutes, then draw them out of a hat and discuss answers. Pin some cards and notes on the working wall, sort of like this:
Ask students “Are the characters in fairytales happy?” and discuss their ideas. Students will revisit this later again.
Examine the cards on the working wall from yesterday. Discuss the answers. Then, compile a list of features on flipchart paper. Discuss the main events in the story. Ask students “How is this fairytale similar to the one we read yesterday?” Task students with creating a comparison between the two stories. They can set this up however they like – a venn diagram, a table, labeled diagrams; whatever works for them. If students finish early, encourage students to illustrate parts of the story that are the same and parts that are different.
Students’ answers can be compiled to create a collaborative poster for the working wall, or perhaps a web can be created where their ideas are pinned on the wall and grouped together based on similarities and differences. Discuss answers during an end-of-day circle time session.
Recap with students how fairytales are different and how they are the same. Discuss the idea that fairytales have different events and characters, but that they usually follow a similar story map or sequence. Read another fairytale of your choice. Put students into groups, and give each group a scene or event from the story to illustrate on a large poster paper.
When groups have finished, ask them to work together to put them in order. Pin the order on the wall and use a thick black marker to add the words “first, second, next, then” etc. to sequence the events. Scaffolding this process will help students with the remainder of the lesson, and also when they write their own fairytales later in the inquiry unit. Planning a structured word inquiry at the beginning of the year can help with language and vocabulary acquisition.
Students play “Four Corners”. Place 4 fairytales in each of the four corners of the room and have students stand in the corner of the fairytale they’d like to read next. Split students into groups and give them time to read the fairytale together. Task students with creating a storyboard for their fairytale. Each storyboard should include 4-6 scenes/events, and should include transition words. They can use the example created earlier for help with the spellings. Students should challenge themselves to write sentences to explain what is going on in each scene on their storyboard.
Today’s lesson focuses on character. As a class, discuss what traits some of the characters have in common in each of the fairytales read so far. For example, show two photos of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. Ask students what kinds of questions they could ask to get to know both characters better. Hand out post-it notes and encourage students to write their questions down. Some questions might include:
- What kind of friend are you?
- How would you solve a problem?
- What are your friends like?
- What clothes and shoes do you like to wear?
- Who are your best friends? Do you have any enemies?
Read the sticky notes posted on the flipchart and discuss with students. Have students role-play answering the questions as the two characters in partners. Encourage them to use information from the story to support their answers. For example:
Student 1 (Little Red Riding Hood): Hi Snow White. I want to know more about you. What kind of friend are you?
Student 2 (Snow White): I think I am a good friend because I am kind to others. I like to help the dwarves by cleaning the cottage when they are at work.
Students focus on planning their own fairytale. Begin with the inquiry question: “How many ways can you tell a fairy tale?” Let students think-pair-share this question, then discuss as a class.
Next, ask students some other questions:
- What is the purpose of a fairytale?
- Who would want to read a fairytale? What ages and grade levels?
- Download a free list of more language and literature questions to use for your inquiry
Once students have warmed up with these questions, let them generate ideas about a potential topic using the 5 W’s. Give them time to identify personal experiences or prior knowledge that might help shape the ideas of their story. Encourage students to discuss their ideas with a partner and use whatever organizational tool works for them to record their plans. Some students may benefit from having a graphic organizer scaffolded for them, so be prepared to do this with those students. Others may want to try on their own.
At the end of class, have students discuss their idea with a different partner to get some feedback. Encourage pairs to give honest and constructive feedback and to ask questions to clarify the story’s ideas, characters, and progression. Ask some students to share their story ideas with the class, or collect the ideas yourself and shuffle them to share anonymously.
Today students will be sorting and sequencing their ideas. They will be tasked with identifying and ordering their main ideas, supporting details, and determining which ideas and information are suitable for the purpose. Some students may need to go back to the drawing board and generate some new ideas. If this is the case for some of your students, reassure them that this is all part of the inquiry cycle, and it will only help their stories to turn out better.
Once their ideas have passed the feedback stage, students should begin by creating a storyboard to map out each event in order. Adding transition words and labels will help construct the storyline visually so that it is easier for students to form sentences from the sequences.
Once students have created their storyboards and basic sentences, they can begin to write their stories. I’ve found it useful to give students a topic-related vocabulary sheet that includes words and sentence starters to help them form their sentences:
During the writing process, students should conference with their teacher frequently. This could be done in literature circles, literacy centres, or during independent writing blocks. Providing constant feedback and support is crucial with such a large task.
Listed below are some great resources for writing short fairytales:
Storyboard Template (Scaffolded, readwritethink.org)
Storyboard Template (Independent, readwritethink.org)
Fairytale Rubric (PDF)
Students should continue working on their stories on this day. Alternatively, they can begin illustrating their story if they are finished. If time permits and your students are creative, perhaps they could try their hand at book binding.
Make time at the end of class to recap some of the driving questions of the inquiry to remind students of their initial wonderings:
- What is your idea of happiness? Has it changed at all?
- How many ways can you tell a fairytale?
- What makes fairytales different from ordinary stories?
- What is the purpose of a fairytale?
- Do all fairytales have a happy ending?
- Who would like to read my fairytale?
Discuss answers from students and inquire as to why their answers might have changed through the course of the inquiry. Explain that as they continue reading, these answers might continue to change as well because we are always learning!
By this point, students should have finished their stories and illustrations. Of course, use more time if you need to. If some students are done early, get them to help decorate the class working wall by writing “How many ways can you tell a fairytale?” on a large piece of poster paper and using markers, glitter, or paint to decorate it.
Alternatively, have students swap stories and read them with a partner. You may also want to introduce the concept of peer feedback by modeling how students can suggest improvements or provide feedback in a kind, helpful, and specific way. Two Stars and a Wish is a great place to start with younger students.
Reflect and review
As an educator, it is important to regularly reflect on activities, lessons, and units of work. Doing this will help you spot areas where you can develop, tweaks you can make for next time, and how you felt about the lesson or unit overall. Some reflective questions educators may ask themselves include:
- What learning has occurred? How do I know?
- Were the main goals and objectives for this lesson/unit met?
- What evidence do I have to support the learning that has happened?
- Have my students’ interests or knowledge levels changed? How so?
- What progress has been made in terms of my students’ capabilities?
- How did I incorporate opportunities for soft-skill development?
- Were my assessment methods appropriate and useful?
- How could I change his lesson/unit to be more successful next time?
Please leave a comment below with your experiences teaching fairytales to students, or drop a link to resources that you would recommend. Join the conversation over on Instagram!