Standard Lesson

Exploring the Subtext Strategy: Thinking Beyond the Text

2 - 4
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
One or two 45-minute sessions
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In a literary text, authors do not always tell readers what characters are feeling or thinking, and readers must instead make inferences to help them learn about the characters. Students use the Subtext Strategy to take on the perspectives of various characters in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and think beyond the written text. The teacher begins by previewing the cover of the story with students and asking them how Alexander is feeling based on the title and the illustration. Then, students listen to the first page of the story and watch the teacher model using the strategy. Students view the rest of the story online at Kennedy Center: StorytimeOnline in an adapted version and act out the role of an assigned character, expressing their interpretations of the characters' thoughts and feelings using visual cues from the illustrations and the information in the text.

From Theory to Practice

  • The Subtext Strategy involves using a story's illustrations to "imagine characters' thoughts"

  • This strategy helps students:
  • Make personal connections

  • Develop increasingly strategic inferencing skills

  • Empathize with characters

  • Understand and take on other perspectives
  • The Subtext Strategy works by having students look beyond the text and use the illustrations as cues to a character's inner thoughts (subtext). Students "become" the character and vocalize their perception of the character's feelings.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Copy of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz (addional copies for students optional; Aladdin, 1972)

  • Computer with Internet access and audio

  • Large computer monitor or projection screen

  • Index cards



1. Read and familiarize yourself with the story before conducting this lesson. You will need to have a good understanding of the plot and characters in order to model the Subtext Strategy.

2. Visit Kennedy Center: StorytimeOnline and test your computer's audio capabilities by clicking on Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Make sure that students will be able to hear the story and view the illustrations.

3. Prepare index cards by writing the name of each character from the book on a card.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Use illustrations to determine a character's inner thoughts and feelings

  • Dramatize a character's thoughts and feelings

  • Discuss a character's thoughts and feelings

  • Write a reflection describing the Subtext Strategy and how it helped them to better understand the story and characters

Instruction & Activities

1. Gather students around the computer screen (or projection screen if available). If you prefer, distribute hard copies of the book among the students. Explain to students that they are going to be doing some acting today and they are going to be learning about what characters in stories are thinking and feeling.

2. Show students the cover of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Ask them to describe the illustration to you (e.g., the boy is in bed, he looks mad, there are toys around his bed on the floor). Based on the title and the illustration, ask students to describe what they think Alexander might be thinking (e.g., he doesn't want to get out of bed, he's grounded, his mom yelled at him, he's sick).

3. Tell students that when we imagine what a character is thinking outside of what the story tells us, it is called subtext. Explain that they are going to be acting out the subtext in this story.

4. Model this strategy for students using the first page of the story. Read the text aloud and show the illustration to students.

The text reads:
I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Describe important parts of the illustration aloud-Alexander's body language, the sweater in the sink, his messy room, etc. Tell students that when you act out the subtext, you "become" the character. You don't use words like "I think Alexander is saying..." or "He probably thinks..." You just talk as if you are the character.

Some examples of subtext for the first page of this story are:
Example 1
I am so mad! Why do bad things always happen to me? I wish I could just go back to sleep and start this day all over again!

Example 2
This is always happening to me! It's all my mom's fault-she's always rushing me out of bed and now I'm going to be late for school! I wish I could just stay home today.

Choose one of the above subtexts to model, or create your own.

5. Tell students that they are going to be viewing the rest of the story online and that they are going to be acting out their own subtexts.

6. Access Kennedy Center: StorytimeOnline and begin playing the online story. After each "page," pause the recording and choose two to three students (depending on how many characters are on that particular page) to act out the subtext. Give each student an index card with his or her character's name on it. Have the students come up to the front of the room and hold up their cards so the rest of the class can see who they are. Students then take turns telling their subtext aloud. Below is an example from the second page of the story using three students to play Alexander, Anthony, and Nick:
Anthony: Wow! I'm going to test this out on the new racetrack I constructed! I bet it's the fastest car yet!

Nick: Cool! I bet Sherlock Holmes had one of these! I bet I can solve a lot of mysteries with this!

Alexander: This is the worst day ever. My brothers always get everything just because they're older! I wish I was as old as them.
7. Continue with the story in this way. Try to give as many students as possible the opportunity to act out a subtext. When the story is complete, ask student volunteers to tell what it was like to act out the feelings of the characters. How did it help them to better understand the story?


In order to extend the activities in this lesson, you may want to have students work individually or in small groups to create Stapleless Books that put their subtexts in writing. Students can illustrate the books with pictures from the story and write their subtexts below. Students can share their finished books with peers, or have their books displayed in the classroom library.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Ask students to write reflections describing their experience with the Subtext Strategy and telling how it helped them better understand the characters and the story. Did it help them relate to the characters? Were they able to make text-to-self connections? How did it feel to play a character?

Sharon Miller
K-12 Teacher
I needed to alter the lesson because the online website recommendation was blocked by my district
Sharon Miller
K-12 Teacher
I needed to alter the lesson because the online website recommendation was blocked by my district
Sharon Miller
K-12 Teacher
I needed to alter the lesson because the online website recommendation was blocked by my district

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