Standard Lesson

Looking for the History in Historical Fiction: An Epidemic for Reading

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Students brainstorm what they know about communicable disease and epidemics. They are then introduced to historical fiction and select a historical fiction novel to read from a booklist. They use a set of guiding questions to prompt critical thinking as they read. After they finish the novel, students use nonfiction books and Websites to gather facts about the infectious disease, illness, or epidemic discussed in their piece of historical fiction. Students then find examples of both verifiable fact and fiction in the historical fiction novels they read and write a reflection paper. Finally, students complete a project of their choice from a list of possible projects, including literary analysis, plot analysis, research about disease outbreaks, a disease prevention poster, and more.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Throughout time, disease has played a role in the lives and deaths of people. During the 1800s, there were a variety of diseases that found their way to this soil. Once here, diseases such as cholera spread across the lands wiping out 50% of the Northern Cheyenne and killing many others along the wagon trails. Students could read facts like these in a textbook or in a nonfiction book. But, infectious diseases, illnesses, and epidemics can also be found throughout historical fiction. As Beck et al. state, "Teachers know that these novels focus a rich, human lens on a sometimes abstract topic. The stories and the lives of historical characters help readers see the details of everyday life that are not incorporated into textbooks." Historical fiction presents a new perspective to the students.

Further Reading

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

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 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).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 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




Student Objectives

Students will

  • apply information from nonfiction in their literary analyses of fictional material.

  • compare and cross-reference information from historical fiction and nonfiction texts on a specific topic or theme.

  • record factual research information.

  • construct a reflection paper on their topic.

Session One

  1. Define communicable disease, illness, and epidemics.
    Communicable Disease
    An infectious disease transmissible (as from person-to-person) by direct contact with an affected individual or the individual's discharges or by indirect means (as by a carrier)

    Poor health resulting from disease of body or mind; sickness; a disease.

    Spreading rapidly and extensively by infection and affecting many individuals in an area or a population at the same time, as of a disease or illness.

  2. Brainstorm a list of communicable diseases, illnesses, and epidemics throughout the world. These can be current health issues or items from the past. Some answers you might receive are smallpox, polio, yellow fever, the plague, diphtheria, and so forth.

  3. When the students have created their list, ask them if they have read about any of these illnesses in literature and what the setting is in these books.

  4. Asked the students to respond to the following question, "What is it called when books are set in the past?" The answer is historical fiction.

    • Remind students of the definition of historical fiction: Realistic fiction set in the past. Readers can gain an understanding of the past and relive past events vicariously.

    • If students have not been exposed to historical fiction before, spend some time reviewing the historical fiction definition handout.
  5. Introduce the historical fiction book list. Read through the annotations with the students. Note any books on the list that students have mentioned.

  6. The teacher should decide if the students will read novels independently, after a read aloud, or in literature circles.

  7. Students should select historical fiction texts and begin reading them.

Session Two

  1. Allow the students time to read their selected novels, either individually or in literature circles, or read the book aloud to the class.

  2. As the students are reading, prompt them to think about what they are reading. Use the historical fiction guiding questions to guide their critical reading. They can also write their responses in their reading response journal.

Session Three

  1. After students have finished reading their historical fiction novels, share the list of nonfiction books and any additional nonfiction resources that are available.

  2. Preview Websites that students can use to research the background on their novels, answering any questions that students have about the way that the sites work. Some useful sites for this topic include U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Healthfinder, Diseases & Conditions A-Z Index from the Center for Disease Control, and the Why Files article, Parallels to the AIDS Epidemic?

  3. If desired, model the process of finding facts about a disease, illness, or epidemic for students, choosing a focus that is not covered in students' novels.

  4. Ask students to find at least 10 facts about the infectious disease, illness, or epidemic discussed in their piece of historical fiction about their topic and record the details that they find. If desired the students can record their information on the data collection sheet.

Session Four

  1. Review the definition of historical fiction: Realistic fiction set in the past. Readers can gain an understanding of the past and relive past events vicariously.

  2. Invite students to share some verifiable facts from their reading with the class. These can be any facts. They need not be related to the disease, illness, or epidemic explored in the novel.

  3. Next, ask students to share some details from the novel that are clearly fictional or which cannot be easily verified.

  4. Ask students to hypothesize about the balance between fictional and factual information in the novels that they have read. Does the information help them gain an understanding of the past? Do the details help them relive past events vicariously? Did they learn something about the historical time period by reading the novel?

  5. After your group discussion which touches on how these books are historical fiction, ask students to more closely examine the novels they've read by writing a reflection paper that addresses the following questions:

    • What makes your original text historical fiction?

    • Is your text fiction because of inaccuracies (which are proved by your nonfiction research) or is it historical fiction because it is set in a particular time period?

    • Did the author do his or her homework regarding the portrayal of the disease, illness, or epidemic? In other words, is it presented accurately?

    • Are there any stereotypes or is the information presented without bias?

Session Five

At this point, present project choices to the students and allow them the remainder of the session to work on the projects that they choose. A variety of options are listed below:

  1. Students may write a literary analysis of one of the historical fiction novels using the information they gathered in their research as their guide.

  2. Students may want to outline the plot from the historical fiction novel and then use the structure to rewrite the story set in the present day. How would the illness be treated? How would the afflicted person be treated by society? This option also allows students to incorporate the nonfiction research and resources as needed. Students can use the Plot Diagram Tool as a prewriting guide.

  3. Compare a contemporary disease (West Nile, SARS) to one of the past (yellow fever, diphtheria). Students can use a Venn Diagram or they can write a report documenting the similarities and differences.

  4. Using the information from their research, students can write an article for a medical journal. Students can write the article from the perspective of a doctor who has been following the progression of their assigned disease in a fictitious patient. Alternately, the information can be published using the Printing Press as brochure on the topic. The brochure can include an introduction of the disease researched, background information (populations affected, historical outbreaks, etc.), and general data about disease (typical symptoms, progression, and details that are not specific to the patient).

  5. Working in small groups, students can discuss a recent outbreak of an infectious disease, where the outbreak occurred, what led to the outbreak, and how it was contained. Finally, students can predict where they believe the next outbreak may occur, why they have chosen the location, and what they recommend that people can do in order to prevent the outbreak from happening.

  6. Students can create a disease prevention poster that includes a tip on how to avoid getting or spreading an infectious disease. (For example, people washing their hands with soap and warm water, or people covering their mouths as they sneeze) Students can use the Printing Press to publish their flyers.

  7. Create a timeline of the illness, using the Timeline Tool.


  • Students could perform scenes from the historical fiction books they have read. Refer to this lesson on Readers Theater.

  • Invite students to read more than one historical fiction novel about the same topic (e.g., yellow fever). The students could compare the presentation of the illnesses and their implications. To discuss the format with students, use the Comparison and Contrast Guide to present information about how comparison/contrast papers are usually structured.

Student Assessment / Reflections

As students discuss the novels, listen for comments that indicate that students see the ways that fictional and nonfictional details intersect in historical fiction. Provide supportive feedback for observations that show students are identifying the ways that scientific and historical data in the story add to the fictional scenario that the novel focuses on. Additionally, monitor student interaction and progress during class discussion to assess social skills and assist any students having problems with the project. Look for evidence in students’ contributions to the discussion as well as in their individual work in response to the guided questions and the data collection sheet that they have engaged in the research process (searching for and recording facts about the illness) and made connections between the fiction and nonfiction resources that they explore.

The reflective writing that concludes this activity will allow you to see which students are gaining a deeper understanding of the ways that fact and fiction intersect in historical fiction. Read the responses to the Reflection Questions and comment on the important observations that students make and asking provoking questions where they need to think more deeply. To more formally respond to students, share the reflection paper rubric with students before they write their responses and then use the rubric to shape your feedback.

As students begin working on their projects, ask students to collaborate to create a rubric that the performances or presentations will be evaluated on. They might want to include whether or not the information or presentation includes fictional and nonfictional information as well as how the presentation ties to the genre of historical fiction. Other aspects that could be included in the rubric include whether or not there was sufficient information and ideas presented. Also, what resources were used?

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