Picture Understanding! Building Comprehension in the Primary Grades With Picture Books

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Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Seven 35- to 45-minute sessions
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Comprehension is an essential component of successful reading. Through modeling and progressive levels of independent work, students become aware of the importance of retelling and essential story elements. Students demonstrate their understanding of stories through the use of online interactive graphic organizers and present story elements of an individual book through a book talk.

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From Theory to Practice

  • Through the use of modeling, students can be guided toward independence. The “cognitive load” transitions from the teacher completing most of the work to the students completing the work independently.

  • Graphic organizers draw readers’ attention to important information and help readers draw connections between these ideas, making them useful tools for comprehension. However, graphic organizers should not be the end goal of instruction.

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).
  • 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

  • Whole-class texts for modeling: Jan Brett’s The Mitten, Town Mouse Country Mouse, Armadillo Rodeo, and Gingerbread Baby

  • Demonstration computer with Internet access and projector

  • Student computers with Internet access

  • Leveled student readers



  1. Collect one copy of the following Jan Brett books: The Mitten, Town Mouse Country Mouse, Armadillo Rodeo, and Gingerbread Baby. (You may substitute four fictional books that match a unit of study specific to your classroom.)

  2. Pre-read each book to identify the story elements you wish to highlight as you model your comprehension through think-alouds.

  3. Bookmark the Story Cube and the Plot Diagram on all computers. To facilitate student work, print out copies of the Story Cube Planning Sheet and prepare and print out copies of a blank Plot Diagram.

  4. Print a copy of the Comprehension Checklist for each student to assess individual work.

  5. Assemble book baskets with 3–4 appropriately leveled books for each student.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Demonstrate an understanding of story retelling and of essential story elements, including character, setting, conflict, and resolution, through the completion of graphic organizers and by presenting a book talk.

Session 1

  1. Spend a few minutes introducing students to story elements by asking what part of stories do they like. Anticipate responses like “the funny characters” or “when something cool happens.” Tell students “The parts of the story you are enjoying are called story elements. They are the important pieces of the story that make it fun and interesting. When you read, you have to make sure you understand, or comprehend, these parts of the story. Today I’m going to show you how I make sure I comprehend what I read.”

  2. Read aloud Jan Brett’s The Mitten, stopping periodically to discuss story elements.

    • Read page 1 and discuss the picture, noting how it looks cold, so that must be why Nicki wants mittens.

    • Stop after Nicki drops his mitten. Highlight how this is going to be a problem. (For example: “I think Nicki might get into trouble because his grandma, Baba, said not to let anything happen to the mitten. This could be a problem in our book.”)

    • After the snowshoe rabbit moves in, talk about how the author is introducing new characters. (For example: “These characters are making the story exciting because they are all moving into the mitten.”)

    • While reading, note how Nicki seems to be searching for his mittens in the picture. Talk about how the problem was solved when the mitten flew into the sky.
  3. After reading, think aloud: “I really enjoyed that story. I want to remember what happened to the characters. I have a tool that can help me. I'm going to first think about what happened at the beginning of the book . . .” Use the online Plot Diagram tool to retell the beginning, middle, and end of the story with the class. Print a copy of the Plot Diagram for future sessions.

Session 2

  1. Ask student to recall what they remember from the story The Mitten. Spend a few minutes discussing their responses and reviewing the completed Plot Diagram from the previous session. Tell them that today they will be helping you to understand a new story.

  2. Read aloud Jan Brett’s Town Mouse Country Mouse, using think-alouds during reading to model comprehension of the story elements.

    • Read the first two pages, and then think aloud: “The characters in this book are four mice. Two live in the city, and two live in the country. When and where the action is happening is called the setting. It seems like the mice are not happy in these places. This is an exciting beginning to our book because I want to know what happens next.”

    • Stop after reading about the blackbird. Talk about how the mice seem to be having problems in their new homes. Share an example (i.e., how the city mice do not know about rain), and invite students to share other examples.

    • At the end, discuss how the mice solved their problems. Invite student participation by saying, "The mice were unhappy at the beginning. Did they solve the problem at the end?"
  3. Hand out blank copies of the Plot Diagram tool and ask that they write down one or two things that happened in the beginning, middle, and end of the story. Project the interactive Plot Diagram tool, and ask students to share some of the items they included on their diagram. When they are finished, collect all printed diagrams for assessment.

    To scaffold the lesson for struggling students, offer several options: They may dictate their responses, draw their responses, complete the diagram in a small group, or be given copies of the book to use while retelling.

Session 3

  1. Remind students that you have been working on story comprehension and ask what helps a reader understand a story; you should expect to responses like “characters” and “settings.” Tell them that they will now learn to think more deeply about the story by looking for other story elements like conflict (or problem) and resolution.

  2. Read aloud Jan Brett’s Armadillo Rodeo, and discuss the major story elements during reading.

    • After reading page 1, discuss how the characters are a family of armadillos. Talk about how Bo is probably the most important because he is the only one with a name.

    • Stop reading after the introduction of Harmony Jean. Talk about this new character and the setting of the story. Describe how the setting helps readers understand things about the story.

    • When Bo starts following Harmony Jean, ask students what the problem is in the story.

    • At the end of the book, ask students how the problem was solved. Introduce the term resolution.
  3. Review with students how you had used the Plot Diagram to note the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Invite students to share what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of Armadillo Rodeo.

  4. Hand out copies of the Story Cube Planning Sheet. Project the Story Cube, and discuss each of the six components as you complete them, encouraging students to supply the needed information. Ask students to complete their paper copy as you fill in the online version.

Session 4

  1. Begin by asking students to share what they remember from completing the Story Cube for Armadillo Rodeo during the previous session. List student responses on the board. Remind students that they should look for the same types of information in today’s story.

  2. Read aloud Jan Brett’s Gingerbread Baby, highlighting the story elements.

    • After the gingerbread baby pops out of the oven, have students describe the character and predict the conflict. (Use the think-pair-share method to allow all students to participate in the discussion.)

    • Stop in the middle of the book (after reading about Martha and Madeline) and discuss the new characters and the setting.

    • When everyone finds the gingerbread baby missing, have students share ideas about what happened.

    • At the end of the story, have students share the resolution.
  3. After reading, project the Story Cube Planning Sheet. Proceed step by step through the template, but ask students to work in pairs to complete their own copy. To scaffold the activity for struggling students, make the book available for review or allow them to work in small groups.

  4. Allow time for students to transfer the information from their completed Story Cube Planning Sheet into the online Story Cube.

Session 5

  1. Ask students to think back to the previous session where they worked in pairs to complete a Story Cube for the book Gingerbread Baby and to share what kinds of things they’ll look for during today’s reading. List these responses on the board.

  2. Ask students to select and read a book from their basket with a buddy, ensuring that pairs are relatively homogenous so they are able to buddy read the same book. (You may choose to have students who struggle complete their reading in a guided reading group or by using a familiar text.)

  3. While reading, students should use the Story Cube Planning Sheet to record their thoughts.

  4. When students are finished reading, they should work in pairs to complete the Story Cube. This session should be repeated as needed depending on how the students are progressing in their comprehension of the stories.

Session 6

  1. Commend students on how great they are getting at comprehending stories through retelling and identifying story elements. Tell them that they will now choose a book on their own and complete a Story Cube. Ask what story elements they will be looking for as they read and write their responses on the board.

  2. Ask students to select and independently read a book from their basket. Note that students with advanced reading abilities may require additional time if they are reading longer books.

  3. While reading, students should take notes on the Story Cube Planning Sheet.

  4. Have students work at computers to complete their individual Story Cube, and collect finished work for assessment. If students struggle or need additional help to complete the Story Cube correctly, schedule individual work sessions prior to Session 7.

Session 7

  1. Ask students to give a short presentation about their book to the class as a book talk. Students should demonstrate their comprehension by being able to discuss the book and answer questions, such as "Who was a character in your book?" Allow younger or struggling students to use their Story Cubes as a guide.

  2. After sharing, collect again students’ Story Cubes to be scanned and uploaded to a class webpage.


  • Use the online Flip Book interactive to demonstrate comprehension. Using the page headings of character, setting, conflict, resolution, beginning, middle, and end, the Flip Book allows students more flexibility in their finished product. For the students who may struggle, the Flip Book will allow them to draw pictures rather than write to demonstrate their understanding.

Student Assessment / Reflections

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