11 Creative Activities and a Practical Definition for Literary Elements

Teaching literary elements is an essential part of teaching writing because our students can not write a story without using literary elements.  Our job as teachers is to help them use literary elements as effectively as possible.  They can not use literary elements to their full potential without first understanding the definition for literary elements

Learning Definition for Literary Elements in Sixth Grade

I started learning the definition for literary elements in sixth grade.  In sixth grade, I had both a reading teacher and a writing teacher.  I kind of liked my writing teacher, but I disliked my reading teacher.  My reading teacher pushed us to analyze and understand the books we read.  I remember having class discussions and mapping the plot for the book The Girl Who Owned a City, by O. T. Nelson.  As much as I disliked the class I learned a lot from her about literary elements

Why Students Need to Learn the Definition for Literary Elements Through Explicit Instruction

I know that learning literary elements in sixth grade may seem late these days.  When I was an elementary student I feel like our teachers waited for us to just pick up on things as we read and worked.  I was not the kind of kid who picked up on things, which is why I believe we are right to teach more explicitly.  Students do need time to read for enjoyment and pick up the parts of a story, but they also need to learn the correct terminology through explicit instruction.  I think I would have been a more successful student if I had learned literary elements sooner.

Definition for Literary Elements

Teachers teach literary elements all the time, but what you might not have realized is that literary elements are the second category of literary devices.  Literary elements are a writing strategy that helps create a story.  

Literary elements are the pieces that make up a story.  Literary elements are all the parts of the story that the writer needs to create a story that makes sense, progresses, and connects to the reader.  All stories need at least some literary elements.

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Going Beyond the Definition for Literary Elements

Now you know what literary elements are but we are going to dive deeper than that.  We are going to examine why literary elements are important to teach and several literary elements you will need to teach your students about.  I am also going to give you some great teaching ideas and books to help prepare you for your lessons.

Why It’s Important for Students to Learn the Definition for Literary Elements

The purpose of teaching literary elements is NOT so students can simply define the terms for you on a test.  That should be your smallest concern while teaching literary elements.  The most important reason for teaching students the definition for literary elements is to ensure that they understand the framework of a story.  Once they understand the framework of the story it will be easier to help them gain a deeper level of comprehension and a stronger appreciation while reading.

Understanding the framework of a story will also help your students recall important events and details.  They will see how the literary elements come together or interact to create the story, meaning they will see the organization of a story while they read, and also be able to organize their own stories better.


Learning the definition of literary elements will help set students up for literary analysis and critical thinking throughout their academic careers.  They will begin to see how literature reflects what the world looks like and start to be able to reflect on the world in their own writing.

And at the very basic level, it will ensure students know who the story is about and what is happening. 

15 Simple Definition for Literary Elements 

These are broken into two categories to help you determine which should be taught first and later. 


Definition for Literary Elements: Basic Elements

The first category is the most basic literary elements, likely what you want to teach first.  These are the elements that stories need to be stories.

  1. Characterization – is the process the writer uses to create a character and have them emerge from other characters.  It starts with an introduction, descriptions of behavior, and revealing of thoughts and feelings.

Antagonist – is the character or group that opposes the protagonist.

Protagonist – is the leading character and is often viewed as a hero by the audience.

  1. Theme – is the message the writer is trying to share with the audience.
  2. Setting – is when and where a story takes place.  The reader needs an established time, location, and environment with detailed descriptions.  The setting impacts the plot and characters throughout the story.
  3. Plot – is the structure of the story including events, actions, turning points, conflict, and a resolution.

Climax – is the part of the story where the tension or conflict hits a high point.

Conflict – is the struggle between two opposing sides, often the protagonist and antagonist.

Definition for Literary Elements: Complex Elements

These elements are more complex and you can wait to teach them until your students have a good understanding of the basic literary elements.

  1. Diction/Style – these are the language choices the writer makes to create a style and voice for the story.
  2. Mood – is how the writer wants to make the reader feel as they read the story.
  3. Point of View – is the view the story is told from.

Narrator The person who is telling the story

  1. Tone – is the overall mood or message of a story.
  2. Motif – is a recurring symbol, concept, or image that helps develop the story. 
  3. Imagery – is when the writer shows instead of telling through descriptive language and sensory details.  It paints a picture with words for the reader.

Ideas and Activities to Teach the Definition for Literary Elements

You can teach literary elements with some engaging and interactive activities.  There’s a huge amount of options out there, but these are some of the ones I like the best because of the opportunity for discussion, interaction with materials, and engagement.

I am going to talk about two types of organizers.  The names I am going to use for these types of organizers are often used interchangeably so if you search more look under both types.  I however am going to separate them to make the distinction clear.

  1. Story Map

A story map is a great way to have students identify some story elements.  Usually, story maps focus on the basic story elements of characters, theme, setting, plot, and conflict.  This can be used to map out a story they want to write or to map out a story that they read.  

  1. Plot Diagram

This is the type of graphic organizer that I filled out for A Girl Who Owned a City.  This type of organizer is much more complex because students will map out the whole story, usually on a mountain shape type of organizer.  Students record the conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.  There is usually a space to record some details about the main characters and setting too.  Often this type of graphic organizer is used while reading and analyzing stories, but it can also be used as a prewriting strategy too.

  1. Definition for Literary Elements Guess Who?  

I think that’s a pretty good name for this activity.  You’ll need a stack of cards with literary elements written on them and a short story, poem, or chapter.  Students will work with a partner after reading the selection.  One student will secretly look at a literary element card, then decide what except demonstrates their literary element.  Their partner tries to name the literary element.  

  1. Definition for Literary Elements I Have… Who Has…

Have you played I Have… Who Has… with your students yet?  They love this game.  Different people have probably created different versions of this game, but I know there are options out there.  One student reads a card with a sentence on it.  Another student says they have and names the correct literary element.  Then they read a sentence too.  There is a specific order to follow to ensure everyone gets a turn.

  1. Definition for Literary Elements Memory

Create cards that have a literary element term on one card and a literary element definition on another card.  Then students follow memory rules.  Turn all cards upside down.  Find a match made up of a definition and term.  Get another turn if you make a match.

  1. Definition for Literary Elements Expert Groups

Expert groups are a great way to have students research the literary elements in small groups.  Students will conduct research and discussion in a small group working to become experts on a specific literary element.  They should work to define it, explain that definition and find examples.  Then they will present their findings to the class.  The conversation, group work,  and teaching make this project a super way to help your students learn effectively. 

  1. Definition for Literary Elements Think Aloud

Read a picture book or short story where you model identifying literary elements as you read.  Show students how you identify literary elements, how you can see them working together, and the questions you ask while reading.  Modeling is always a valuable learning tool.

  1. Definition for Literary Elements Movies

Movies need literary elements to make sense because they are stories too.  Find a short movie to show your students to make identifying literary elements fun.  Students will love the opportunity to watch a movie even if it means filling out a graphic organizer during or afterward.

  1. Definition for Literary Elements Picture Books

The right picture book can create a short lesson with clear literary elements to guide your students through the process of understanding them.  Picture books can be an effective tool at any grade level, making the information easier to process and understand.

  1. Story Elements Writing

Provide your students with a few questions about their future stories.  Be sure these are simple and basic questions.  Then your students will use the answers to the questions to craft their stories.

Practicing the Definition for Literary Elements with Literary Elements Picture Books

Here is a short list of some books to consider using while teaching literary elements.  This list is more of an idea to get you started.  I would love to hear about some of your favorite books that you would add to this list.  Leave a comment below with some of your favorite literary element books.


The Farmer and the Monkey by Marla Frazee

Hey Al by Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski


Gurple and Preen by Linda Sue Park

Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls

Verdi by Janell Cannon

Diction | Style

If Dominican Were a Color by Sili Recio and Brianna McCarthy

E-Mergency! By Tom Lichtenheld and Ezra Fields-Meyers


New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyers and Eric Velasquez


Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown by Sally M Walker and Sean Qualls

Rain School by James Rumford

Dialogue | Narrator | Point of View

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen


The Red Bicycle by Jude Isabella and Simone Shin


One Green Apple by Eve Bunting and Ted Lewin

Examples of the Definition for Literary Elements are Everywhere

The great thing about teaching literary elements is that you can find examples everywhere.  You do not need to buy any special books or materials to help you teach them.  Every story needs literary elements to be a story.  Remember that your goal is to help your students understand how they work together.  When students start to understand how the literary elements are connected to each other that’s when their writing starts to mature.

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