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Teaching Third Grade Literature Standards with Engaging Folktales

Do you enjoy using Gerald McDermott’s books in your classroom as much as I do?  I have been using his stories for at least 10 years since I discovered them to teach the third-grade literature standards.  He is the Caldecott Award-winning author of such great stories as Coyote, Arrow to the Sun, and Raven and more!

Engaging Folktales to teach the third grade literature standards


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I start the unit by explaining what folktales are and how they originated (as oral storytelling passed down through the generations).  I start with a video of the story of how Raven brought light to the people. You can see the video below or on YouTube.

Teaching the Common Core Third Grade Literature Standards

Then I read McDermott’s version of Raven and we note the differences between the oral and written versions.  The first standards I tackle at this point are RL.3.1 and RL.3.2.  I emphasize how folktale authors usually include the setting, characters, and problem very near the beginning of the story to establish context.

Once the story is familiar, we create a story map that will then be used to help answer key details from the folktale.

Creating a story map for Raven

Though his folktales are from all over the world, I start out with his Native American folktales:  Coyote, Raven, and Arrow to the Sun.  I integrate the folktales into a social studies/non-fiction unit on Native Americans.  This is an efficient and powerful way to integrate the third-grade literature standards with other content areas.

Now they used their recall of the story and the story map to work on one the actual third-grade literature standards:  RL.3.2. Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures . . . The example below was from Arrow to the Sun.

Retelling a folktale using key details

Character Analysis is one of the Third Grade Literature Standards

From there I move on to character analysis.  Starting with the character Raven, I introduce character traits with character trait cards from my Character Traits Activities resource.  Many students do not know traits such as superstitious, dull, generous, stingy, etc.  This PowerPoint provides a paragraph description of a character and the students must identify what trait it is that would describe the character.

From there, it was time to analyze Raven.  As you can see below, we made an anchor chart for Raven’s character traits with a tie into cause and effect.

Anchor chart for character analysis

Identifying the Central Message or Moral of the Story

Continuing with RL.3.2, we learned to identify the central message and use key details from the text as evidence.  As a class, we discussed what lesson could be learned from reading the story Coyote?  Just as in the past, the storyteller would tell the children and adults the story so that everyone could learn a moral or a lesson.  For this part, I had the students create a tri-rama.  You can read more about the tri-rama on THIS POST which includes directions for making one.

Identifying the central message as one of the third grade literature standards

What lessons do you think Coyote learned? My students came up with these ideas:

  • Stay out of trouble
  • Don’t be boastful and rude
  • Respect your elders
  • Don’t go looking for revenge

The inside/front of the tri-rama is illustrated with the main setting, then students add pop up characters.  On the back, students write and explain what the central message is (they could also add a character analysis as well).

The majority of my students said that the central message of Coyote is to stay out of trouble.  They were able to cite evidence of how Coyote nose always got him into trouble which never ended well for him. They also identified the central message and key evidence with Arrow to the Sun which is the example below.

Explaining with evidence the central message is one of the third grade literature standards

Understanding how Cause and Effect by Analyzing Character Traits

In the third grade standard for character description (RL.3.3) students have to be able to show how the character’s actions contribute to the story.  So my thinking is if you know a character’s traits, you’ll know the character’s motivation.  Motivation drives the character to act, hence the character’s actions affect the story.  If Raven had not been curious, he would never have searched for the light and the people would still be in darkness!

Anchor chart for character analysis

Later, I also had the students work independently on doing a character analysis of Raven by citing evidence and referencing the anchor chart.

Identifying character traits is one of the third grade literature standards

More Third Grade Literature Standards

Another standard I like to address with McDermott’s books is standard RL.3.7 (how illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words).  I pull a part of the text out and have the students illustrate to match or convey the meaning of the author’s words.  It’s a great lesson in how to pay attention to details in illustrations.  McDermott is also the illustrator for his books and his art is amazing.

Extension activities for the third grade literature standards

If you are going to do a lesson with this standard, I highly recommend using Arrow to the Sun.  Gerald McDermott drew the first part of the story in black and white, while the latter half is in color.  The beautiful, strong colors help students to understand the significance of the storyline (bringing the Spirit of the Lord of the Sun to the people).

Gerald McDermott wrote many more titles that you can be easily integrated into any social studies or even science unit. Check out the titles below.

List of Gerald McDermott titles

More Resources for Teaching the Third Grade Literature Standards

Over time, as I have used Gerald McDermott’s books I’ve developed Companion Packs to go along with our units.  What are Companion Packs? They’re grade-appropriate resources that support your teaching of the third-grade literature standards.  Each Companion Pack is similar in that they support 9 of the literature standards.  They also include 6 extension activities related to that particular title.

Integrate the third grade literature standards with companion packs

I currently offer Companion Packs for 6 titles

  • Coyote
  • Raven
  • Arrow to the Sun
  • Jabutí the Tortoise
  • Monkey
  • Zomo the Rabbit

You can get more information by clicking the image below to see all the Companion Packs. Or click HERE.

Companion Packs for Gerald McDermott stories


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How do you use folktales with your students?

Share your ideas in the comments!

Teaching Third Grade Literature Standards with Engaging Folktales
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