My Life as an Alphabet: Exploring Narrative

2. A Closer Look at Setting and Context

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To examine the setting and historical, social and cultural contexts in narrative texts 
  • To monitor understanding by questioning and inferring

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can identify how an author builds the setting and historical, social and cultural context
  • I can ask questions and use inference to monitor and clarify meaning
  • A range of texts that provide a variety of historical, social and cultural contexts. Refer to the resource list for text suggestions: docx PDF
  • Graphic organiser: exploring context: docx PDF
  • Sample think aloud script: docx PDF
  • Sample think aloud extract: docx PDF
  • T-chart template: docx PDF
  • Paper to display student writing
  • Access to ClickView (sign in using your department credentials) 

This stage examines the historical, social and cultural contexts developed in narrative texts. Students will have the opportunity to broaden their understanding of the purpose of context in narratives and will observe and experiment with the techniques used by authors to develop historical, social and cultural contexts.

1. Class discussion: understanding context

Discuss the learning intentions and develop a shared understanding of the terms; historical, cultural and social contexts. Explain that the context of the story is the background or setting in which the events take place. Understanding context involves recognising the historical period in which the story is set, the way of life, the beliefs and attitudes of the time, and the social structures that influence the daily lives of the characters. Readers can better understand the themes and events in a narrative text if they have an understanding of context.

Explore extracts from texts examining historical, social and cultural context.

Introduce the Bringing Books to Life clip (sign into ClickView using your Departmental credentials), presenting extracts from Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah. After viewing the clip, display and read the excerpts from the video transcript. Alternatively, read a short section of an alternative text. 

Discuss how the author created context and how the reader’s understanding of that context affects their response and comprehension of the text.

Possible discussion prompts:

  • Are there attitudes, events or objects that are specific to a particular historical period?
  • Are there references to race or nationality that help us to understand the cultural context?
  • Are there references to cultural aspects of daily life, such as food, dress code or manners?
  • Who has status and/or power in the story?
  • What questions do you have about the excerpt? What would you like to know more about?  What might you need to know more about to understand the context of this story?
  • In thinking about the historical, cultural and social contexts of the excerpt, identify what familiar to you and what is unfamiliar.

 Demonstrate refining and recording the key ideas from the discussion on a graphic organiser. 

2. Modelled Reading

Select a passage from an appropriate text that clearly demonstrates historical, cultural and social contexts.

Ensure that the mentor text is visible to all students.

Using a think aloud strategy, read the text and model comprehension strategies to  develop a general understanding of plot, setting and themes, while drawing particular attention to the context of the story. Think alouds should be planned prior to reading the text to students. A sample think aloud script is provided in the Materials and texts section.

Explain that students will be working in collaborative pairs to read, compare and contrast the historical, social and cultural contexts of two texts. The texts could be a chapter from My Life as an Alphabet, a short story, a picture story book or an extract from a novel. A list of suggested texts is available in the Materials and texts section, however, students should be given the opportunity to select their own texts.

Provide students with a graphic organiser to record their thinking. A graphic organiser template is available in the Materials and texts section. Encourage students to include evidence from the texts to support their interpretations. Guide the students to discuss their reading and context summaries. 

Discussion prompts could include: 

  • What are some of the differences and similarities in the settings? For example, where and when were the stories set? 
  • Compare the ways the characters thought and behaved. Did their thoughts and actions provide information about the context of the stories?
  • Which text was easier to understand, more interesting or preferred? Why?
  • How does context contribute to the ideas, themes and characterisation?
  • What might authors need to know to develop a believable context?
  • Would My Life as an Alphabet work in a different historical, cultural and social context? Explain your answer. 

Enable students to examine context and how it is represented in narrative texts by presenting film extracts that clearly demonstrate differing historical, social and cultural contexts.  For example, sign into ClickView using your Departmental credentials to access resources such as the My Place series or a short section from Oliver Twist (opening scenes beginning at 0:5:52 to 0:11:00). These two examples would support students to identify the historical, social and cultural contexts identified in the think aloud extract

Extend student thinking about context by exploring the rights of children throughout different historical periods with varying social and cultural values. The Australian Human Rights Commission provides resources that could be used as a starting point. Encourage students to explore concepts of gender, race and class. 

Ask students to compare the historical, cultural and social contexts of their reading to their daily lives. Provide a T-chart and support students to identify what is familiar and what is unfamiliar to them. 

Lead a discussion on the purpose and importance of context in narratives. Prompt students to refer to their graphic organisers. Consider:

  • inviting individual students to read a quote from a text and to explain their contextual interpretation of that quote
  • generating discussion about the stated or inferred historical, social and cultural references
  • asking students to select one quote from their reading, copy it onto a card or display paper and elaborate on what information the quote suggests to them about the context of the story
  • displaying student examples for discussion and future reference.

Writing from inside the story

Invite students to select a line from one of the texts and use it to launch a writing exercise. Explain that they will be writing from ‘inside the story’, as if they were there. Remind them to include detail that builds the historical, social and cultural context of the story.  For example, description of clothing or surrounds, description of social and cultural practices and use of dialogue to describe personal beliefs and interactions.

Formative assessment of student learning in this stage of the sequence could include graphic organisers exploring context and the writing exercise.

Australian Human Rights Commission, 2013. The Big Banter - resources. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022]. 

ClickView, 2007. Oliver Twist: Part 1. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Clickview, 2019. My Place series. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

ClickView, 2020. Bringing Books to Life: Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Fisher, D. B. & Frey, N., 2013. Rigorous Reading. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

McDonald, L., 2018. A Literature Companion for Teachers. 2 ed. Marrickville: PETAA.

Ness, M., 2018. Think Big with Think Alouds. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Parkin, D. B. & Harper, D. H., 2019. Teaching with Intent 2: Literature-based literacy. Marrickville: PETAA.

State Government of Victoria (Department of Education and Training), 2019. Literacy Teaching Toolkit: Modelling through think alouds. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

Zephaniah, B., 2020. BBC: Refugee Boy. [Online] 
Available at:
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

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