My Life as an Alphabet: Exploring Narrative

1. Examining Narrative Orientations

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To explain how the orientation of a story initiates the mood and invites the reader’s interest 
  • To identify the central characters of a story and describe their key characteristics

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can describe the central characters
  • I can identify gaps, or interesting questions, which are yet to be answered in the story
  • I can interpret the mood of a story, using evidence from the text
  • Copies of My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg, or an alternative text
  • Picture books, short stories and novels for independent reading and analysis. Select texts that will engage your students and provide strong examples of story orientations. Refer to the resource list for text suggestions: docx PDF
  • Examining narrative orientations summary table: docx PDF
  • Example think aloud script: docx PDF
  • Example close reading questions: docx PDF

This stage asks students to consider the elements of an effective story orientation. Students will read mentor texts to examine how authors introduce characters, plot, setting and mood, while also noting techniques used to include unanswered questions. Students will identify these elements in texts before experimenting with observed techniques in their own writing.

Explain to the students that they will investigating the questions, ‘What makes a good story?’ and more particularly, ‘How do writers capture the reader’s interest and motivate them to keep reading?’

  • Invite students to think about a picture story book, short story or novel that they enjoyed reading and would recommend to a classmate.  Ask students to turn and talk to a partner, giving a brief summary of their recommended book and to explain what they particularly enjoyed about the text. Students who do not have a book to recommend could discuss a film.
  • Alternatively, you could ask students to think of a book that didn’t interest them and that they didn’t finish. Why didn’t they want to keep reading?
  • Ask students to share their ideas about what makes a good story. 

Ensure that students are familiar with the term 'orientation'. An orientation usually introduces the central characters and gives the reader a sense of what the story is about, the setting and the mood of the story.

  • Have students participate in a think, pair share  to discuss what they consider to be the important elements in a story orientation.
  • Ask students to summarise and share their ideas and display their responses in a visible location.

Read the first chapter of, My Life as an Alphabet, or an alternative class novel or story. 

After reading, lead a discussion about the key events in the story introduction and how the author is establishing the characters and mood. Add ideas to the Examining narrative orientations summary table (available in Resources and texts). 

Explain to students that they will be working collaboratively to investigate story orientations in short texts.

  • Provide a range of short stories or appropriate picture story books.
  • Ask students to read and discuss one or two stories with a partner, recording the way the author introduces the plot, setting, characters and mood using the Examining narrative orientations summary table (available in the Materials and texts section).
  • Support the students to present their summaries to the class. Encourage them to predict what might happen later in the story and to discuss whether they would continue reading the book, and why. 
  • Create a class check list of the features of an effective story orientation.

1. Modelled reading

Re-read a short extract from the opening chapter of My Life as an Alphabet, using a think aloud strategy.  Explain that the orientation of a narrative might also present unanswered questions, or gaps, that create interest and curiosity for the reader. An example think aloud script is included in the Materials and texts section.

  • Ensure that students have a copy of the text to follow and that a larger version of the text is also visible to the students. As you are reading, model annotating the display text in point form and elaborating on your thinking.
  • After reading, discuss the information gained about plot, setting, the narrator and other characters. 
  • Add any additional information or ideas to the Examining narrative orientations summary table.

Demonstrate using supporting evidence to support your early interpretations of the texts. For example:

  • I think the narrator is a very conscientious student because they are excited about the alphabet project and they really like their teacher, Miss Bamford. 
  • I think the author might use humour throughout this book because of the way they described Miss Bamford and her roving eye.
  • I wonder if Candice is unhappy. She doesn’t seem to have any friends because she spends her lunchtimes in the library on her own. 

    2. Collaborative Reading

    Ask students to work with a partner to read on, or to read an alternative section of the text, using the think aloud strategy. 

    • As one person reads, they pause to ‘think aloud’.
    • Their partner takes notes, recording their thinking. 
    • Roles are then reversed.

      3. Reading Comprehension Task: The Story So Far

      Students present their interpretations of the text as a summary of the story so far. 

      Their summaries should include information gathered about the characters, the setting, events and mood. Remind students to use evidence from the text to support their conclusions. Provide sentence scaffolds to support students in their responses. For example:

      • I think …. because …
      • I wonder …
      • This sentence/phrase makes me think about …
      • This sentence/phrase could mean …

      The summary could include an artistic response, with a setting/story map and character profile.

      Enable students to develop deeper levels of comprehension by examining a short section of the text in a guided or scaffolded reading group. Engage students in opportunities to practise comprehension strategies and address errors or misconceptions. Students could also be supported by working with a strategically selected peer.

      Extend student ability to think critically about the text in close reading groups. Develop questions that examine the text in detail and promote a variety of reading strategies. For example: 

      • Give an example of when Candice was kind.
      • How did her behaviour affect other characters in the story? 
      • What might have been her motivation for behaving in that way? 
      • What did her behaviour tell the reader about her character? 
      • Explain how you would have behaved differently in a particular situation to one of the characters in the text, and why?

      Suggest students read and compare the opening chapters from two different texts. For example, they could compare books by the same author or select a book set in a different social and cultural context.

      Areas for further exploration

      Students could explore characterisation in more depth by completing a character map that details the qualities, actions and thoughts of individual characters, as well as mapping the interrelationships between characters.

      My Life as an Alphabet has been made into a feature film, titled, H is for Happiness. Students could compare their interpretation of individual characters from the book with the way those characters are presented in the film. H is for Happiness is rated PG, thus parental permission would be required before presenting the film to your grade.

      Engage students in a discussion of the story and to check for understanding. Invite students to share what they have learned about the story line and characters from My Life as an Alphabet or alternative text. Record their ideas by developing a flow chart of events and/or a character map.

      Discuss the mood of the text so far and any important events, information or emerging themes. 

      Revisit the question, ‘What do we expect to see in a story orientation?’ 

      Provide a visual stimulus and sentence starter to prompt a Quick Write. Ask students to develop a story orientation and to develop a plan before writing, considering what they have learned about story orientations. The Literacy Shed provides free open access to visual prompts and teaching ideas. Web sites such as The Atlantic ‘Photos of the Week’ or Australian Geographic have a diverse photographic collection.

      Enable students by adapting the writing task to meet student needs. For example, students could present their work visually. Story orientations could be presented as flow charts or as comic strips.

      Extend students by modelling the writing task and demonstrating how to include inference and foreshadowing in the orientation. Encourage students to include these literary devices in their writing.

      Encourage students to their work with a partner and receive feedback.  For example, students could refer to the success criteria of the lesson and highlight a positive quality noticed in the work, something that surprised them and a question they have about the writing.

      Student entries in the Examining narrative orientations summary table, reading comprehension task and writing task could be analysed and used for assessment purposes.

      Australian Geographic, 2020. Australian Geographic. [Online] 
      Available at:
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

      Facing History and Ourselves, n.d. Character Maps. [Online] 
      Available at: 
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

      Google, 2017. Toontastic. [Online] 
      Available at:
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

      Jonsberg, B., 2013. My Life as an Alphabet. Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin.
      Pobble Education Ltd, 2020. Pobble365. [Online] 
      Available at:
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

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

      State Government of Victoria (Department of Education and Training), n.d. Classroom talk techniques. [Online] 
      Available at:
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

      The Atlantic Monthly Group, 2020. Photos of the week. [Online] 
      Available at:
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

      The Literacy Shed, n.d. The Images Shed. [Online] 
      Available at:
      [Accessed 15 March 2022].

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