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How To Teach The Setting of A Story

Picture of an open book with the banner for the blog over it that says "How To Teach Setting: A Complete Lesson."

What Is The Setting Of A Story?

The setting of the story is the time, place, and cultural context of a story. When students understand the setting, they will more fully understand characters and their motivations. Conflicts will be resolved in different ways based on setting. 

Why Setting Matters

Setting is one of the many aspects of what make a story compelling. Consider any book you’ve read or move you’ve seen that is set in the future or set in space. Certainly, that story would be a far different story (and most likely, far less compelling) if it were set in a different setting. 

If you’ve ever read a book where you’re not quite sure what the time period is until 3 chapters into the book, you have an idea of how frustrating it can be when an author doesn’t establish the setting quickly and clearly.

A Complete Lesson For Teaching The Concept Of Setting In A Story

Setting can be fun to teach and fun to work with because it’s a concept that is accessible to students, but one that they probably haven’t thought much about. Below is a complete step-by-step lesson for how to teach this literary element in the context of a short story unit. With different mentor texts, you could use the same lesson for younger or older students. Scroll all the way to the bottom to get the entire lesson in a PDF that you can instantly download.

First, Use A Warm-Up Activity To Think About Setting

To get students engaged, show students two pictures each with a distinct setting and have them write about what they see for a few minutes. They can describe the picture using sensory details or they can actually start to form a story based on the time and place they see in the picture. Either is fine. 

Picture of a slide from the lesson that shows an astronaut in space and a creepy house on a hill with the directions to students to write about the setting of one of the pictures.

Once students write for a few minutes have them share with a partner or with the full class. If students did begin to form a story based on the picture, it will become clear right away that even if the setting of the story is the same, the actual stories that emerge can be widely different. 

The point of the warm up activity is simply to get students thinking about time and place in relation to story and to start realizing that it is a vital element of a compelling story. 

We suggest having an essential question when you’re teaching a short story unit such as “What make a compelling story?” and to revisit this question often in your unit. Any element of story is a piece of the puzzle of forming a compelling story, and setting is one of those pieces. 

Next, Look At Mentor Texts 

After a warm-up introduce students to the concept that setting is time and place, but it also includes cultural context, meaning what is happening in society at the time of the story. This is a critical part of understanding the plot and the characters, so it’s essential that a reader grasps the cultural context as students move through the story. 

At this point, showing students 2-3 curated texts that showcase well-described settings is helpful for students to see how an author uses specific words to clearly establish setting. 

One of our favorites is this excerpt from “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. Sometimes Poe’s writing can contain challenging vocabulary, but this passage is accessible to most early high school students. 

Picture of a slide from the lesson that has the text from the "Fall of the House of Usher" that describes the setting in a lot of great detail.

Read the mentor text aloud to your students and then ask them to either on their own or with a partner pick out 5 specific words or phrases that help them form a picture in their mind about the time and place of this story. After they do this, reconvene as a class and discuss. 

It can also be helpful to ask your students to notice specific parts of speech like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that help distinguish the setting. This can reinforce grammar lessons that you’ve done. If you need a free unit on parts of speech, grab our entire parts of speech unit and check out this blog post that goes in to detail about how to get started with it.

picture of a computer screen with a grammar lesson on it with the banner that says "free parts of speech unit"

Then, move on to another short excerpt and have them do the same thing, but for this one choose a text that allows them to think about the cultural context established by the author. One mentor text that does this well is “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Pierce. 

Depending on your students you may have to give them some guiding questions to help them think about the cultural context for this piece. You could ask:

-What’s happening in this scene, and when did things like that happen?

-What are 2-3 words that suggest this is not present day?

-What was happening in society when things like this happened? 

Last, Have Students Rewrite a Story in A Different Setting

After students have read a few short mentor texts and thought about setting, have them read a full story like Liam O’Flaherty’s “The Sniper.” This story is short and is set during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. The setting very much plays a part in the story, and the story is action-packed, and easy to understand. 

After students have read the story, have them rewrite part of it in a different setting. They could set it in space in the year 2090 or in an American city in present time. 

Instruct them to establish the setting clearly and with appropriate sensory details.

Picture of a slide from the lesson that requires students rewrite part of a short story in a new setting.

This might take a decent amount of the class period to do, but the process is worthwhile as it requires them to think about all the details that play a role in establishing setting–characters’ language, dress, the architecture, the cars, etc. 

Once students have completed the rewrites, debrief and discuss the following as a class:

  • what details did you have to change for the new setting?
  • how did the story itself change when it was set in a different time period?
  • do you think the new story is more or less compelling now that it has a different setting
  • does the overall message of the story change with the new setting? 

Your Free Lesson To Teach Setting

If you’d like to get this exact lesson for free, simply download the slideshow and notes below! If you’d like to get access to our entire short story unit, you can get every single lesson with the edible slideshows, editable notes, and step-by-step lessons when you join the English Teacher Vault. 

Download Your Free Lesson On Setting:

Setting of a Story Presentation PDF

Student Handouts Setting PDF

Lesson Plan Setting PDF

Check Out Our Complete Short Story Unit (available to members):

  • Intro: What is A Compelling Story and Plot Diagram Day 1

  • Plot Day 2

  • Point of View in A Story

  • Setting in a Story (free download)

  • Conflict In a Story

  • Point of View In a Story

  • Mood and Tone In A Story

  • Hands-On Review Activity

  • Assessment (2 Choices: Short Story Test or Short Story Analysis)

Get the entire unit and the editable versions of these lessons when you become a member of the English Teacher Vault.

Click on the link below to get all of our lessons!

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