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Reading strategies: Narrative structures

September 13, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

What are the most practical reading strategies you can share with your students? We asked ourselves this question and came up with 8 different approaches which we will share with you throughout the year. Reading in a foreign language is both fun and challenging. Students discover new worlds through a new language, and not only does this experience make them feel good, but it also gives them access to new territories. However, reading in a foreign language also poses challenges: these new words often open up new areas of knowledge, and there’s a new logic in the sentences, paragraphs, genres, and narrative structures. In this first series, we share some tips you can adapt and use with your students. 

In our first post, we focused on INTERACTION, and in the second on QUESTIONS. In the third post, we gave you ideas on BUILDING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE. In our fourth post, we gave you two ways of WORKING WITH GENRES

In this fifth post, we continue with narrative structures with an overview of how stories are usually built.

Why is it a good idea to know about narrative structures?

We often talk about genre expectations and how readers have expectations of texts such as reports, procedures, and reviews. It is no different with stories. No matter which story genre we are reading - a short account, an elaborate narrative, a funny anecdote - we know that they usually unfold in similar ways. This is interesting for two reasons. When a story follows a recognisable narrative structure, we feel satisfied as readers. However, surprising twists in narrative structures draw the readers into the story, stimulating them to read on and find out what comes next.

When students know how stories are built, they become better at reviewing, discussing and analyzing them. What’s more, when it comes to story creation, they feel more confident when writing their own stories.

What are the most well-known narrative structures? How do they inform your teaching?

Two structuralist views

Folklorist and literary scholar Vladimir Propp found that all folktales tend to share the same deep structures with recurring character types and plot elements. According to Propp, Russian folktales are made up of a combination of the same 31 units and they all feature the same 7 basic character types. For example, typical plot units include ‘the hero leaves home’, ‘the hero receives some magical tool or helper’, ‘the villain appears’, ‘the hero returns home’. 

Teaching tip: Find information about the 31 plot elements and 7 character types. Then, use them to analyze an action or superhero film. Are there similarities? Are there modifications?

Another well-known approach to narratives looks at the same work of art from two perspectives. First, there are the events, the actions of the story. This is the ‘what’ of the story: Russian Formalists call it ‘fabula’. Then, there is the ‘how’ of the story, the way it is told or written, called ‘sjuzet’ by the same theorists. Introduce this idea of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ and point out the significance of telling the story in different ways and how it influences meaning. 

Teaching tip: One way to work with this idea is by asking students to think of a story they like - a superhero cartoon, a Sherlock Holmes story or a Jane Austen novel - and compare the different adaptations. The ‘what’ remains the same, but the ‘how’ is different, which influences the overall meaning.

Read more about folktales here:

A sociolinguistic view

The American linguist, William Labov (also referred to as the father of sociolinguistics) and his colleague, Joshua Waletsky, noticed the need to focus on oral storytelling and analyzed how stories between people usually develop. They proposed two narrative functions: referential (referencing events in the order of events in time) and evaluative (focusing on the storyteller’s purpose). They also identified the following six-point narrative sequence:

  1. Abstract (short summary of the story to come)
  2. Orientation (presentation of characters, setting, context)
  3. Complicating action (events that lead up to a climax)
  4. Evaluation (often happens before 5, but can happen after. Highlights unusual points) 
  5. Resolution (release of tension)
  6. Coda (indication the story has finished)

In Labov and Waletsky’s findings, when a narrative is developed and detailed, it will include all 6 elements.

Teaching tip: Discuss the six sequential elements in detail and ask students to find examples of them in stories they know. How do they feel when one of the categories is missing from the story?

A systemic functional view on stories

In genre-based pedagogy informed by systemic functional linguistics, there are four main types of stories in which the events are sequenced: recounts, narratives, examplums, and anecdotes. Each story genre has a different purpose and structure. Let’s see their purposes first.

  • In recounts, people simply record a series of events mostly based on personal experiences. There is no complication in recounts. 
  • In narratives, the characters resolve a complication. 
  • An exemplum is told/written to judge a person’s character or behaviour. 
  • In anecdotes, people usually share feelings about a complication which is not resolved.

Here is an overview of the usual structures of the stories. 

  • Recounts: orientation giving context - record of events - re-orientation giving a new perspective on the events 
  • Narratives: orientation - complication - resolution
  • Exemplums: orientation - incident - evaluation of the characters' actions
  • Anecdotes: orientation - remarkable event - reaction describing the storyteller’s emotional response to the events

Teaching tip: Point out to your students that each story type starts with a contextual introduction - which can range from a sentence to several pages long, depending on the length of the story. Then, there might or might not be a complication in the story. Sometimes complications are not even resolved. As a writing or speaking task, ask students to come up with examples for each of the four story types. 

Which of these approaches works best for your teaching purposes? Let us know in the comments!

Next month we’ll be back with strategies to deal with new words in texts.


  • Propp. V. (1928/1968). Morphology of the Folktale. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative Analysis. In J. Helm (Ed.), Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts (pp. 12-44). University of Washington.
  • Martin, J. R., & Rose, D. (2008). Genre relations: Mapping culture. Equinox. 
  • Rose, D., & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney school. Equinox. 
  • The Oxford Reference article on fabula and sjuzet.