Here is a quick check-in that I do with my middle school students (it can be done orally or written): as they are reading I ask them, “What’s happening now?”
To answer they need to say, “[character] [description] is [setting] [-ing verb + phrase] because/ while/ … .
This format requires them to talk about the character, with a description, the setting, part of the plot and part of the conflict/ problem. Then I give them a few examples such as, “Little Red Riding Hood, a brave yet foolish girl, is in the woods in fairy tale time walking to her grandmother’s house while the wolf is waiting for her.” I can then ask follow up questions such as, “Why do you say she is brave?” This requires students to provide evidence. I can ask about what will happen next which requires them to make predictions.
When students struggle to answer the question I can ask questions about which part is causing the difficulty and we can problem solve together. As they get used to the process they learn to pay more attention to the characters, plot and setting while thinking about why something is happening in a story. It is fun to see them pay more attention, understand more and become better readers.
And yes, I often use fairy tales and picture books to teach strategies. This allows students to focus on the strategy and not on the text because they already understand the text… in most cases. Some students have gaps in their picture book knowledge which I happily fill, they laugh and we all get better at reading!
WHN: What’s happening now?
This, of course helps in their writing, too. I can ask them the same question when they write narratives and watch them build connections between their reading and their writing.