When students are asked to describe book characters, they often choose one word like “lucky,” “sporty,” or a single phrase like “she’s bossy.” It’s hard to get kids to stop labeling. But we want them to notice that characters, like people, have more than one personality trait. Studying book characters intentionally helps students understand people’s complexities and empathize with them. Here are three terrific character lessons for nurturing empathy from What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow? Your Moment-to-Moment Decision-Making Guide by Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser.

The authors do a fantastic job of giving step-by-step directions with current fiction favorites for how to explicitly teach character analysis to your students. Teachers will return to this first lesson whenever students need to sharpen their skills at studying book characters. We wouldn’t be surprised if they start analyzing characters on their own, as well as people they know in real life!


1. Teach students how to unwrap character traits to determine if they are friend or foe.

When students are very new to talking, writing, and thinking about characters, they tend to rely on plot and literal elements of characters. This lesson helps them begin to form nuanced opinions about characters and their relationships.

The interesting thing is that the more a student sees the complexity of a character, the less they think of people as having a single label. Understanding the complexity of peoples’ personalities is what helps students begin to empathize with others.

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2. Teach students how authors show their opinions about characters.

Authors of fiction develop storylines that guide readers to connect character action and behavior to their emotions. This helps children see that characters can have a wide range of emotions shared throughout a story. Storylines effectively help people relate to one another. The cool part about lesson two is that students begin to analyze why an author is telling a story in a certain way. Students will be taught to consider what the author’s opinion about the character might be based on how the story is told. This is high-level thinking at its best.

In this lesson, there are several ways to show students how to consider the concept of character opinions from sketching to interviews to finally, self-reflection.

With this introduction to analytical thinking, students will inevitably find the process of noticing a character’s psychological states fascinating.

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3. Teach students how to compare characters to each other.

This lesson is all about comparing characters from the same book. If we focus on only one character, we might miss the bigger story. It is the relationships between characters that tells the story.

In this lesson, we move towards considering how a student is thinking. The authors use real text from real students to showcase different kinds of thinking ranging from right-now thinking to over-time thinking. It’s awesome that they include student samples so you know what to look for when you teach your own students.

When we teach students to see similarities and differences in characters who appear to be very similar or very different, they begin to shift their initial reactions and open their thinking up to possibilities.

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There is so much to teach children throughout the year. But these authors boil every big picture lesson down to a framework you can use right now to make choices about what to teach each student next. They’ve taken a very complex piece of literacy and created digestible chunks that any teacher can use effectively. Each lesson builds on the previous lesson, but can also be used a stand-alone lesson. That way, they can be returned to whenever a student needs a reminder about the importance of studying book characters.