Lesson Plan: Discover the Structure of Natural Narratives

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In this lesson, students will look closely at the unrehearsed stories that people tell each other every day ("natural narratives") and discover their underlying organization. Using the model for natural narratives created by linguist William Labov, students will break down a story told on film by a Finnish man, as well as natural narratives of their own, in order to identify the structure common to well-developed narratives. For more information on sociolinguistics and narrative analysis, please see the Resources section of this lesson.

The video clip used in this lesson is from the film Steam of Life, a documentary that features a collection of stories told by men in Finland as they meet in a traditional Finnish gathering place -- the sauna. Please note that the film is in Finnish with English subtitles. Also, the filmmaker's version of the documentary contains extensive nudity. If you would like to use the entire film in the classroom, consider recording the broadcast version or borrowing it from the POV lending library -- FOR FREE! Note: POV documentaries can be recorded off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from their initial broadcast. Get started by joining our Community Network.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Examine the sections that make up the common structure of well-developed natural narratives.
  • Break down two natural narratives into their component parts.
  • Infer how recognizing the underlying organization of everyday language might be useful.

9-12, College

Language Arts, Linguistics, Social Studies


  • Internet access and equipment to show the class online video
  • Audio or video recording devices (cell phones, cameras, etc.)
  • Handout: "Natural Narrative Analysis" (PDF)

One 50-minute class period

Clip 1: "An Elderly Man Tells of Love and Loss" (length 3:17)

Clip 2: "A Military Man Copes With His Mother's Death" (length 2:40)

Clip 3: "A Young Man Talks About His New Baby" (length 1:09)

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1. Display a set of personal narrative prompts and ask each student to select one prompt (or come up with his or her own) and orally tell a partner a story based on the chosen topic. Students should record the stories as they are told.

2. Give each student a Natural Narrative Analysis handout and explain that linguist William Labov closely studied the unrehearsed stories that people tell each other every day -- called "natural narratives" -- and identified six common elements that form the structures of well-developed narratives:

  • Abstract: An optional set-up for the story, such as, "I remember when my family went on vacation to the beach."
  • Orientation: The who, when, where and/or why of the story, such as, "My sister and I were walking along the shore and collecting shells."
  • Complicating Action: The plot of the story. "We saw a swimmer waving his hands in the air and calling out for help. A rip current was pulling him out to sea. We ran down the beach and alerted a lifeguard."
  • Resolution: What happened, in which the problem posed by the complicating action comes to a conclusion. "The lifeguard paddled out on his surfboard and rescued the swimmer."
  • Coda: Returns the listener back to the present. This is the storyteller saying that the story is over. "And we all lived happily ever after!"
  • Evaluation: Optional comments, made at any point in the story, that explain why the story is being told and why the events are notable, for example, "It's a good thing we were there or who knows what might have happened!"

3. Help students recognize these common elements of narratives by using Labov's model to break down both a story told on film by a Finnish man and one of the stories that students told their partners at the beginning of the lesson. First, show the video clip "An Elderly Man Tells of Love and Loss" (length 3:17). Focus student viewing by asking students to listen carefully to see if they can recognize any parts of Labov's model in the man's narrative.

4. After the class has watched the video, guide the class through Analysis #1 on the handout. (Answers for Part A: Orientation, Complicating Action, Resolution. For Part B: Orientation, Complicating Action, Resolution, Coda.)

5. For Analysis #2, have students transcribe the stories they recorded earlier and work with their partners to break down and label the parts of their narratives as they did for the Finnish man's story in Analysis #1.

6. Invite a few pairs to share their analyses with the class. Then, conclude the lesson by asking students to respond to the questions at the bottom of the handout.

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Watch additional excerpts from the film Steam of Life and contemplate the importance of "safe spaces." Set up the clips by first telling students that sitting in a sauna has been part of Finland's culture for centuries. Because saunas in Finland are typically taken in the nude, men and women usually use separate saunas. Explain that the class will be watching two video clips of men talking to each other while sitting in a sauna or cooling down afterwards. Focus student viewing by having them identify the types of topics that the men in the clips choose to discuss. After watching the two video clips, point out that these men allow themselves moments of vulnerability in the sauna. Then, ask students to journal about places where they feel "safe" emotionally and can allow themselves to share deep feelings. Are such safe spaces an important part of emotional health? Why or why not?

2. Perform broader analysis of natural narratives. Have students select stories from the StoryCorps archive or collect stories of their own from others at the school, members of their families or people in the community. Students should then repeat the analysis from the main lesson activity with these narratives. Document the class project using a blog, wiki or other online tool.

Transform natural narratives into literary stories. Read a blog post about natural narratives versus literature and discuss with the class what the article describes as the four distinct differences between the two narrative forms. Then, have students work within that framework to convert their natural narratives into literary narratives.

Analyze the sounds of storytelling. Import recordings of student stories from the lesson to a computer and use Audacity, iMovie or other software to analyze the waveforms of the narratives. Does the storyteller's pitch differ from one of the identified segments of a narrative to another? When comparing the waveforms of several narratives side by side, do any patterns emerge? What implications could these findings have on producing computer-generated audio stories that sound "natural"? Students should summarize their analysis in a report.

Take a closer look at the sauna ritual featured in the film Steam of Life. In small groups, view the photo gallery and read the excerpt on the POV website from the book The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition. Compare and contrast sauna traditions in the United States and Finland. Then, have students use the instructions in the article "How to Turn Your Bathroom Into a Sauna" to try the sauna experience for themselves and then journal about why they think the sauna ritual has endured.

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A Sociolinguistic Model of Narrative
This explanation of Labov's narrative model includes a useful table that summarizes each part of the model, the question it addresses, its narrative function and its linguistic form.

University of Pennsylvania. "Natural Narratives of Ordinary Experience"
This breakdown of natural narratives provides additional examples and detail about the parts of Labov's model, especially the different ways that "evaluation" can be expressed.

University of Pennsylvania. "Oral Narratives of Personal Experience."
Labov discusses approaches to narrative analysis.

These standards are drawn from Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

SL, 9-10, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on [grade-appropriate] topics, text and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

W.9-10, 11-12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.


These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning)

Arts and Communication

Standard 4: Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication.


Standard 10: Understands the nature and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.

Language Arts

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 3: Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.