Teaching Cause and Effect Relationships and Plot

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Class was going well. I was using one of my lesson plans for teaching plot. Bobby Goldman raised his hand and asked, “Why do we have to learn this? Who cares? Why are you even teaching cause and effect relationship? What’s it matter?”

I should have explained how teaching cause and effect relationships helped students make sense of the world, of literature, and developed critical thinking skills. I should have just moved on to another one of my lesson plans for teaching plot. Instead, I said, “Class, I will show you an example of cause and effect. The cause is Bobby’s stupid questions. The effect is my foot up his—-!”

I was fired the next day.

Review the Basics

Review the basics before moving on to cause and effect:

  • Plot refers to a chain of related events.
  • Exposition lays the groundwork for the plot.
  • Setting is time and place.
  • Rising action involves complications and difficulties.
  • Climax is the high point of suspense.
  • The falling action is anything that occurs as a result of the climax.
  • Denouement is wrapping everything up.
  • Conflict is a struggle between two opposing forces. A story’s plot revolves around one of the following conflict types:
    • individual vs. self - Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House struggles with whether or not to tell her husband the truth.
    • individual vs. individual - Rocky Balboa fights Apollo Creed in Rocky II.
    • individual vs. nature - A frontiersman battles freezing temperatures as he struggles to build a fire.
    • individual vs. supernatural: Odysseus battles a one-eyed freak.
    • individual vs. society: Frederick Douglass fights for equality in a society that considers him inferior.

Make sure students understand the above definitions before moving on. You may want to have them complete a Freitag’s pyramid or some other graphic to make sure they understand the basics of plot.

Understanding Chronology

Teaching plot involves helping students to link ideas within texts, a skill that can be used in fiction and nonfiction. The obvious link is chronology:

  • Chronological order, or time order, is the sequence in which events occur.
  • In non fiction, look for clues that indicate a shift in time: before, during, after, until, then, next.
  • Inform students that chronological order in fiction can be interrupted by flashbacks to provide background information. Frame stories (Frankenstein, Canterbury Tales, Lord Jim) are made up entirely of flashbacks.

Procedure for Teaching:

The easiest lesson plan for teaching chronology is using a simple graphic organizer consisting of boxes with one arrow pointing to the next box. For some reason students are more likely to write events inside of five boxes connected with arrows than they are to make a list of five major events (one of many teaching mysteries to which I have no answer).

  1. Review Plot Basics.
  2. Read Story.
  3. Fill in Boxes.

Teaching Cause and Effect Relationships

Teaching chronological links is the first step in teaching plot. Teaching cause and effect links adds an element of critical thinking.

  • A cause is an action or event that results in another action or event. The direct outcome of the action is the effect. Millions of readers remain confused because they do not comprehend cause and effect relationships. These are the same people who can’t figure out why their life is spinning out of control, why they can’t hold down a job, and why they are ruined financially. So if you don’t teach this well, your students will live a life of misery, poverty, and stupidity (no pressure).
  • Many nonfiction works follow a cause and effect organizational structure. Look for indicators–because, as a result, since, therefore.
  • In fiction, cause and effect helps readers understand character motivation and why things happen the way they do.

Procedures for Teaching:

Students refuse to list causes and effects, but if you make them draw circles labeled cause with arrows pointing to boxes labeled effects, they’ll think you’re the greatest teacher ever and that you deserve your own Caribbean Island.

  1. Discuss the above information.
  2. Read a story.
  3. Fill in boxes and circles and connect with arrows.
  4. Write a short paragraph analyzing cause and effect. Remember to write a topic sentence with supporting details.


  • Teaching experience.

This post is part of the series: Improve Reading Comprehension in Your Students

Help students understand what they read with these teaching ideas.

  1. Making Judgments Mini Lessons to Rely On
  2. Have Your Class Write Annotations: Teacher Tips
  3. Students Use Critical Thinking to Analyze Character Goals
  4. Strategies to Teach Myths and Legends to High School Students
  5. Strategies to Teach Plot Better