Characteristics of Fairy Tales

› Fairy Tales

What are the characteristics of fairy tales and how can teachers use them in the classroom?  Here is a detailed explanation plus a terrific unit on teaching tales from around the world.

A little girl dreaming about castles and characteristics of fairy tales
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Fairy tales have been around for thousands of years, beginning with oral traditions.  These fictional stories come from all cultures and many have their own versions of well-known tales in the English world.

Sometimes these tales are thought to have historical accuracy.  They come from a culture where certain elements were once believed to be real, such as ogres, witches and sprites.  


Fairy tales were originally told or written as much for adults as for children, but often they seem to have been used to teach a valuable lesson.  For example, the classic tale of Peter and the Wolf comes from Russia.  It was quite common for wolves to prowl the forests and many children did seem to simply "disappear."  They were likely eaten by wolves, so it was natural that the story had a wolf as the element of evil and was used to scare children into not going into the woods alone.

Many cultures use a variation of the wolf as the bad character in their fairy tales.  The American Southwest features a coyote, a crocodile is used in Asian stories and dragons may be found in old European tales.

The real versions of fairy tales can be quite frightening to read (Rumpelstiltskin rips his own leg off when he stomps through the floor in anger!), so they have often been rewritten to take out certain "unwholesome" references.  The Disney movies sometimes aren't much like the original versions, that's for sure!


What is a Fairy Tale, exactly?

A fairy tale is a story with magical elements.  It's actually quite difficult to define this type of literature as many of the characteristics cross over into fables and folklore.  But there are common characteristics of fairy tales share to a certain extent:

  • Set in the past
  • Use some form or variation of "Once upon a time"
  • Fantasy or make-believe elements
  • Enchanted setting - can include forests, castles, water or kingdoms
  • Clearly defined good and evil characters
  • Magical elements
  • Characters take on unusual forms (giants, witches, dwarfs, talking animals)
  • Groups of 3 (objects, people or events)
  • Clearly defined problem, climax and resolution
  • Most often they have a happy ending
  • Teach a lesson that is important to the culture it came from

Most importantly, fairy tales do NOT have to include a fairy!

How to Teach Using Fairy Tales

It is absolutely essential that a teacher read aloud many of these stories during the unit of study. They are part of an oral tradition and should be used as such.  I prefer to read the "original" tales over the more modern ones as I can tie in cultural elements and perspectives.

A suggested plan is detailed in my free download for teaching fairy tales (below), but here are the basic elements I follow:

  • Collect 15-20 different books to use as read alouds and put them out for browsing and re-reading
  • Use reciprocal teaching during the read alouds
  • Create an anchor chart for the characteristics of fairy tales as described above
  • Each child keeps a study journal that you can make from my download
  • Lots of opportunities for independent and buddy reading from multi-cultural versions of well-known tales (I introduce those only after reading aloud the original versions)

I have written this terrific free unit on using multicultural fairy tales in the classroom and am thrilled to give it to you!

All I ask is that you comment or share this page either on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.  Just scroll to the bottom of the page!

Thank you!



There are so many fairy tale versions you can include in your reading comprehension lessons. The most important thing, to me, is that the children become excited about the genre and take initiative in exploring .

This unit provides multiple opportunities for them to improve their fluency, prosody and ability to think deeply about the texts while developing meta-cognition.  I hope you love it too! 


Please comment or share!  Thank you very much!



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