CommonLit Elementary Texts About Natural Disasters

A student sitting and raising his hand.

This engaging multi-genre set of texts supports literacy and builds students’ knowledge on an important STEM topic.

No matter if your students live in the mountains, on the coast, or in the middle of Tornado Alley, it’s important for them to read and learn about the wide variety of our earth’s naturally occurring hazards and disasters. Studying this topic informs students of safety precautions, promotes empathy and global citizenship, and may even inspire the pursuit of STEM careers.

Here’s a great list of texts from CommonLit, perfect for elementary grades, that focus on natural hazards and disasters. This diverse list includes fiction, narrative nonfiction, an informational text, and a poem.

Black Blizzard” by Maurine V. Eleder

This suspenseful story follows two young girls, at home alone, when a dust storm arises. Despite their young age, Betty and Mary Ann quickly take action when the severe dust storm hits. They begin taking measures to block the dust from coming into the house, which would make the air unbreathable. Although they are frightened, they take comfort thinking they can just wait out the storm inside their home.

Unfortunately, Betty realizes her beloved horse is caught out in the “black blizzard.” One wrong move in the blinding storm, and Fancifoot could stumble and injure himself — or worse. Betty faces the difficult decision of leaving her younger sister to brave the storm or risking Fancifoot’s life to remain in safety.

This story explores the themes of self-reliance, survival, and the bonds humans share with animals. Teachers could use this text to teach the history of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or to teach the science behind the causes and effects of soil erosion. CommonLit’s teacher resources include awesome videos for background information on the Dust Bowl in the Related Media tab as well as a perfect informational text titled “The Dust Bowl” in the Paired Texts tab.

The CommonLit lesson "Black Blizzard."
Black Blizzard” is an engaging short story appropriate for upper elementary grades.

Tornado Coming!” by Dick Donley

If your students love the nail-biting tale “Black Blizzard,” they’ll love “Tornado Coming!” as well. Because this story includes a tornado, a young kid, a small dog, and a cranky neighbor, you might be reminded of another tale you’ve read before. However, there are no talking scarecrows or flying monkeys in this story!

Matt is home alone with Buster when he hears the siren warning of a tornado. Mentally ticking through the safety tips he learned in school, Matt heads for the storm cellar with the tornado forming at his back. With only moments to spare, Matt realizes he must leave his little dog in the safety of the storm cellar to run to the aid of his unpleasant neighbor, Mrs. Laney. After the storm passes, Matt doesn’t wake up to find himself in Oz; however, he does find himself in a pretty odd place. And like Dorothy and her crew, Matt and Mrs. Laney learn valuable lessons about being kind and caring for others.

This text weaves helpful tornado safety measures throughout a narrative story, which can be pointed out when discussing the annotation task: “Take notes on Matt’s actions when he realizes a tornado is coming.” For a creative follow-up activity, teachers could assign different natural disasters to small groups for research. Then, groups could use their research and the model text “Tornado Coming!” to incorporate safety tips within their own short stories about their assigned natural disaster.

The CommonLit lesson "Tornado Coming!"
CommonLit digital lessons allow students to highlight or type notes as they read, while teachers can view and comment on these student annotations.

They Need Fire!” by Buffy Silverman

You may already know that forest fires can be natural or man-made, but did you know that not all forest fires are considered disasters? Some forest fires can be devastating, but others can be planned and controlled safely to benefit the ecology.

“They Need Fire!” introduces the reader to several plant, insect, and animal species that rely on forest fires to survive. When reading this text, you’ll encounter the Jack pine tree whose cones can only release seeds after a fire has melted away the resin, the black fire beetle who lays its eggs in the charred bark of smoldering trees, and the black-backed woodpecker whose feathers allow it to blend in with sooty wood and make burnt trees its home.

For your mini-scientists, this text is a great introduction to the wide and varied habitats surrounding us and can be paired with “Life in a Vernal Pool” for an example of a wetter habitat. And for your students interested in future STEM careers, you can point out how people are studying the Black fire beetle to help engineer better fire alarms, or you can have students read “Eyes in the Sky” to find out what it takes to be a professional fire watcher.

The Paired Texts tab for the CommonLit lesson "They Need Fire!"
Teachers have access to paired texts for every CommonLit lesson; each title comes with a synopsis and suggestions for questions that connect both texts.

Tsunami” by JonArno Lawson

This short but beautiful poem perfectly describes the contrast of the silent, and sometimes unpredicted, approach of a Tsunami with its powerful, destructive arrival on shore. Being only ten short lines, it also presents a wonderful teaching opportunity to show kids that multiple readings of a poem — sometimes with different purposes or from different perspectives — can provide different meanings to the reader.

If you are using this text in your classroom, you may consider first projecting the poem to the whole class and reading it aloud to your students. Students can then jot down their ideas of how the poem makes them feel and what they think it means. Then, you may choose to assign the text digitally with Guided Reading Mode enabled for all students. This will help students look at the poem in two parts–contrasting how the tsunami travels in the ocean with how it rushes onto the shore. Students will be better equipped to tackle the assessment questions after reading this poem using Guided Reading Mode.

Lastly, teachers may want to show students the National Geographic video in the Related Media tab titled “Rare Video: Japan Tsunami.” While students may be fascinated with the power of this tsunami as it rolls through the streets of a coastal town, the power of this 3-minute video starts around the half-way mark. Students will then see the stark difference in how the wave moves in deeper water as opposed to how it approaches the shore. Having students re-read the poem one more time and reflect to drive home the concept of layered meaning and experiences in poetry.

The Student Preview for the CommonLit lesson "Tsunami." Guided Reading Mode is enabled, so part of the text is blurred.
Teachers can enable Guided Reading Mode for individual students or whole classes; click here to learn more.

Stop the Atlantic Express!” by Kate Sharp and Sarvinder Naberhaus

“Stop the Atlantic Express!” tells the true story of fifteen-year-old Kate Shelley who bravely risked her own life to save the lives of countless others. In July of 1881, a severe storm created a flash flood that washed out a portion of a railroad bridge, pushing one train engine into the rising creek. Kate Shelley, a young girl who lived nearby, knew that if she did not warn others, a train with hundreds of passengers traveling the same route would crash. To get help and stop the Atlantic Express, Kate faced great danger to cross the flooded rail bridge in the dark of night.

This suspenseful story will thrill the action-seekers in your class, and its heartwarming ending will leave everyone cheering. To show students how art can be inspired by real life events, consider sharing the video “Run, Kate Shelley, Run,” which includes a folk song written to immortalize Kate’s heroic action. And to show your students that anyone can be a hero, watch and discuss the ideas in Kid President’s video. Both resources can be found in the Related Media tab accompanying this text.

The Related Media tab for the CommonLit lesson "Stop the Atlantic Express!"
Teachers also have access to Related Media for every CommonLit lesson; these can come in the form of short video clips, podcasts, photographs, websites, and more.

Next Steps

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