Writing and reading narratives are staples in schools. Teachers start teaching them in kindergarten, and students write short narratives as early as first grade. So, what is narrative writing, and how can I help my child learn to write narratives?
Narrative writing is basically telling stories. Narratives can be purely fictional stories or autobiographical. Some narratives are about historical events, like historical fiction, telling the story from a character’s perspective.
Narratives can dramatize and explain events. Narratives include factual information but should not be confused with informational writing. Informational writing contains citations and is much more formal, whereas a narrative is less formal.
Now that we know what and why narratives are popular, how can we help our child develop the skills to write narrative essays?
Begin by reading narratives with your child
I read autobiographies and biographies about the same person to help students analyze stories. It is always interesting to compare what a person includes or excludes in an autobiography with a biography.
Students can learn much about the author’s point of view, the contradictions in personal narratives, and biographical material. Reading narratives provide the model for writing narratives. For young readers, short stories are best.
As your child becomes more proficient in reading, longer texts such as chapter books or historical fiction introduce the concept of structuring a written narrative.
Start with something simple
One way to begin a narrative writing assignment is to have students start by writing a letter – not an email or text – a genuine letter to someone. Have your students begin by picking a person they want to communicate with. Then, write the letter – not type on the computer – actually hand-write the letter on an actual sheet of paper.
I know many people think a pencil or pen is unnecessary in the modern age – a useless gadget like a VCR. It’s so much easier and faster to use a computer. In the future, no one will write anything by hand.
They are wrong. Easier is not always beneficial to learning. A summary of scientific literature on the subject concludes there is more benefit (at any age) to manually writing than typing on a computer.
The consensus of scientific research is that the brain in adults and children is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard. The low-tech ten-for-a-dollar graphite pencil is better for learning how to write than the thousand-dollar laptop.
Start with an experience or something your child is familiar with
Good writing comes from familiarity with the subject. It’s much easier to produce writing about something you know or a topic you love. One of my pet peeves is when a teacher teaches all the skills needed to write a narrative and assigns a topic.
Then, the teacher expects the students to produce perfect narrative writing on a topic they have no interest in or experience. Let me provide an example.
In a state-required writing assessment I administered for 5th-grade students one year, the topic was “Write a story about a pink elephant on a t-shirt that comes to life.” When we got the scores back from the state, they were not very good.
In the follow-up meeting with state officials, who tried to blame instructional practices and teachers for the poor scores, I asked them to explain why they thought the topic would stimulate a kid to write. You can’t expect a student to write about a topic that doesn’t make sense.
In the early stages of developing writers, young students should generate topics they are interested in. There is plenty of time between K and 12th grade to assign topics. Teachers should encourage creativity and not just assess technical components in the early years.
Use a graphic organizer
Graphic organizers can be helpful. Good writers, even professionals who write several weekly articles, use graphic organizers or templates to guide them. Students will want to try several graphic organizers or develop their own before settling on one that works for them.
Here is a fun technique I use for my students. I give my students a graphic organizer with a large rectangular box in the middle. I tell my students to write the ending paragraph or the conclusion first.
Then, I will give them a graphic organizer with the middle and introduction. Students will write and develop the narrative around the ending first.
Starting with an end in mind helps you to think through the steps to get there. My engineering friends call this backward design! They take apart or deconstruct a product to determine how it’s made.
Then, they reassemble the parts, looking for a better way to make the product. Writing can be backward designed.
Use a relevant model
To help students, I will ask them to watch short video clips and explain what they saw or heard in a class discussion. We create a chart with the essential parts of what they saw.
For instance, the actions, conversations, location, and other elements that make a video captivating.
Sometimes, if the scene occurs somewhere familiar to a student, they can describe the smells and background sounds. Using photographs or artwork can achieve the same goal as having your students use sensory language.
The idea is to make the narrative seem natural. We need familiar things that we can sense. These things include bells, traffic, music, fried food smells, bright colors, weather, and more. These things should come from real life events.
A word about technical stuff
I know the grammar police read blogs and articles about writing narratives. The grammar police want everyone to be as excited as they are about sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, and all the other grammar rules. And, as a teacher/writer, I don’t want to leave the impression that grammar stuff is unimportant. It is.
However, teachers should not sacrifice creativity and modeling the love of writing over a missing comma, a dangling modifier, or some other inane grammar rule. Kids like to write. What they don’t like is when adults focus more on the technical than the creative.
Given this is the 21st century and grammar check on word-processing software is pretty much a thing, there is plenty of time in the revising and editing stages to correct grammatical errors before the final published versions.
I have witnessed too many times a kid with a rush of excitement sharing a story only to be crushed by an adult who begins criticizing the punctuation without reading the story. Getting your kids to love writing (reading or any subject) is challenging if you start by killing creativity.
Revise, edit, and repeat
Enough can not be said about revising and editing. Begin a narrative by writing the content of what you want to say. If you are using a computer, turn off the grammar check. Get the thoughts down first.
Editing and revising is a technical exercise, as we discussed earlier. Students should concentrate on sharing the story first without the encumbrance and annoying redlines and pop-up windows that grammar programs have. It’s too easy to lose the thought when managing editing while writing.
Do yourself a favor. Disconnect the editing features until you have a story. Good writers are like runners. If you want to run a 5K, the best training routine is not to have someone telling you how to run it or running the 5K for you.
The best way to learn is to do it. Grammar features tell you how to do it and do it for you. You can’t get better without practice and writing.
Narrative writing requires discipline – in many ways, more than research or information writing. Part of an informational piece is pre-determined by the recitation of the facts.
Narrative writing requires you to use your imagination. Brainstorming off-the-wall ideas is one way to get your imagination clicking and in high gear.
Just write, and write some more. Write until your hand cramps! Not really, but you get the idea.
The first draft doesn’t always make complete sense. The end product will be great when you revise, edit, and repeat. Once you have a story, then turn on the grammar software.
The final word
The science is unclear as to whether good readers make good writers or good writers make good readers. There is definately a direct correlation between the two. If you want to improve your writing and reading comprehension, then narrative writing or reading is the route to improvement. So, start simple, let the kids choose the topic, encourage creativity, go low-tech, and celebrate the results!
-Contributed by Doug Carroll Ed.D