Creative Writing in the Early Elementary Grades

A project that incorporates both standard and creative elements of storytelling can help young learners strengthen their literacy skills.

June 4, 2024
Courtesy of Bianca Starck

What can creative writing look, feel, and sound like in a first grade classroom? How can creative writing become a joyful and meaningful learning experience, and how can we educators facilitate the creative process and allow young writers to use their imagination when writing?

Graphic organizers, mind maps, and storyboards are certainly great tools for narrative building and planning, but they do not necessarily scaffold the creative process that story writing requires. In reality, they might even restrict students’ creativity while they “box” ideas in predetermined templates. This year, in my class, going play-based and hands-on has turned out to be a tremendous success.

Examining Elements of Creative Writing in First Grade 

For this particular unit, my first grade students were examining literature and storytelling. After they had enjoyed several read-alouds, explored story elements, and studied the story mountain (beginning, rising action, conflict, resolution, and ending) as a team, it was time for them to write their very own stories. 

They kicked off by creating their main character and decided on the character’s appearance, personality, likes, and dislikes. They also had the choice to play the main character role in the story. In both cases, while still brainstorming, it was time for action: They drew and decorated their characters with markers and pencils, cut them out, and used a Popsicle stick to make a puppet.

They became even more motivated to continue as they saw their characters come to life. My students spontaneously started interacting with each other and their puppets—creating stories and being imaginative—they went right into storytelling mode. This created the perfect opportunity for me to step back and observe my students’ initiative, creativity, and social and communication skills, not to mention their sense of accomplishment and joy. 

Adding Artful Components to the Story

After they had engaged with their characters and interacted with others, it was time for the young writers to further develop their stories and think of a scenario leading to the rising action and resolution. This was the point when loose parts played a crucial role in the storytelling process. Counters, pipe cleaners, bits of paper, pebbles, dice, and buttons became houses, trees, magic wands, you name it. These bits and bobs from around the classroom became a valuable, zero-cost resource. 

While students actively arranged and rearranged their chosen loose parts, they wondered about what would happen next in their stories. Unexpectedly, some students chose to collaborate and co-created stories by joining their imagination and characters in one story. In this step of the creative process, the use of loose parts was truly empowering: Before jotting anything down in their notebooks, my students physically, mentally, and verbally constructed their narratives and shared them with their partners. 

Turning Ideas Into Words

With the mental representation of their narratives ready, it was all a matter of scribing their ideas. For that, we followed our usual class routines and resources such as word banks, sentence starters, and buddy support. All my students were engaged and confident, and when struggling with ideas, they resorted to loose parts again. As my first grade is a multicultural classroom, some of my students needed language support. However, with all of them hooked on their stories, supporting those who needed help with vocabulary, sentence construction, and spelling was simplified. 

I conferred with students individually and in small groups to understand their thinking and offered feedback on paragraphing and some word choice. Instead of using notebooks for their first drafts, they chose to use mini-boards, which motivated them even more and supported them to make quick adjustments to their narratives. Finally, after receiving feedback, they moved on to writing their final drafts and designing their covers in order to turn their stories into books. Each student took their book home to share it with their family after reading it with the class.

Sharing Stories and Making Memorable Learning Experiences

What good is a book if it isn’t read and enjoyed? Buddy reading was the last step of the process but certainly not the least exciting. My students read aloud to each other, commenting on their favorite bits of the story and appreciating the illustrations. The whole project, from getting their characters ready to publishing and reading their books, took around five hours divided into five days. 

When reflecting on the writing process, my students said that what they appreciated the most was the making of their puppets and illustrating their stories, highlighting the importance of integrating arts and writing. When asked about what was challenging, they replied that it was creating all the parts of the story mountain. However, they all said that using loose parts was a helpful strategy that they would use again—which they spontaneously have done in subsequent writing engagements. Lastly, when asked how they felt, some of the words they used were “proud,” “good,” and “joyful!”

A recent UNESCO report on the importance of happiness in learning refers to neuroscience research that proves our affective and cognitive domains are interconnected and interdependent. Therefore, emotions do affect learning! Joy is not a trade-off for academic achievement. Creating positive learning experiences makes learning stick.

Very often, students fear and avoid writing as a consequence of previous negative writing experiences. Combining art and a play-based approach to creative writing in first grade can set students on a path to success by building on their confidence, creativity, imagination, and sense of accomplishment. I have witnessed that the integration of art and writing has helped my students discover how writing can be a joyful and memorable experience where they can all be amazing storytellers and writers.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • Creativity
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary

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