A Systematic Approach to Teaching Narrative Writing

Clear strategies for each stage of the writing process help students improve their writing and serve as effective readers for their peers.

January 11, 2022
Allison Shelley / American Education

“I’ll never forget the colors,” I often read in student reflections.

As a middle school language arts teacher, I’ve developed a systematic approach to writing that helps students improve their storytelling skills. It includes strategies for writing in a variety of genres, such as personal narrative, memoir, and creative nonfiction. And in the revision stage I teach a color-coded approach to analyzing details that helps students see clearly what kinds of details they’ve used—and which they haven’t. Apparently this approach really sticks with my students.

When these strategies are used together, they help students improve their writing skills while also fostering relationships among themselves as they act as sounding boards for each other’s work.

Prewriting Q&A as a Source of New Ideas

Prewriting is an essential part of the writing process. If ideas aren’t flowing, however, some students may become stalled, with a lack of ideas acting as a roadblock for them. To get the ball rolling, I pair students together for prewriting conversations.

To begin, I share one of my own stories to demonstrate the art of storytelling. Next, I give students the opportunity to discuss their own story ideas with a partner. Then, as I walk around listening to their conversations, I’ll pause every now and then and ask a few students whose ideas piqued my interest to share their story ideas aloud with the entire group.

Next, I’ll demonstrate asking a series of questions to the student who is sharing aloud, explaining to the class that this strategy can help them dive deeper as writers. Students will continue their discussions in pairs, eliciting as many details as possible from the storyteller through questioning.

They might ask:

  • “How was the narrator feeling at that moment?”
  • “What would happen if…”
  • “Can you help me picture the character?”

This type of thoughtful questioning helps students visualize the scene more vividly and replaces initial writing jitters with fun and flexibility.

They jot down their ideas with words, pictures, bullets, or anything else that helps them solidify the memories from their spoken stories now that they are ready to prewrite independently.

To See What You’re Writing, Act It Out

Instead of summarizing a whole story from beginning to end, I want students to create a writing piece based on a brief period that includes vivid detail. I’ve found that having students act out a scene helps them grasp this concept. 

First, I’ll have students read aloud a few pages from our class book. Then, in small groups, they’ll act out the scene. “Now that you’ve acted it out, how long do you think this moment would have taken in real life?” I’ll ask. There will be a friendly debate. In the end, students will realize that the scene was a moment of time told with meaningful details, whether they said it took 30 seconds or 10 minutes.

Students then deconstruct the scene they just acted out by creating a timeline of key character actions. For example, using pages 9–10 of The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, the scene breakdown might look like this:

  1. At age 3, Jeannette is standing on a chair cooking hot dogs in the kitchenette and feeding them to her dog.
  2. Her dress catches on fire, sending flames up her body.
  3. Jeannette’s mom, painting in the next room, hears her scream and enters the kitchen.
  4. Mom uses an army surplus blanket to put the fire out.
  5. Mom, Jeannette, and brother Brian run to the neighbor’s house to get help.
  6. The neighbor drops her laundry she was hanging on the line and races to take them to the hospital, saying nothing.

Students will then work independently to apply the same strategy to their own ideas, focusing on showing rather than telling the entire story. Students will share their lists with their groups and then act out each other’s ideas.

The following conversation suggestions help students clarify and solidify their ideas.

Beginning, ending, and timing: Where does the heart of this moment start? Where does it end? When one student describes a moment that feels excessively long, the rest of the group suggests methods to shorten it. If a student has a moment that is too short, the group helps to extend it.

Characters: What is each character doing? What’s their motivation? What do they look like? How are they acting?

Setting: Where and when is this taking place? What’s going on around your characters?

Dialogue: What’s being said, how, and by whom?

Internal thinking: What are the characters thinking?

Students are now ready to move on to independent writing and complete a full draft.

Color-Coding Writing as a Detail-Oriented Strategy

Following the drafting phase, I teach students a variety of revising techniques. Every day I introduce a new one—and they’re color-coded to make it easier for students to distinguish between them. We might, for example, focus on character details one day. First, students will find vivid character descriptions they love from the read-aloud or their own independent reading. Then, they’ll add their own character descriptions to their writing, highlighting them in a particular color.

I encourage students to incorporate each color throughout their drafts. If character details are represented by blue, for example, blue highlighting should be used in the beginning, middle, and end of their pieces. Other color-coded strategies include setting details, figurative language, sensory details, dialogue, and internal thinking.

The use of assorted colors allows students to clearly see areas that have been enriched with vivid details and areas that have not. This visual strategy benefits learners of all levels by instilling confidence and a sense of accomplishment as rainbows of color emerge throughout their work.

This color-coding approach also aids in peer editing and teacher conferencing by encouraging meaningful conversations like this: “I see you’ve developed thoughtfully crafted blues in the beginning to describe the Mom character. How can you assist readers in picturing and getting to know your other characters? How can you incorporate more blues later to describe them?”

To showcase daily accomplishments, students add their favorite highlighted lines to the classroom bulletin boards. While students could easily copy and paste their examples into a shared class Google Doc, I’ve found that they’re more engaged when there’s movement and camaraderie, and they like having their words physically present in the classroom.

Recently I taped a piece of bulletin board paper for students to write on in the front of the classroom and another in the back. A student was waiting patiently for others to finish at the front. I encouraged him to go write his favorite line in the back since there was no wait and it offered more space to write.

“No thanks,” he chirped. “I want everyone to see mine when they walk into the room.”

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  • Literacy
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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