What's the secret to successful writing instruction?
A. Know what your students can do.
B. Know what you want your students to be able to do.
C. Develop a plan to get from A to B.
When my students enter fourth grade, they know how to write sentences and paragraphs. They can write simple stories and nonfiction pieces. When they leave fourth grade, I want them to be able to write effective multi-paragraph narratives using figurative language and dialogue, five-paragraph persuasive essays, and multi-page research papers.
Okay, now comes the hard part. How will I move them from Point A to Point B? I have a plan!
Today we'll focus on narrative writing, which I teach during the first nine to twelve weeks of the school year.
- Teaching Figurative Language - The first order of business is teaching my students about similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification, and hyperbole. I introduce each type of figurative language with some cute poems from Super Teacher Worksheets then give them some practice with Figurative Language is Reading Candy by Lovin' Lit.
- Exploring Figurative Language in Narrative Writing - During these first few weeks of school, we read Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling. This Caldecott winner is chalk-full of figurative language (and it ties in beautifully with our Great Lakes unit).
- Exploring Description in Narrative Writing - To further explore description in narrative writing, we pulled a few excerpts from our next novel, The Black Stallion. The text and questions below, for example, helped students understand that a few well-chosen words can paint a clear picture in a reader's head.
- Developing Strategies for Narrative Writing - As we geared up for our first simple narrative and continued to more difficult pieces, I encouraged students to "act like a movie director." First, they played the story in their heads. Second, they "cut to the guts" of the story by focusing on the compelling part and ruthlessly cutting unnecessary details. Over the course of time, the following criteria were introduced and practiced.
- Starting with Something Simple: The Fable - Students' first attempts showed me that they had forgotten how to break their writing into paragraphs and that they were unsure about how to use dialogue. I purposely placed our folklore unit at this point in the year, beginning with the simplest form of all, fables. After reading and analyzing some of Aesop's fables, they were ready to write their own. Planning and writing were simple and straightforward. We focused on plot (beginning, middle, and end), characters (animals that exhibit certain human traits), and word choice.
- Teaching Dialogue - Before they could begin writing, they needed direct instruction on writing dialogue. I used a PowerPoint presentation to teach the concept then added lots of practice.
- Using Models: Rudyard Kipling - We continued our study of fables with Kipling's Just So Stories. His lively, repetitive writing style contrasted sharply with the simple prose of Aesop. After reading "How the Camel Got His Hump," "The Beginning of Armadillos," and "The Elephant's Child," the students revved up their engines and wrote their own Just So stories. The focus of instruction shifted to voice. We worked on establishing the narrator's and characters' voices. With high quality models and the right tools, you wouldn't believe how these kids could write!
- More Narrative Writing - As a culmination of this unit, students wrote several personal narratives. They had come a long way as writers!
Here's a quick review of what works for me when teaching narrative writing:
- Teach figurative language.
- Use high quality literature as models for writing; establish a reading-writing link.
- Develop and share a list of strategies/criteria for effective narrative writing.
- Teach students how to write dialogue.
- Start with simple narratives, add strategies and development with each piece.
- Continue writing narratives throughout the year.
This post provides a broad overview of instruction of narrative writing. In a few days, I'll discuss the nuances to improving student writing.