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Teach Narrative Essay Writing

Just write about a small moment from your life. Include enough details, but not too many. Don’t forget transition words! And you better make it interesting. You have 30 minutes. Go.

After hours of mini-lessons, anchor charts, and extensive modeling, I imagine that these words are all that echo through my third graders' minds when the time comes to write a personal narrative. I'm sure I'm not the only teacher who has seen children on the verge of tears because they don’t know how to get started on their writing or what to include once they do. These may be reluctant writers or even perfectionists afraid that their story won’t be good enough. There are also those students whose stories include every minute detail they can remember as they create a narrative that seems to go on forever without any real focus. To help out these students, along with all the others, I use a few different graphic organizers that have made a world of difference to my young writers. This week I'm happy to share with you some of the tools I use to help make planning and writing narratives that are focused, sequential, and interesting a bit easier for my students. 


Generating Ideas

Each year my students create an authority list in their writer’s notebooks, an idea that came from a writing program we use. This list is supposed to include areas of expertise for the students that they could readily write about. As you can imagine, when you are eight years old, there are not a whole lot of things you consider yourself an authority on, and many of my students never really seem to make a connection with their list. Therefore, I decided to have my students create an additional organizer in their notebooks called The Heart of My Writing. Each student draws a heart, then divides it into sections based on what matters most to them — family, hobbies, friends, special events, and more. I find this is the graphic organizer my students turn to first when they are looking for an idea. Many students leave blank spots on their hearts so they can fill them in as the year goes on. 


Prewriting Using Graphic Organizers

I’ve discovered the key to helping my students write a narrative that tells an interesting, sequential story is using graphic organizers for planning. While I use several different organizers, there are three I created that are especially popular with my students. The organizers allow students to establish their purpose and effectively plan how their story will unfold. 

The following graphic organizer is made for legal-sized paper. My more proficient writers tend to prefer this organizer because it gives them more room to expand upon their ideas. 



Mini Anchor Charts

Whenever I create anchor charts with my class during our mini-lessons, I have my students create versions of the chart in their writer's notebooks. I have noticed that when the mini-charts are right there at their fingertips, they tend to be used more frequently.  


Graphic Organizers I Use for Character Development

When we focus on character development, my students use these graphic organizers in both their writing and reading. Read more about how I use them in my post, "Bringing Characters to Life in Writer's Workshop." Click on each image to download the free printable. 



Scholastic Printables for Personal Narratives

Click on the images below to download a free printable. 

Other Great Resources for Narrative Writing

Alycia Zimmerman's post, "Using Mentor Text to Empower Student Authors," is a must-read for your narrative unit. Her guidance on using mentor text has improved my teaching, as well as my students' understanding of the personal narrative immensely. 


Beth Newingham's tips for writing leads (and a lot more!) in "My January Top Ten List: Writing Lessons and Resources," are an invaluable resource to any writing program.


Julie Ballew's "Planning Small Moment Stories" shows a developmentally appropriate approach to narrative writing for young authors. 


Hopefully you have found a few ideas to make narrative writing easier for your students. If you have a tip for writing narratives or you would like to comment or ask a question, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below. For more tips you can subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter or Pinterest.



Common Core State Standards for Writing 

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3a Establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3b Use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3c Use temporal words and phrases to signal event order.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3d Provide a sense of closure.

Professional Resources You May Like


What Ms. Qaddour Did and Why, in Her Own Words:

The academic writing courses I teach incorporate a variety of writing genres that students generally embrace, but narrative writing poses a unique challenge. While my students have extensive exposure to literary works both in their native language and in English, they can sometimes panic when I ask them to write using narrative elements based on their own experiences. The more I speak about using creativity in a task, the more their confidence seems to be undermined.

To address these issues, I use the podcasts from the Modern Love column to model a variety of narrative writing techniques and story elements found in good narratives. I find that the episodes serve as an engaging method of storytelling, the scope is not limited, and the themes are universal. Despite the title “Modern Love,” readers and listeners encounter real-life stories that are not all about romantic love.

I prepare students for their writing assignments by giving them models of good writing in the same genre, and I share a rubric that helps make my expectations clear. Models also help students avoid becoming anxious when it’s time to start writing. Instead of presenting students with examples of written narratives on which they might model their own, I use the podcasts, particularly those that emphasize narration and voice. (The written column still serves as an excellent model if the podcast is difficult to access.)

A podcast like Modern Love ensures students are presented with authentic narrative material; the oral format is also likely to elicit more engagement than a written piece, especially when the listening task is paired with a follow-up discussion (detailed below). Following a discussion, students make personal connections with the experiences shared in the podcast and analyze character, “plot” development, and universal themes. In return, they feel a greater sense of confidence in applying this format to their own writing in the form of a developed plot and characters.

Process and Procedure

Using Modern Love Podcasts to Prepare Students to Write Narratives

Students are expected to listen to two or three episodes of Modern Love. Some episodes I recommend are “Between the Bars,” “A Heart Outrun” and “Out of the Darkness.” While listening, they should take note of the following for each episode:

a. What is the setting of the story?

b. What is significant about the narrator’s experience? Did the narrator immigrate, lose a loved one, etc.?

c. What is the conflict in the narrative?

d. Who are some additional “characters” in the narrative?

e. Was there a resolution to the conflict?

f. What is the theme or lesson the narrator shared, explicitly or implicitly?

Notes should be brought to class for students to discuss. Students should be grouped by the podcasts that they chose, or if they all listened to the same podcast, they should discuss it in small groups, allowing time later for sharing with the whole class.

The discussion serves as a critical step to bridge podcast analysis and writing. It should not be overlooked or rushed, especially if the content, style and format of podcasts is new to students. Discussions that center on analyzing the content of the podcast enable a better connection with narrative elements, and this in turn helps ensure these elements become a part of the student writing that will follow. Be sure to encourage note-taking during small- and whole-group discussions.

The discussion component should provide students with a platform to clarify any elements of the story. Did they feel confused about any events? A character’s behavior? Was there something left to be desired in the conclusion? If so, discuss and connect why this missing or unsatisfying element needs to be better addressed in the podcast narrative — and in the writing they will do.

After students discuss, the whole class should share how they feel this podcast could be used as a model for a written narrative essay. Use the board to illustrate connections to guide students in their essay writing.

Preparing Student to Write Their Own Narratives

Students should review the examples of narrative thesis statements (which can be done before this point) and understand the objective of the individual components of an essay, as well as the essay as a whole. They should then be given the prompt samples, included below, and begin writing. Students should have time to plan the elements of the story in the brainstorming phases (as the writing process is an essential component of the course in which this lesson was taught).

Students should be given the following prompts:

Choose one of the following and write a five-paragraph narrative essay. (Note: This was the appropriate length for my students; it can be modified for a variety of levels.)

● Write about a time when you learned an important lesson.

● Write about a time you lost something.

I give students the following information:

3-Step Writing Process


This includes brainstorming of your topic and writing of a short outline.

Brainstorming is organizing ideas you plan to include and expanding on the topic you selected. The objective is to find your idea, plan it (with some detail), and then structure it in the form of an outline.


Your narrative essay should include five to six paragraphs, with an introduction, body and conclusion. Paragraphs should range from six to eight sentences. The structure for each type of text differs.


Read your narrative again and edit according to what will be assessed, included in the rubric. (Again, a timed writing structure does not need to be applied to this task, but it could be. Modify to ensure the task is appropriate for your classroom. The actual writing portion and writing plan could be applied over the course of multiple lessons or days.


After students have completed their essays, they will first exchange essays and answer the following questions for a peer’s essay:

1. Is there a conflict in the narrative? How would you summarize the conflict? Is it something you could relate to? Explain.

2. Are there multiple characters? How developed is each character? Will the reader be able to know the character(s) on a deeper level based on what is included in the narrative — emotions, experiences and viewpoints? Or do you encounter only superficial qualities, like physical appearance and basic character traits? What has been shared that demonstrates this trait(s)?

3. Do you feel as though the writer engaged the reader? Does the writer show genuine interest in the conflict and its resolution?

Written feedback should be provided, addressed to the writer. After all students have read at least one peer’s essay (if time permits, students may read multiple essays), writers and peer editors should have five-minute conferences to discuss. After peer feedback, students will analyze their own performance.

The lesson will conclude with students’ reflection on their own essay in light of peer feedback and also considering the questions above, applied this time to their own writing.

Making Modern Love-Inspired Podcasts Based on Student Narratives

Just as Modern Love is a collection of stories and narratives on a given topic that can be found online, the same could be designed to share student essays. Following completion, and given resources available, students, with inspiration from the format of Modern Love, can record their essays and share in a joint podcast.

Students could use a voice memo recording tool such as those found on smartphones to demonstrate storytelling skills, engaging listeners through strong oral narration techniques like intonation, emphasis and tone. Remind students their message should be matched by the emotion their voice exudes.

What We Learned

At the end of the unit, students reflected on how the purpose of narratives — whether their own or Modern Love podcasts or columns — is to share one’s humanity. While students have diverse backgrounds, there is great value in the simplicity of sharing their stories.

Students were thoroughly engaged in the storytelling process and felt the medium was accessible and unlike other models they have used. Fruitful discussions took place once students returned with notes from listening to the episodes of their choice. While many were reluctant to share in the beginning, they found they had experiences in common. While my course focuses on academic writing, I believe students, at first, saw little value in this genre in terms of their future studies. I was sure to emphasize the impact of strong writing skills, especially that of narrative writing, to deliver a message, articulate a unique idea or just share a powerful experience.



Is there a place for love and romance—or, at least, the history, sociology, economics, statistics, science and literature of love and romance— in your classroom? Check out our post Valentine’s Day Across the Curriculum to find many, many ideas — including more for using Modern Love.

Or, use our 650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing to find much more inspiration.

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