An Alternative Approach To Teaching Narratives To Young Writers

Periodically I find myself engaged in conversations with teachers about student narrative writing. The conversation reveals how committed they are to teaching narrative genre to their entire class, simultaneously. They further inform me that their young writers just don’t get it (narrative writing) and they are pulling their hair out attempting to have the writers put all the pieces ’together.’ 

I am extremely keen at this point to know more regarding the approach they have employed. I harbour strong suspicions about the methodology…

Tell me how you are approaching the teaching? I ask.

Invariably, a conscious planning decision has been made to carve up the narrative into discreet parts and teachers have then embarked on a quest to teach these elements separately. They then set the young writer the challenge of assembling the narrative. They are asked to pull all the pieces into a coherent piece. The teaching of narratives has been siloed. The students may be challenged to work on parts of the narrative in isolation- effective leads, character development, settings, problem, resolution, ending.

This is where knots and tangles emerge. This is frustration central for the writer and it is absolutely avoidable. In the end, the inexperienced writer is overwhelmed with accommodating all these story elements. They must feel they are juggling elephants!

Think for a moment about when you were learning to drive a car. The driving instructor never approached the learning task from the perspective of discrete parts. At no point did you hear the words, ‘First we’ll learn about the steering wheel and in the next lesson we’ll focus on the brakes and then the accelerator.’ 

You were asked to deal with the car in its entirety. From the way you handled this challenge, the instructor made an assessment as to where they needed to focus their teaching.

I remain indebted to my wife, Vicki for this illustrative analogy.

Researcher, John Hattie reminds educators that they often waste a lot of valuable time, focusing on things kids already know. So armed with this knowledge, our starting point should always be to find out exactly what our young writers already know. Let that knowledge inform our instruction. Let’s stop making assumptions about our student writers without seeking evidence.

So, let’s rethink our starting point with narrative writing. Be a curious learner. Encourage student writers to begin by telling you what they know about narrative and how they work. Chart what they know. Your teaching at this point might focus on text structures and features of narratives –read alouds, shared reading, reading conferences to prepare for the writing to follow.  Always ask students who want to write in this genre to think about the story they want to write. Have them tell that story to someone else. Encourage them to tell the story several times in order to know it well. You may need to remind them of the truism –no struggle, no story. 

At this point some writers may just want to jump straight into the writing, while others may choose to do some rudimentary planning/ drawing/ listing/reading before they write. Encourage your writers to articulate their preferred actions. Then, step out of the way and let them write!

Their writing is your action research project.  Once you can peruse these initial story drafts, you have a launching pad for your teaching.  When we choose to teach in this way, we make productive use of precious teaching time. We stop relying on untested assumptions. We use real data, in the form of student writing pieces to guide and inform our teaching of writing. Allow your student writers to show you what they know as well as what they need to know.

The writing student produce will usually reveal the basic structure of the narrative- beginning, middle and end. It is a framework upon which our teaching can build the telling of the story. At this point our teaching is able to be directed to matters of craft. We teach mindfully to help the developing writer improve the content of the writing. We may identify the need for strategy groups where specific aspects of writing are taught to those who need support. We may also need to teach strategy lessons to the whole class or individual writers, via conferencing.

Don’t think for a moment that writing effective narratives does not present a complex challenge. It clearly does. However, we are working with emerging writers and we need to develop their understanding of writing incrementally and from the point of need, rather than making assumptions that may not necessarily apply to that particular young writer. We must scaffold the learning and target the need. We must avoid the urge to overload the learner with our desire to ‘correct or fix the writing.’ Focus on what is developmentally appropriate. 

To paraphrase the words of Colleen Cruz, ‘Relax people. It’s kid’s writing. It’s never going to be perfect.’
Let’s strive to untangle those knots…


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