Monday, December 5, 2011


Personal narratives are a big part of any elementary writing curriculum. Primary school students not only enjoy writing about their personal experiences, classmates enjoy reading each other’s accounts of birthday parties and play dates, especially when they find themselves mentioned.

However, sometimes accounts of vacation trips and holiday gatherings can read like an uninspired and rambling list. Do we really need to know every item ordered by every family member at a restaurant? And a sequential list of every television show watched in a 24 hour period will definitely put a reader to sleep. How can we encourage students to write personal narratives with memorable details and thoughtful reflections?

Ask students if a vacation gave them an opportunity to learn how to do something new. Was it the first time at the beach or on an airplane? Did something amusing happen? For example, one student’s writing discussed a trip to a high rise hotel. After paragraphs of many mundane details about the taxi cab ride, checking in, and unpacking, the student discussed what happened when the family went to explore the hotel. The two children ran ahead of the parents and went up in the hotel elevator alone. Could the story be rewritten to highlight this incident? How did it feel to be in the elevator with your younger brother, going up to the 25th floor? Did you worry your parents while you had a fun adventure? Did you learn anything from the experience? Expanding one event, often buried in a blow-by-blow description of a family vacation, can turn a rambling narrative into an intriguing read. To begin the transition to more focused personal narratives, ask students to identify the most interesting part of their story and then begin a new narrative, describing just that part in more detail. Remind students to include their own feelings, observations, and lessons learned.

After students have identified the most compelling moment in an existing narrative, ask them to concentrate on a single incident for the next  story. Do you remember a time in your childhood when you did something your family found amusing or particularly annoying? One of my students remembered a time when he climbed onto a dining table to examine a bowl full of apples. He took one bite out of each apple and put it back in the bowl. A description of his actions and then subsequent surprise at his mother’s reaction was great material for an amusing story. Another student decided to write about her mischievous baby brother. Rather than listing one childish misdeed after another in a story that could potentially go on for ten pages, the student decided to zero in on the time her mom left her purse within the baby’s reach. The toddler took out Mom’s lipstick and smeared his entire body with it. In that story, Mom learned a lesson!

Another strategy is to focus on a problem or obstacle and how it was overcome. Were you afraid to go off the diving board? Did you hate a certain food your family wanted you to try? Did you fight with a sibling and resolve the conflict in a creative way?

Encourage your students to begin their narratives with a clear idea of what they want to convey to the reader. Is this a story about your first experience with something? Is it a story about a lesson learned or problem solved? Is it a funny story? Ask students to identify the emotion they want the reader to feel. Do you want your reader to laugh? Empathize? Or simply nod his head in agreement? 

Even the youngest student can be encouraged to add insightful comments to personal narratives. Rather than ending the piece with “then we went home,” ask students to tell the reader how they felt about the experience. Would you want to do it again? Did you learn anything? Would you recommend this experience to others?

Personal narratives are a powerful form of writing. Inspire your students to harness that power with personal reflections. It will help them grow as writers and as individuals.


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for suggesting so many ways to help students find meaning through writing. I especially enjoyed your comments about funny stories, because I'm usually the last person to catch on in a silly situation. Hooray for kids who point out the joy in life!