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The 7 Strategic Lessons I Use to Teach My Students How to Write Personal Narratives

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If you teach 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade and are ready to take your students past the “small moments” lesson everyone uses when teaching how to write personal narratives, this is for you. I will share every lesson I do with my students to create amazing personal narrative writing pieces.

1. Small moments

Small moments are a popular way to teach students to pick a tiny piece of the story to write about. If I’m working with students on small moments for personal narrative writing, I use a graphic organizer. I have them come up with a few ideas for small moments.

For example, if we use “meeting a friend” as a prompt, they come up with a few examples of when they met a friend.

The key piece to making this step of the writing process work is having students take their brainstorming and discuss it with a partner or group. This helps them choose a small moment that will work for the writing piece and be entertaining for the reader.

2. Character Development

It’s common for teachers to have students start writing after choosing a small moment, but that skips this important part of the writing process. Character development isn’t only a part of creative narratives; it’s also a part of personal narratives. If we don’t teach students to develop their characters, even when writing about themselves, they assume their readers know everything. This results in them leaving out key details.

For personal narratives, students need to write down information about themselves that they will use in the story to develop their character. They also need to do this for other characters in the personal narrative.

For students in 2nd and 3rd who tend to struggle with personal narratives, I like to start with a prompt that naturally includes only the student and one or two others as characters. This helps make the character development process easier.

3. Setting Development

Setting development is another area where students tend to assume the reader knows everything. Students won’t be able to write a really descriptive narrative if we don’t teach them how to develop the setting. I always do setting development as a part of personal narrative lessons. It’s important for students to describe what it looked like, sounded like, or tasted like.

4. Story outline

After spending time in character and setting development, we do a quick outline of their story. From that outline, we’ll expand on it by teaching the beginning, middle, and end of the story. This gives students a guideline so they can keep everything in order.

From that outline, we take them into writing the piece. This is where students add the character and setting development pieces. Always encourage students to use their brainstorming inside of the story outline and rough draft.

5. Revision

If you notice students are missing a lot of what they brainstormed, have them revise their rough draft to include more of the character and setting development pieces. This is an awesome opportunity to teach about revision, improve student writing, and clarify areas where readers might be confused.

6. Introduction & conclusion

These are two areas that are usually missed in personal narrative writing. A lot of times, we think they are only skills that need to be taught in information writing. However, properly introducing and concluding a story makes a big difference in writing.

The introduction is an excellent place to include setting and character development. This is where we introduce everyone to the story and set the stage. Then we follow the story outline and end by concluding the story. In the conclusion, we need to look at resolving everything and wrapping it up, along with including a reflection at the end.

7. Label elements

Labeling elements is the most important part of the lesson. I have students take their rough drafts and label everything that we have done with the elements of personal narratives. We look for things like:

  • Dialogue
  • Setting development
  • Character development
  • Narrative transitions
  • Use of the correct order

I model this for the students in a sample piece of writing and have them do it in their writing. This leads us to a good revision because students can see what they are missing and need to add as they revise their writing.

After this, we can start editing and wrapping up the piece.

I love creating bookmarks for the students when teaching them how to write personal narratives. I give each student one with narrative transitions and one with dialogue tips so they can see examples of what to use in their writing. We use these pieces in all narratives, so it’s helpful to have them to look back on. I laminate them for students because we do a lot of narrative writing. You can download them along with a free personal narrative unit you can try in your classroom.

How long do these personal narrative lessons take?

This is a common question I receive because there are so many lessons. It usually takes me 2 1/2 – 3 weeks to complete our personal narratives. But this is because I focus on teaching bite-sized pieces throughout our lessons to make it easy for students to understand before we move on. Then, we really work on mastery of those concepts because I don’t want it to be too overwhelming.

It isn’t easy to do personal narratives in just five days. So, I would discourage that and encourage you split the lessons up into bite-sized pieces.

If you are interested in the free resources or more writing instruction tools, you can check them out here. Also, if you have other ideas that you love for teaching personal narratives or questions or struggles you would like me to address, please share them in the comments.

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April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 

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