Scaffolding the skills for narrative writing


By Room 213

One of the first major assignments I give my students is the narrative essay  It's a great one to begin the year with because, as they say, everyone wants to tell their story.  However, before we dive into the essay, I spend a lot of time scaffolding the skills for narrative writing

I used to shy away from the narrative because I would get so many "breakfast-to-bed" stories, ones that were unfocused and full of unnecessary detail. Or the stories would be flat and missing the detail they need to bring them to life. I'd take the essays in to grade and find myself wishing I'd never given the assignment.

But, I eventually realized that these tales were meandering all over the place because I didn't take the time to break down the process and give my students the skills they needed to write focused and engaging stories about their lives.

Now, we spend a lot more time on what makes a good personal narrative, and I actually look forward to reading my students' work. In fact, it's probably one of my favorite assignments to grade because they are entertaining, and I can get to know my students a whole lot better.

Let me show you five things you can do to improve your students' personal narratives:

1. Begin With The Power of Language

Long before I assign the personal narrative, we start working on the skills the students will need for success. The first step is learning how to use language to create meaning.

In the first weeks of school, I do a series of lessons that teach students strategies for improving their word choice. They learn to identify and improve tired words, to swap weak verbs for vivid ones, and to use imagery and figurative language to show, rather than tell.

During this process we do a lot of collaborative work and challenges, so students can learn from each other. The activity that is pictured here is very easy to do - and quite effective. It's also one you can do any time during the school year when students need a little reminder about the power of words.

I give each group of students an 11 x 17 sheet that had a sentence written across the top. They have to underline the weak verbs and tired words; then, they need to re-write the sentence. Once they finish their sentences, each group passes their sheet clockwise to another group. That group re-writes the sentence and changes the meaning by changing some of the words to create a better picture in the reader's mind.

We repeat the exercise until every group had a chance to re-write each sentence. At that point, the sheets go back to their original group – and students choose their favourite sentence and need to be ready to explain why.

👉🏻 If you’d like to use the sheets I used for this exercise, you can grab them right here. And, if you'd like to give your students even more practice with word choice, you can check out The Word Choice Challenge.

2. Stress the importance of idea development

Once my students have learned about the power of language, we move on to the importance of using their words to fully support their ideas. I start this process with one of my all-time favorite activities, one that is always a hit with the students: brainstorming with candy.

First, we review the rules of brainstorming and then I group students and tell them to pick a recorder. Next I hand out a sour key to each student and tell them not to touch it (I put a napkin on one of their desks and place the candies on it). Then, I tell them that the exercise has three parts and they have to pay attention to my instructions.

To sweeten the task, literarily, I tell them that one group will get the rest of the candy. And then we begin.

First, they brainstorm what the candy looks like. I encourage them to be as descriptive as possible. After about ninety seconds, I tell them they can pick the key up and feel it. They brainstorm words and phrases to describe how it feels in their hands, and then, finally, they can put it in their mouth. At this point I tell them to describe not only how it tastes, but how it feels in their mouths.

Brainstorming with candy

Once this process is over, I instruct them to work together to create a descriptive paragraph that captures the essence of the candy – but then I add in a twist. Each group gets one of these perspective cards, and they need to write their paragraph from the point of view of the person on the card  (you can grab them here and you can check out more activities for idea development here and here).

As you can guess, because there is a pile of candy at stake, the competition is fierce! They write for about five-ten minutes and then each group reads their description to the class – then, each group guesses what was on the card. Finally, they vote for their favourite, and the victor is crowned (and given the extra candy).

I said earlier that it’s a favourite assignment. Why is that? Well, first of all, it’s fun and it gets the kids to engage in the process of descriptive writing. It also teaches them about the power of brainstorming – when we finish, I always ask them if I had held up the candy and asked them to describe it, would you have gotten as much information as you did during the brainstorming process? Of course, they say that they would not have.

Each of these activities are good ones on their own, but they are also an important step as I scaffold the skills the students will need to do their personal narratives.

3. Get Students to Focus Those Ideas

Once I've shown students how to fully support their ideas, we pivot to learning how to focus them. I do this through a series of lessons on focus and organization. Then, we do some short assignments that allow students to practice what they've learned.

We start with some six word memoirs and then move on to some narrative sagas, 50-100 word tales that focus on point of view and conflict. Students will begin by working collaboratively and then take a process-based approach to writing on their own.

Through this process, students learn to use words that pack a punch, and to zero in on the information that really matters - and they have so much fun writing and sharing their sagas because they have a great little twist at the end.

Teaching students to focus their ideas is a key step in scaffolding the skills for narrative writing and a wonderful critical thinking exercise as well.

4. Practice With Mentor Texts

Once it's time to introduce the personal narrative, I bring out some mentor texts, so students can see how other writers tell an engaging story. Mentor texts are a powerful tool for teaching students how to write, so I use them with every assignment we do.

Mentor texts for narrative writing

While I'm scaffolding the skills for narrative writing, we begin with short narrative texts, and look at the ways the writers have used language to create meaning. At this point, the students are able to use what they learned in our previous activities while they do a close read and annotate the texts I have given them. I use high interest narratives and give students short, low-stakes writing activities so they can practice what they have learned. You can grab those activities here.

5. Use Models and Rubrics

Now that my students have the skills they need to write a focused narrative that shows, rather than tells, I show them exactly what I expect for their personal narrative assignment.

writing the personal narrative

I begin by giving them a draft of one I've written myself, and we go through the process of revising it together, calling on what the students have learned in the lead up to this assignment.

Finally, they begin to write their essays. And, when they are in the process of pre-writing and revising, I hear so many conversations about word choice and focused writing. It makes a teacher's heart sing, let me tell you!

👉🏻Would you like any of the resources that I use to scaffold the skills for narrative writing? You can grab them below:

✨ Free word choice activity

Brainstorming with Candy

✅ Writing Mini-Lessons 

✅ Narrative Writing Bundle (includes the sagas, mentor texts, and personal narrative assignment)

My friends at the Coffee Shop also have some excellent activities for scaffolding narrative skills:

Tracee Orman: Introduction to Narrative Nonfiction Writing

Addie Education: Graphic Organizers and Samples for Narrative Writing

Nouvelle ELA: 4 Personal Narratives from Latinx Authors

Thanks for reading! 

Jackie, Room 213

6 Inclusive Short Stories for Secondary ELA


6 Inclusive Short Stories for Middle and High School

Are you looking for new and inclusive short stories for middle and high school? The teachers from the Secondary English Coffee Shop have you covered! Here are some short story recommendations that we've loved teaching in our classrooms.

1. "The Space Between the Stars" by Geeta Kothari

My favorite short story is Geeta Kothari’s “The Spaces Between Stars.” Maya, the protagonist of the story, is struggling with her identity and a fishing trip with her husband acts as a catalyst for her to examine the choices she’s made in her life. It deals with the struggle that people often have between assimilating into the dominant culture and embracing their own. It’s also full of symbolism and metaphor, so students can practice their close reading skills with a story that always leads to great class discussions.

-ROOM 213

2. "Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains" by Tim Tingle

It’s so fun to do storytelling activities with students, and one great short story about storytelling is Tim Tingle’s “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains.” In this story, Turtle Kid and their dozens of cousins listen to a story from Uncle Kenneth, and everyone knows you can’t believe a word Uncle Kenneth says. Kenneth’s story will keep your students on the edge of their seats, as he uses several red herrings to build suspense. He also uses humor and charm. The frame story can help us have great conversations with students about how stories are told and transformed, and how listeners participate. The dozens of cousins make predictions and ask questions, and our students can, too. If you’re looking for more recommendations for inclusive short stories and ideas for standards alignment, I have a huge list here!

-Nouvelle ELA

3. "The Seventh Man" by Haruki Murakami

It’s so tough to select just one favorite short story, but if I had to choose, it would be Haruki Murakami’s short story “The Seventh Man.” When I first read this short story in the HMH Collections Close Reader for tenth graders, I instantly fell in love. This story has it all: strong symbolism, suspense, and a strong theme. While this short story is on the longer side, I find that my students really enjoy it. Another reason why I love “The Seventh Man,” is that I can use it to discuss important topics in my classroom like mental health and climate change. 

-The Daring English Teacher

4. "Fish Cheeks" by Amy Tan

I love Amy Tan’s short story “Fish Cheeks” and teach it every year in my middle school classroom, though it’s perfect for high school as well. Students like it because it is short and has accessible vocabulary, but its theme of being proud of yourself and your culture resonates deeply with everyone. It’s a great story to use to teach indirect characterization and inference as well.

-Secondary Sara

5. "Borders" by Thomas King

It’s so hard to pick a favourite short story isn’t it?! However, if I had to pick one I’ll pick “Borders” by Thomas King. Told from the point of view of a 12 year old boy as he and his mother travel from Alberta to Utah to visit his sister.  However, the pair run into some trouble at the border when his mother refuses to identify as either Canadian or American and instead says she is “Blackfoot”. It’s a fabulous story to include in an identity unit as it explores the idea of citizenship vs cultural background vs personal identity.  King is a gifted writer and has many other fantastic short stories and novels to explore.

-Addie Williams

6. "The Jade Peony" by Wayson Choy

One short story that I absolutely love is "The Jade Peony" by Wayson Choy. In this story, the narrator describes his childhood relationship with his grandmother during her final days. Through the symbolism of the peony flower and wind chimes, the story reflects on the importance of family and the fragility of life. It also has a powerful message about the value of celebrating identity. The language is beautifully descriptive, but it is still accessible. I have found this one to be ideal for ELA students in grades 9 & 10. While students at these grade levels will likely get a little more out of the story, I also think that it could work well for the middle school ELA classroom. It’s also a great story for teaching a lot of core ELA concepts like figurative language and theme. I highly recommend reading this with your students!

What are your favorite short stories? Let us know and be sure to follow us on IG @secondaryenglishcoffeeshop

Happy Teaching!

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