Should We Teach Narrative Writing?

Recently some colleagues and I were discussing the teaching of writing for elementary school students. The general mood of the discussion was frustration with expecting students to perform well in an on-demand setting. (see On-Demand Writing) I was shocked to hear a respected colleague question the teaching of narrative writing. “After all,” this person said, “no one ever writes narratives as an adult.”

Silence fell and everyone looked at me.

“Well, most people don’t,” this person admitted with a grin.

I laughed it off, but the comment stayed with me. Is the purpose of elementary school to teach only what a child needs as an adult? Who decides what skill set they need? I’m quite sure that the skills I use every day are very different from the skills of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking or NFL star Vernon Davis or supermodel Cindy Crawford. And when Stephen, Vernon, Cindy, and myself were in elementary school did our teachers know what we would be? What skills we would need? I don’t think so.

As teachers we learn to teach children with differing abilities and learning styles. Some can only study with music. Some need to move, or see instructions written down, or interact with something to learn about it. A good teacher balances investigations, lectures, visual presentation, and written directions so as to reach everyone.

Within that class are children with varied interests that include sports, art, drama, math, science, reading, and, believe it or not, writing. Anything that interests a child can be used to instruct them. Math facts can be rapped, P.E. can be the latest dance, art can be a Social Studies project. Writing stretches across the curriculum. Students learn summaries, response to literature, research reports, persuasive writing, and how to write short answer responses on tests. And they learn to write stories and poems.

Tompkins (1982) lists seven reasons creative writing should be included in the elementary school classroom. Here are those reasons, with my thoughts.

1. to entertain Stories and poems entertain the reader as well as the writer. Of course while students are learning it is as agonizing as those first weeks of violin lessons and as frustrating as learning to do a layup in basketball. With practice, the end product improves and so does the enjoyment.

2. to foster artistic expression Creative writing is just that–creative. Every child has stories within them (see Everybody Has a Story), and most have an innate desire to express themselves in words. With encouragement, teachers can use writing as an artistic outlet as well as drawing or music.

3. to explore the functions and values of writing   If my elementary school teachers had focused on reports and functional writing, I would have felt cheated once I discovered narrative! How can students be taught the different purposes of writing if you don’t teach all types of writing?

4. to stimulate imagination Today’s students are often caught up in video games, or in the stress of giving the teacher enough to get good grades. True imagination must be stimulated. It’s the adults with imagination who innovate, who can see how life can be improved. Those with imagination will someday cure cancer and AIDS, solve the world’s hunger issues, and neutralize the greenhouse effect. We can never achieve the solutions if we can’t envision them.

5. to clarify thinking Students often write about what is troubling them.  In journals or personal narratives they can act out their anger or frustration and test out different courses of action. By role modeling on paper, they can choose the best course of action for real life, or indulge their fantasies and get rid of that bully once and for all!

6. to search for identity By exploring narrative genres, students can be the bully and the princess, the athlete and the nerd. Some roles will feel odd to them and others will settle on them like a familiar coat. Success at creative writing can, in itself, give a student an identity in the classroom.

7. to learn to read and write Students who read are better writers. Reading shouldn’t be taught without writing and vice versa. There are many students whose creativity shines in narrative, so stories are an enjoyable way to practice communicating with writing.

Narrative writing is hard work, but it can be immensely rewarding for both teacher and student. It absolutely should be an important part of every elementary school day, whether the children are going to write narratives as adults or not.

Hmmm, I don’t use algebra every day. Maybe we should stop teaching THAT. 🙂

What do YOU think?

On my Kindle: Shaxoa’s Gift by DelSheree Gladden

21 responses to “Should We Teach Narrative Writing?”

  1. Ahhh!!! As a high school teacher, this freaks me out. If kids aren’t writing narratives from a young age (and continuing to grow as they get older), how will they ever learn how to analyze texts in high school? Then how will they ever look at laws, news stories, movies and figure out what’s “really” going on?

    If students aren’t asked to write narratives and practice that writing, they will miss out on what it means to be an active part of our society. They won’t realize what goes into basic communication–connecting with others.

    People do write short “stories” all the time. They write on Facebook or they text their friends. And they learn many of these basics from their elementary days. This sort of talk is going on in my school too and it breaks my heart.

    1. Well said, Koreen! I completely agree.

  2. So, maybe I’m understanding “narrative” wrong, but it seems to me that most of the writing out there that people do is narrative. Annual reports, business communications, scientific articles, National Geographic features… the list could go on and on.

    I think most adults out there — whether they’re writing fiction or not — are writing narrative. What prepared me for scientific writing in my career as a biologist was my creative writing classes. We didn’t write any science there, but we learned how to write in a way that my biology and chemistry teachers would never have been able to teach me. (Or perhaps they could have, but their focus was a different skill set.) All those creative writing skills carried over into my scientific writing, and beyond. Thank goodness none of those teachers said, “Let’s not teach her narrative because she’ll never use it.”

    So please please please teach your students narrative! And tell your colleague to do it to! It’s a disservice to their future (which — let’s face it — will probably not be in fiction writing) to not give them this skill, which has broad applications across many careers.

    1. Oh, there is no danger of ME not teaching narrative…and I am doing my darndest to make sure I spread the word! Thanks for your comments, Karin.

  3. As an elementary student, I think it is important to keep teaching narratives. All students have many things that have happened in their lives, but they need help to put it onto paper. I have learned to think of a place, thing, or person, to remind me of ideas. Narratives are extremely important to me because I can express myself by telling stories, and I’m sure it’s the same with many others.

  4. Mrs. Ulleseit, don’t stop teaching personal narrative. 🙂 It’s one of the main genres in writing. Even though your colleague thinks you shouldn’t teach personal narratives, I think that most authors have to write narratives here and there, even if that isn’t their strong part of their writing. Oh yeah, nice title, too. It attracts people to it to see what you have to say. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Michelle!

  5. I’m shocked. Apparently, the person who doesn’t want to teach narrative writing has never written their thoughts down on paper. She has never told anybody what happened this morning or some new idea that popped into her brain. To stop teaching narrative writing is to shut down the very basic human instinct of communication, and without communication we would still be hobbling around with clubs in our hands in an everlasting Stone Age, and, if we did make it to the present, half the opportunities of life wouldn’t exist. I’m pretty sure that whoever disagrees should think about how narrative writing affects humanity as a whole.

  6. Without narrative there wouldn’t be stories like Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson. There wouldn’t be stories like how you got your first dog or cat. Don’t get rid of narrative! Not even next year!

  7. If we no longer teach narrative, students will have no way to tell you what has happened in there life. It helps teachers know what the student is like. If they write about getting hurt a lot than they are most likely a daredevil that needs to be watched in class. Like me! 😉

  8. I think you should still teach us narrative because we tell about our lives. If you don’t then nobody would know what would happen to you.

  9. I think that narratives should be taught in school. I personally don’t like personal narratives because I don’t have very many memories of things I can make into good stories. I don’t like it when a teacher tells us to write a story without a prompt. Sometimes it is hard to write a story on the prompt, but it is easier than thinking of my own ideas. I can think of a hundred ideas for fictional narratives though. Sometimes I hate On-Demand because it has a prompt. Fictional narratives let me get my ideas out and just write out of the blue topics. I wouldn’t be mad if they took out personal narratives but I need fictional narratives.

    1. Sahith, you should read my post about On Demand Writing.

  10. Keep teaching narrative writing. Narrative writing will help students become great writers in the future.

  11. I think it is very important to learn narrative writing because it is easier to make exact details because you are there if you are writing a personal one. If you are doing a fictional narrative, it is easier for kids from 2nd to 6th to practice to have more experience and what to do. To me and maybe many other people think narrative is easy to write so you would get use to writing other things. I love writing narratives and it seems like the people above me like them to(im so short thats why there above me…)

  12. I am absolutely stunned that some do not agree to teach narrative writing. Without learning narrative writing in fourth grade, I would never be able to complete any assignments or write anything worth reading.
    Also, I tell narratives every day: what happened at lunch, how my friend got a dog, when I took a cool vacation. I would never be able to find the right words or get my meaning across if it weren’t for all those years in elementary school when I learned narrative writing.

  13. What books would there be without narratives? If you’re grounded and you have nothing to do, read books. (That’s what I do all the time) Expressing your thoughts would be helpful. All in all, I think quitting narrative teaching is ridiculous.

    (P.S. When do we get to start with fictional narratives?) 🙁

    1. There will still be books if narrative isn’t taught in schools! No worries there. Fictional narrative is next. Be patient!

  14. I think teachers should teach narrative writing because it helps children learn new skills while writing. Also people apply narratives to things they do in the real world. Imagine not using narratives at all because you did not learn about them.

    1. Oh, I like the concept that people apply narratives to things they do in the real world. Nicely said, Lauren!

  15. I think narrative it’s important for narrative to be in elementary school.

    Without narrative there wouldn’t be good narrative books. Without

    good narrative books there wouldn’t be anything to inspire kids. So

    there should be narrative!

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