Activities Teaching Narrative Essay

Just write about a small moment from your life. Include enough details, but not too many. Don’t forget transition words! And you better make it interesting. You have 30 minutes. Go.

After hours of mini-lessons, anchor charts, and extensive modeling, I imagine that these words are all that echo through my third graders' minds when the time comes to write a personal narrative. I'm sure I'm not the only teacher who has seen children on the verge of tears because they don’t know how to get started on their writing or what to include once they do. These may be reluctant writers or even perfectionists afraid that their story won’t be good enough. There are also those students whose stories include every minute detail they can remember as they create a narrative that seems to go on forever without any real focus. To help out these students, along with all the others, I use a few different graphic organizers that have made a world of difference to my young writers. This week I'm happy to share with you some of the tools I use to help make planning and writing narratives that are focused, sequential, and interesting a bit easier for my students. 


Generating Ideas

Each year my students create an authority list in their writer’s notebooks, an idea that came from a writing program we use. This list is supposed to include areas of expertise for the students that they could readily write about. As you can imagine, when you are eight years old, there are not a whole lot of things you consider yourself an authority on, and many of my students never really seem to make a connection with their list. Therefore, I decided to have my students create an additional organizer in their notebooks called The Heart of My Writing. Each student draws a heart, then divides it into sections based on what matters most to them — family, hobbies, friends, special events, and more. I find this is the graphic organizer my students turn to first when they are looking for an idea. Many students leave blank spots on their hearts so they can fill them in as the year goes on. 


Prewriting Using Graphic Organizers

I’ve discovered the key to helping my students write a narrative that tells an interesting, sequential story is using graphic organizers for planning. While I use several different organizers, there are three I created that are especially popular with my students. The organizers allow students to establish their purpose and effectively plan how their story will unfold. 

The following graphic organizer is made for legal-sized paper. My more proficient writers tend to prefer this organizer because it gives them more room to expand upon their ideas. 



Mini Anchor Charts

Whenever I create anchor charts with my class during our mini-lessons, I have my students create versions of the chart in their writer's notebooks. I have noticed that when the mini-charts are right there at their fingertips, they tend to be used more frequently.  


Graphic Organizers I Use for Character Development

When we focus on character development, my students use these graphic organizers in both their writing and reading. Read more about how I use them in my post, "Bringing Characters to Life in Writer's Workshop." Click on each image to download the free printable. 



Scholastic Printables for Personal Narratives

Click on the images below to download a free printable. 

Other Great Resources for Narrative Writing

Alycia Zimmerman's post, "Using Mentor Text to Empower Student Authors," is a must-read for your narrative unit. Her guidance on using mentor text has improved my teaching, as well as my students' understanding of the personal narrative immensely. 


Beth Newingham's tips for writing leads (and a lot more!) in "My January Top Ten List: Writing Lessons and Resources," are an invaluable resource to any writing program.


Julie Ballew's "Planning Small Moment Stories" shows a developmentally appropriate approach to narrative writing for young authors. 


Hopefully you have found a few ideas to make narrative writing easier for your students. If you have a tip for writing narratives or you would like to comment or ask a question, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below. For more tips you can subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter or Pinterest.



Common Core State Standards for Writing 

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3a Establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3b Use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3c Use temporal words and phrases to signal event order.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3d Provide a sense of closure.

Professional Resources You May Like

Are you looking for new grammar games for the classroom? Multiple winner of the TeachingEnglish blog award Mike Astbury shares some resources to download, print, and use in your class.

What are narrative tenses?

Narrative tenses are verb tenses that are used to talk about the past. You can often find them in stories, textbooks, spoken accounts and in descriptions of past events.

The following are examples of narrative tenses:

Past simple: 'We left for the airport on an exceptionally sunny day.'

Past continuous: 'The sun was shining and it was really hot by midday.'

Past perfect: 'It had been sunny on and off for the previous fortnight.'

Past perfect continuous: 'We had been waiting at the airport for what seemed like an eternity.'

Activities to practise narrative tenses 

The following games are designed to help students practise narrative tenses and don’t require teacher supervision. They need at least two players.

The games use 16 cards, which tell a short story when combined together. Each card has an example of a sentence using narrative tenses. Each sentence tells part of the story.

You can download a PDF template of all the cards, game boards and blank templates needed for all the games, and print them. Or, if you would prefer to make your own, write the following 16 sentences on 16 separate cards (one card per sentence).

  1. It was raining outside when Sam got out of bed and looked out of the window.
  2. He picked up his phone and sent a text to his friend James: 'No football today. How about going to the cinema?'
  3. While he was waiting for a reply, Sam brushed his teeth, had a shower and got dressed.
  4. After he finished getting ready, he checked his phone and saw that James had replied.
  5. James said he wanted to play football anyway and he didn't care about the rain.
  6. Sam changed his mind and decided he wanted to play too, and left the house to join James in the park.
  7. While he was walking to the park, James met two of his other friends and invited them along.
  8. When they all arrived, they saw that James had found some other kids to play with, and they had enough people for a full match.
  9. While they were playing football, it stopped raining anyway and Sam was really happy he hadn't gone to the cinema.
  10. After the game, Sam went home. On the way, he stopped at a shop to buy something for his lunch.
  11. He was about to pay when he realised he had forgotten to take his wallet when he had left the house.
  12. He apologised and left the shop. Sam felt hungry but he knew that he had plenty of food at home.
  13. He was walking home, thinking about the goals he had scored that day, when he saw his mum drive past.
  14. She saw him and stopped the car to give him a ride home. She had been working all morning, but she was in a good mood.
  15. Sam sat back in his seat and looked forward to having his lunch. He was having a great day.
  16. When they arrived, Sam cooked lunch for the whole family.

A. Warm-up activity

The aim of the first activity is to become familiar with the story of Sam and James playing a game of football. This story is used in different ways for all of the games.

  1. Print a copy of the first page of cards from the PDF template.
  2. Cut up the cards.
  3. Shuffle the cards.
  4. Work together with another student to put the story in the right order.
  5. Check your answer (the correct order is on page two of the template).Then, flip all of the cards face-down and try to retell the story in your own words.

B. Quiz

The next activity is done in pairs to test your understanding of narrative tenses. You need at least two players.

Print one copy each of page two and three of the PDF template for this exercise.

These are card templates. Each card has one of the 16 sentences above, but the narrative tense is missing on the question side.

For example, 'While they... (play) football, it stopped raining and Sam was really happy he hadn't gone to the cinema.'

The missing narrative tense of the verb in this instance is 'were playing'.

  1. Cut up the cards, but don’t cut along the dotted lines. These are fold lines to make the cards double-sided. I glue them together with card to make them more durable.
  2. Take turns to draw a card and hold it, so that the answer side is facing you and the question side is facing the other player.
  3. If the player is able to read the sentence with the correct form of the verb, they win the card and keep it to represent their score. If you make a mistake, the card goes to the bottom of the pile of cards.
  4. Continue until you’ve used all of the cards. Whoever has the most cards wins.

C. Connect Three

This game is for two players. Use the same cards as before, and also print the game board on page five of the template.

  1. Using the same cards as the quiz (pages two and three of the PDF template), take turns to draw a card. Only look at the question side.
  2. Try to read the sentence aloud, including the correct form of the verb.
  3. Check the other side of the card, which has the correct sentence. If you were correct, choose a square and mark it as yours (using a pencil or counter).
  4. The first player to connect three squares in a line is the winner.

D. Narrative tense 'blockbusters'

This game is adapted from the UK television game show Blockbusters. It is played with two players: one player tries to connect four cards horizontally, and the other player vertically. This activity also uses the game board on page five.

  1. Place all of the cards on the board in a random order, with the question side facing up.
  2. Take it in turns to read a sentence aloud with the correct form of the verb.
  3. Check the other side of the card. If you are correct, mark the square below as yours (using a pencil or counters) and remove the card from the board.
  4. If you are wrong, put the card back.
  5. The first player to connect along their axis wins. Connections can also be diagonal.

Making your own version

Now that you’ve practised narrative tenses, you should be ready to write your own story. You could use the blank template on page six of the PDF template to make your own version of the game cards.

You can prepare them in PowerPoint or just print the templates and write on them directly.

Game cards are reusable

The cards can be time-consuming to make initially, but once you have a set of cards, they can be adapted and reused with counters and pencils again and again. You could try making card sets with your students, which may be a more motivating reason for students to write a story, as it will be used by other students.

Visit Mike's blog, Teaching Games, for more great ideas.

Find out how you can take part of the TeachingEnglish blog award, and visit our TeachingEnglish website for more lesson plans and activities.

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