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Mastering Narrative Storytelling with essaypop
Mastering Narrative Storytelling with essaypop

We use the same template-based approach we use for essay writing to help students master narrative storytelling.

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Written by essaypop
Updated over a week ago
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Yes, students need explicit storytelling instruction, and yes, it's as challenging to learn as essay writing.

I was asked by a young ELA colleague recently what the chances were that our students would be asked to write a story on the end-of-year state test. We teach in California and our students take an exam in late May called the SBAC. I actually knew the answer to the question. Our students have precisely a 33.3% chance of receiving a narrative writing prompt on the exam. The other writing options are an expository essay or an argumentative piece. Most other states, Texas and Florida included, also ask students to master the skills of basic storytelling in elementary, middle, and high school, and, chances are, their writing-proficiency score will be based on this skill as well.

My friend seemed surprised by the answer; she had always figured that storytelling was a fun kind of writing to do in between “real learning”, but not something that you would need to explicitly teach students in order to prepare for a high-stakes test.

I think a lot of teachers share this belief. They see storytelling time as a sort of alternative activity, and not a domain of writing to be strategically addressed like essay writing. Kids write fun stories and elementary school, right? And then in middle school and high school leave behind their childish ways and move on to writing research papers and arguments and counterarguments, right?

Actually, secondary students are assessed regularly quit on their ability to craft a satisfying personal narrative or creative short story. As I've said, there’s a very good chance they'll be asked to write a story on various, standardized exams, but students also must write compelling narratives when they compose their college admissions essays. The best cover letters and interview answers involve elements of storytelling. People who can tell stories are considered to be more interesting in social circles and more valuable in workplace environments.

But do we really need to teach storytelling? There seems to be an assumption among educators that most people are sort of born with an innate ability to weave a yarn. It's sort of how humans regularly communicate, so the belief is that most people pick the skill up by osmosis simply by being a member of a family, a classroom community, a group of friends, etc... Storytelling is not really something you teach; it’s something you know, right?

But the fact is, students at all levels do struggle with narrative storytelling skills, and this is borne out by the test results we see coming in year after year. Sure, students wrestle with research-based writing, and they fumble around with argumentation, but they also struggle with narrative structures.

At essaypop, we teach narrative-writing skills the same way we tackle essay-writing skills. We take a templated approach that breaks stories into their constituent components, color code them, then have students compose their writing one component frame at a time.

To teach narrative writing, we offer teachers and students two unique templates – The first template we call the Basic Story Template and the second we refer to as the Extended Narrative Structure. The basic template is typically best suited for younger students and emerging writers, but certainly can be used by high school students and more proficient writers. The extended narrative is more closely matched to the abilities of older writers but can be introduced to younger students as well. Let's take a look at each template.

The Basic Story Template

The basic template presents writers at the outset with four writing frames. The first frame is the exposition frame, and it is blue in color. The second frame represents the rising action and it is red. Next, comes the climax frame which is green, and finally, students are presented with the yellow resolution frame.

Just like our essay and paragraph writing templates, the basic story template allows students to compose the narrative one frame or one step at a time. This partitioning off of story components, allows them to understand the larger plot structure more easily, and the color coding reinforces this understanding.

And just like our essay templates, students are surrounded by scaffolding such as the Help Cards that reside adjacent to the student writing area. Students scroll through these cards to see explanations of the plot component they are working on and present them with contextualized models they can refer to to learn more.

The preview button allows students to review an MLA-formatted document in real-time.

And as students are writing or when they are finished writing, they are able to give and receive feedback in the interactive and social Hive environment. Here, along with the teacher, students remain engaged as they share ideas, provided advice, and essentially workshop their story concepts live.

And while students begin with the basic four components of plot, they can always add elements as needed. As narratives become more complex, new sections of rising action can be added for example. Also, story elements can be arranged and rearranged simply by dragging and dropping them into new positions, and this is a wonderful way for students to understand how changing the position of text can affect how the story reads.

Remember also, that with this method of writing, students do not necessarily have to write in a linear fashion. Who says that one must start at the beginning? Many writers actually write their resolutions or endings first, then go back and work their way to the end. It's a great way to stay on track.

And as students are writing or when they are finished writing, they are able to give and receive feedback in the interactive and social Hive environment. Here, along with the teacher, students remain engaged as they share ideas, provided advice, and essentially workshop their story concepts live.

The Extended Narrative Structure

This template is for longer narratives that may be composed of sections or chapters, and it is typically used by students who understand the basic plot elements - exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution - and who want to dive into more narrative detail in their writing.

The template is constructed similarly to our multiple-paragraph essay template in that the parts or sections of the narrative are arranged horizontally across the top tab area of the writing space. As the story progresses, students can add new sections to represent chapters, passages of time, and other types of transition.

Within the template itself, the writing frames are labeled differently than the basic story template. Instead of being presented with the four components of the plot, students began with a single text frame to begin the section and then add components such as narrative action, characterization, setting, dialogue, and other narrative elements as needed.

Students have total flexibility to add any component they think the story requires, and as always, they can move the components around and play with the placement of text which, again, is a powerful way to experiment with different configurations of text and ways of presenting a narrative. I will often suggest to a student to take a piece of characterization, for example, that sits in the middle of a section, and move it to the beginning to evoke a new image or feeling. Or I might have a kid transpose a section and a bit of setting to create a different effect. It's interesting to see their reactions when they realize that the complexion of their story has completely changed by making such modifications.

Oh, and did we mention that F. Scott Fitzgerald used the essaypop Extended Narrative Structure to write The Great Gatsby?... Just kidding, but this is what it would look like if he had done so. I actually think it’s a really useful rhetorical awareness exercise to take excerpts from classic writing and have my students deconstruct the text and drop it into the appropriate writing frames. It really makes them think about how great literature is constructed when they do this. They also really enjoy doing it.

As I’ve said, this template tends to be best suited for longer stories, and my colleagues and I have seen students compose 40 and 50-page long narratives using the extended narrative template.


So don't shy away from teaching storytelling as a distinct skill set the way you would teach expository writing or argumentative writing. First, and pragmatically speaking, students are very likely going to be tested on how well they are able to write a story - a 33.3% chance on the SBAC. But more than that, the ability to weave an effective yarn or tell a compelling tale is a skill that gives people an advantage in social situations, in school, and, ultimately, in their careers. And let's not forget, teaching storytelling is fun. Honestly, if in good conscience, I could turn my English class into a pure creative writing workshop, I would be in heaven. And kids love to take a break from essay writing and jump into creative expression, and when they get into the Hive and share with one another, everybody gets pumped up by the energy that is created.

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