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Inviting Personal Narratives Into the Classroom

Writing is a new way for young children to tell their stories and express themselves, but they are also learning valuable lessons about print concepts and letter-sound relationships when they put pen to paper.

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The early years

As these examples show, in the early elementary years it is the child’s narrative voice that must find its way into the classroom in order for students to gain confidence and competence in reading and writing. Vicki Spandel (1996) describes voice as:

The writer coming through the writing. It is the heart and soul of writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath. … At the primary level, voice is first noticeable in speaking, oral storytelling, and art” 

By building on these competencies, teachers can help children develop their writing voice as well.

Looking at, talking about, and reflecting on artwork also help children develop aesthetic sensitivity. They learn that art consists of symbols that communicate ideas, experiences, and feelings that can be shared (Honigman & Bhavnagri, 1998). In a thematic study of reading and great artists, second-graders in Jane Kolakowski’s class listen to and read stories about artists’ lives and work. In their projects, children develop and refine the visual senses and extend their understanding of story elements by first discussing and exploring paintings, and then imagining that they can enter a painting. One seven-year-old wrote (using developmental spelling) the following in response to the painting Stafford Heights by Gari Melchers:

I smell grain in the field. not that many houses are around. There are many trees. It is sunny and there is a dirt path. There’s a field on a hill. It is bright outside the air is sweet the trees smell like pinecones. There are no flowers here. My mouth waters when I tast sweet graps. You can not hear the birds singing. You can feel a breeze. You can’t see anyone outside. The wind plays tug-of-war with my hair (Kolakowski, 1995).

Kolakowski comments that the insight and maturity expressed in the metaphor of the last sentence is brought out by the child’s interaction with art:

The study verifies for me the research of Elliot Eisner (1992) in which he writes that the arts’ contribution is its offer to everyone of an ability to feel and participate in the lives of others. Art is communication with oneself and others. Art unites the rational and the emotional. … I want my students to feel, to dream, and to know that they have something to share with the world. This is the process that art study begins.

Writing floats on a sea of talk

Learning to communicate well in a number of symbol systems, including art and oral and written language, and learning to participate in the lives of others through these symbol systems, are critical competencies for both children and adults. Researcher Anne Dyson (1987) found in her studies of young children’s collaborative story writing, “the most elaborate verbal stories and the most flexible manipulation of narrative time and space occurred, not in the texts themselves, but in the children’s talk”. Elementary teacher Merle Hom (2004) writes that she struggled with how to bring writing to life for her students. She was introduced to the writer’s notebook while participating in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and that helped her to make writing relevant to her children’s lives. She also found that sharing writing in a collaborative classroom is helpful for all students, and critical for some:

Several of my students also discovered that they like to write together in pairs or threes. They brainstorm together, agree on what to write, and then each one writes about the topic in their own writer’s notebook. They say the activity doubles their ideas and that their best ideas come when writing together.

First-grade teacher Nancy Csak (2002) found that the topics students told about during storytelling time were often the same ones they wrote about in their daily journals:

Children who previously claimed they couldn’t think of anything to write would often light up when reminded that they could write down the story they told that morning. They began to see a stronger connection to writing as they realized that anything spoken could be written down.

“Many educators have believed that personal storytelling can serve as an effective bridge into schooling and early literacy,” say researchers Miller and Mehler (1994). The enduring popularity of “show and tell” is a testament to the power of sharing personal experiences in the primary classroom. In the article, Sharing Lives: Reading, Writing, Talking, and Living in a First-grade Classroom (opens in a new window), the authors describe a classroom in which “narratives — personal and public, self-constructed and constructed by others — played a central role in the building of this community and in its continued life” (Galda, Bisplinghoff, Pellegrini, & Stahl, 1995). By bringing their lives into the classroom through oral and written personal narratives, children were able to:

  1. Connect their home lives to their school lives, blurring the distinction between home and school, and affirm the value and importance that the individual child had in the classroom
  2. Find ways of getting to know each other and build their community
  3. Offer ideas for the reading and writing they did in the classroom (Galda et al., 1995)

Children’s stories provide valuable insight into what they think about and how they interpret their experiences. Also, stories are an area of strength for many young children, including those from backgrounds that do not offer many experiences with reading and writing. Geertz (2000) concludes, “It is not so much a matter of providing something the child hasn’t got as enabling something the child already has: the desire to make sense of self and others … “. Teachers agree that children are interested in personal storytelling, participating frequently and avidly. Helping children and young adults to see their own experiences and stories as valued and important can build students’ confidence and competence in reading, writing, and critical thinking — competencies that are necessary for the higher level literacy skills needed in today’s complex society.

Juneau elementary teacher Mimi Walker notes that writing about themselves and their environment “makes the work relevant. There’s nothing more important to young children than themselves and what surrounds them. Writing about their own and their family’s experiences validates them” and, when they see that other people think their work is important too, “that just makes the children feel great”.

Strategies for young learners

Invented spelling. Encouraging the use of invented or developmental spelling is a strategy that builds both phonemic awareness and phonics knowledge, and offers teachers a window into children’s understanding of print/sound relationships (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). When children are able to express their thoughts while using their best phonetic spelling, they can focus on using language to communicate. Because thinking is, of course, crucial to good writing, both writing and thinking benefit when young children are encouraged to concentrate on the content of writing rather than the form or mechanics of writing (Sweet, 1993). In Dancing with the Pen (Ministry of Education, 1992), the authors explain: “Allowing children to attempt spelling enables them to use vocabulary from their oral language which then flows on into their writing. Spelling is functional — it enables writers to express meaning. It is therefore, a tool for writing, not a barrier to the writing process”.

Language experience

For young children, writing is often an arduous task. A young writer must be able to physically manipulate a pencil and reproduce print from memory in order to say what he or she has to say (Cooper, 1993). Although learning to write independently is an important goal in the primary years, dictating stories eliminates the necessity to learn everything at once; children’s emerging narrative voice can be temporarily freed from the constraints of the mechanics of writing. Dictating stories to an attentive adult can help children develop their storytelling ability and develop an understanding of how sound maps onto print.

In this approach, often referred to as the language experience approach (LEA), teachers act as scribes, writing children’s words as they dictate them, listening carefully for the narrative thread, and helping children clarify their thoughts. As these stories are reread by the author and his or her classmates, children begin to match the remembered words with the printed ones. Language experience activities integrate all aspects of literacy: speaking, listening, reading, and writing, and are particularly effective for children learning English as a second language.

When adults write down children’s stories as children tell them, children learn that:

  • What I think I can say and discuss with others
  • What I say can be written and shared with others
  • What I write can be read by myself and others
  • What we read can be thought about, shared, and discussed

In addition to writing original stories, students and teachers can share an experience, such as a visit to a museum or a beach. Together, they discuss the experience, and the teacher writes children’s observations and descriptions on the board or chart pack. After writing several sentences, the teacher asks the students to read what they have all just written together. It is easy to see how these activities help to build the classroom community, as well as literacy skills.

Language experience activities can be helpful for older students who struggle with writing. During a project that sought to incorporate the culture and language of the Native American students in Tulalip, Washington, teacher David Cort worked one-to-one with a student who was on an IEP and struggled with reading and writing. Cort and the student sat down together and thought through what the child had to say about the canoe journey, the focus of the project. “At first, he was very terse and couldn’t think of anything, but as we worked together he realized he really had a lot to say about his experience on the canoe journey and he was very excited about saying it,” says Cort.

Cort acted as his scribe, writing down the student’s dictated story. They talked about revision strategies while they worked, eventually reaching a point where the student felt very proud of his writing. Then the student selected photographs of the local area, put them into a slide show using Macromedia Flash software, and recorded himself reading the essay, which resulted in a polished presentation.

Researcher Timothy Shanahan (1988) concludes:

LEA gives children the opportunity to see the process through which ideas are translated into text. It provides basic information about technical aspects of writing (e.g., spaces between words, directionality, what to do at the end of a line); it demonstrates the planning, drafting, and revision stages of writing; and it gives children valuable experience in the sustained monologue required in writing.

Finding time for language experience activities

Recording children’s stories, just as they dictate them, is time consuming. How does a busy teacher provide the individual attention that is needed for these language-rich activities? “It’s easy,” says Ellen Fischer, half-time kindergarten teacher and half-time Title I teacher at Hermon Hutchins Elementary School in Valdez, Alaska. “You put the older kids to work mentoring the younger kids. Everybody is learning together.” The goals for the kindergartners are to hone emerging reading and writing skills, phonemic awareness, and phonics knowledge. “But the larger picture is that kindergarten is where children learn to love reading, to be ready for first grade, and be dying to become readers and writers,” Fischer notes.

“For the older kids, we want reading to be a positive experience, something you share with people. It’s fun and social. And in the process of helping the younger kids, they also are practicing their reading and writing skills.” Older students come into the morning kindergarten class two to three times per week, working with children on reading, writing, phonics games, and spelling, providing the individualized attention and support that many five-year-olds need and appreciate.

It is with writing that the older kids have become invaluable, engaging in shared and interactive writing with their younger classmates, whose writing skills are just beginning to emerge. The older students enjoy coming in so much that they like to come in and help when they have free time. “At first I was afraid that the older kids might be stigmatized by coming into the kindergarten room,” notes Fischer. “So we worked in the library. Then they asked, ‘How come we can’t come into your room? We thought you’d let us sit on the rug and take off our shoes.’ It doesn’t matter what grade you’re in, we all like to share stories. And they take responsibility; they come to work.”

Every day, the kindergartners write in their journal. This is a free-write time when they write on a subject of their choice. The only requirements are that they write something and illustrate it. Some children write using invented spelling. Others want to get the spelling correct and want help with that. Some want to dictate the story to the older children. The older students act as scribes, writing down what the kindergartners say, and pointing to the letters and words as they write. They pay careful attention to the story, asking for clarification, and often making suggestions: Often the older children draw and write in the journals, with the permission of the younger ones. “It’s a good collaborative effort and we encourage all of these approaches,” says Fischer.


Stucynski, A., et al. (2005). Tapestry of Tales: Stories of Self, Family, and Community Provide Rich Fabric for Learning. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory: Portland, OR.

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