Narrative structure: the worst way to teach kids to write?

Trying to write a great story using narrative structure would make an adult author lose the plot, so why are we teaching it to school students?

This video was recently shown at the Australian Council for Education Research’s 2021 Research ConferencShowcase. Narrative structure is a commonly taught story plot method, It’s built on abstract concepts like hooks, consolidation, rising tension, climaxes and conclusions. 


Before you get too depressed

Think about this. Another solid body of research says the opposite: Kids do enjoy writing – if a single condition is met. And this condition gives us the first of two keys to re-engaging them in classroom writing.

The one condition? Researchers consistently find that classroom writing must be relevant to students – if you want to foster a love of writing

By this, researchers mean that children enjoy writing more if they can write about topics or themes that have meaning to them. No surprises there, right? We all become more motivated when exploring topics we are interested in.

For example, the UK’s National Literacy Trust surveyed 3000 8-to-16 year olds.  They found that almost 80% of children find writing fun – when they get to choose the topic themselves.

This survey result is backed up by decades of research into children’s writing engagement – and how to boost it.

I would like to take a moment to say that the solutions in this article focus on narrative – or story – writing engagement; however the principles are relevant to classroom writing in general.

What do cavepeople, Hollywood and Shakespeare have in common?

However, there’s more to the story than simply letting children write about topics that have meaning to them – that’s just the first step. The second is to teach them how to access that meaning. To do this, we must teach them to structure their writing in a very specific way.

We are talking about the type of structure that is proven to authentically engage the audience and the writer alike. 

Now, this specific type of meaning-based structure is a precise set of proven story rules. Rules that good authors and storytellers use to build compelling stories in a logical, meaningful way from the first sentence to the last. Think of these rules as the narrative engine.

People across most cultures have used these narrative rules for thousands of years to create great stories. These rules are still used today to drive children’s and adult fiction, movies, TV shows and plays.

You could say a mastery of these rules is the one thing that cavepeople, Shakespeare and Hollywood scriptwriters have in common.

Let’s expand on this idea. As you would imagine, good authors have two goals: to write a stories they care about – otherwise why write at all? And to structure their stories in a way that grabs the audience by the ears and hurls them so deep into the story they can’t escape. Or want to escape.

Learning effective narrative: the real surprise

Perhaps surprisingly, the learning sciences consistently prove these enduring effective narrative rules are intuitive, easy and engaging for children to master.  As an added bonus, if children know these rules, they are also more likely to comprehend the fiction they read, and enjoy reading more, too.  Why? Because good published stories are structured this way. It’s how authors give their stories meaning, purpose and true narrative drive.

As researchers Pellietter and Beatty concluded: “Children will better enjoy stories if they are given the tools to understand story structure”.

That means we can use a single authentic method for teaching effective narrative writing AND fiction reading comprehension.

Cognitive development researchers have also proven that adults and children rate stories as “good” stories if they follows these narrative rules. Not surprising really, given authors and story creators have known for millennia that these rules work to authentically engage audiences.

Hang on, how can I let them write about whatever they want? I’ve got a curriculum to teach and tests to prepare them for.

Actually, the same fundamental effective narrative rules work regardless of genre, topic and form – including narrative essays, personal narratives, micro-fiction, short stories, scripts, oral traditions or even novels. The good news is, this makes your job as a teacher a lot easier.

The trick is to show your students how to write about characters and themes that have meaning to them within the context of your learning requirements – using the enduring effective narrative rules. That means you can adapt effective narrative to all your narrative and story writing tasks. And, for that matter, most of your fiction reading tasks too.

So why aren’t we teaching effective narrative to children?

Given all this evidence, it seems odd that we don’t often teach children these proven narrative rules. In fact, we often teach the opposite. And here lies the fundamental problem.

You see, we usually teach children to write using story form. At its simplest, that means a beginning, middle and end. A more in-depth – and popular version, at least in school writing – teaches concepts like hook sentences, consolidation, rising tension, problems, climaxes and conclusions.

There’s two problems with this approach:

It requires learning a lot of abstract concepts

Such abstract concepts are difficult to learn, remember and apply – even for adults. Worse, they strip the joy out of creative writing. Perhaps even worse, concepts like hooks, etc., have nothing to do with creating meaningful, logical and compelling stories.

As a 5th grader once said to me:

“Why do we have to use hook sentences when you never see them in real books?”

One of our Write Magic graduates, Jay, 10, a former self-confessed hater of writing, summarised the “story form” issue succinctly:

“Why do authors get to read and write narratives the easy way, and we don’t?”

It’s a great question, isn’t it? 

It disconnects the writer

A learning focus on story form disconnects writers from the stories they want to write. And this of course, causes them to lose engagement and interest. Writing becomes a chore instead of what it should be: a tool to explore their interests, passions, the world around them and their budding creativity.

Researcher Shelley K Jones highlights this disconnect in her peer-reviewed study on elementary students’ engagement in writing. One of the study participants, student Madison, told the researchers why she disliked writing when she had to remember and apply form:

“…My teacher thinks we need a hook, a topic sentence, a beginning, middle and end…and a closing sentence in a body…I just don’t like it for some reason…like you HAVE to put them in a certain order.”

The researcher described Madison as “an otherwise avid and prolific writer”.

Now, to the solution: make great narrative writing and reading engaging again

As literacy researcher Joyce Caplan Fine said: “The child must read like a writer” to truly become skilled at comprehending and writing stories.

The learning scientists and story experts tell us that effective narrative structure – the type that authors use to drive stories that audiences want to read – has to be taught. If, that is, we want children to both love writing and be good at it.

We do this by teaching children to understand the effective narrative rules.

And as I mentioned above, the evidence from story experts and literacy science consistently shows that children can learn and apply these narrative rules, and quite easily, too. In fact, scientific evidence for this meaning-based approach to teaching fiction writing and reading comprehension stretches back to the 1960s. 

And researchers continue to use these methods to improve outcomes and engagement in a range of students, including mainstream learners, non-confident writers and readers, and those with learning difficulties and English-as-a-second language.

I won’t go into the science in detail here, except to say that it’s extensive, and includes research from literacy, education, cognitive development and even neuroscience. If you are interested in exploring the science further, Kendall Haven presents an easily digestible summary of the research in his book Story Proof.

So let’s assume the researchers and story experts know what they are talking about. That means we can safely say that children can learn to write great narratives. That is, narratives that are meaningful, passionate, creative, cohesive, logical and specifically structured to engage audiences.

So how do I teach effective narrative writing and reading comprehension in the classroom?

Learn about effective narrative

Many great writing books explain the effective narrative rules. Try Dwight V Swain’s seminal Techniques of the Selling Writer – it’s old, but still relevant because the effective story rules don’t change – if, that is, you are willing to look past the outdated attitudes towards women.

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story is also a great place to start. Or if you are interested in the education research side of things, try Kendall Haven’s Story Proof.

Do a course explicitly designed to show K-12 educators how to teach effective narrative writing and reading comprehension in the classroom – using a single authentic method to boost engagement and outcomes

Write Magic’s True Story Training for K-12 Teachers will help you teach your students the narrative rules, so they can plan and write compelling, meaningful and logical stories – just like real authors do. 

And it uses the same effective narrative method to show you how to teach children to unlock the deeper purpose and meaning of books they read. Research shows this type of approach boosts reading comprehension outcomes and engagement.

That means a single method for effective story writing and fiction analysis.

In fact, Write Magic uniquely marries 60 years of literacy, education and learning science with story industry expertise.

Its online courses come with everything you need, including lesson plans, student worksheets and ongoing support. The goal is for you to confidently teach effective narrative in the classroom.

Guarantee: If Write Magic doesn’t transform the way you teach narrative, we will happily refund your course fees – no questions asked.

Start learning Effective Narrative - for free

See the single most powerful narrative rule in action – and how to harness it.  Discover how young and unengaged writers easily created compelling and logical plans.  Visit us to register for your free lesson.

Don't teach narrative structure until you've read this. Why authorship methods make writing and comprehension easy and engaging for K-12 .

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Contact Alice

Contact Alice

Alice is an awarded author and journalist with a Ph.D in cognitive psychology. She is passionate about engaging children in reading and writing - and the amazing power of story.

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