Why Blog

I’m passionate about finding ways to simplify comprehension instruction and learning. I’m concerned that we are defining comprehension too narrowly as an accumulation of five or six meta-cognitive strategies when cultivating comprehension involves so much more than that. We need to help children acquire accurate fluent reading skills and strategies; build background knowledge; develop their oral language and vocabulary; make reading-writing connections, and acquire a repertoire of meta-cognitive strategies to use as and if needed.

So I invite you to join me in blogging about this ever-so-important topic. I look forward to hearing your ideas, teaching strategies, book recommendations, classroom stories, etc., basically anything that will inspire a healthy conversation among colleagues.

Monday, March 28, 2011

When Is Enough, Enough in Regards to Personal Narratives?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of writing we ask kids to do. About how writing is both a tool for communication and a way to let learners experience the reading-writing process so that they can better understand texts they read.

As I reflect on this I think of David Coleman’s presentation (Coleman’s a co-author of the CCSS) on YouTube where he states that personal narratives (where a writer shares an experience) and personal (correction—should read "persuasive") essays (where a writer shares an opinion) are the two most frequently assigned writing genres among high school students. He cautions, however, that having students write in these genres may not get them very far in their work lives as they will seldom be asked to do either. He suggests that what’s needed is for students to write with evidence.

I think about my visit to Manhattan New School at the start of this school year… As it happened I visited on the same day that writing consultant Isoke Nia was working with primary grade teachers. Isoke had teachers pondering why they consistently kick off each school year with a personal narrative genre unit and suggested that perhaps it’s time for kids, and themselves, to move on.

I also think about journal writing…and the extent to which we ask kids to produce these notebook entries. I "get it" that it can loosen them up, get their writerly juices flowing, convince them they have something to say. But I also know that it’s too easy to assign journal writing and let it take the place of an authentic writing workshop where children actually receive explicit instruction, guidance, and feedback about how to write.

As we approach the end of one school year in anticipation of the beginning of another, this may be the ideal time to consider whether or not we want to continue in this direction. It may be time to reflect on authentic purposes for writing—to communicate, to inform, to persuade, to entertain. And then consider whether personal narrative genre units are taking up precious time that might be better spent elsewhere.

I. for one, think there’s a lot to be said for expanding the writing repertoire we expose students to, especially at the start of the year. Do kids, especially those in second grade and up, really need one more dose of personal narrative writing? Might we instead have them save personal writing for their Idea Books or “free writing times” and let them choose to write them or not. 


  1. I've wondered about this similarly. I know that when I was first learning about writing workshop, it made sense to me that children should write about what they know, so personal narrative is logical. I believe still that children should write what they know, but also that they learn as they write.
    I know that we all get a bit bored when we're stuck on personal narrative for months and would value suggestions for resources to improve and vary our units of study, especially with primary students. I've had some success with units around list books, and question/answer books.
    Thanks for the YouTube presentation. I appreciate the food for thought!

  2. Thought-provoking post! I opened the year off with an illustration study (as proposed by Katie Wood Ray). It was a hit and the unit introduced the concept of inquiry to my young writers. I am curious what Ms Nia offered as possible studies in lieu of the beginning-of-the-year personal narratives.

    Always look forward to reading your blog. :)

  3. hi linda and mary, i'm away now working in nova scotia. give me some time to consider your questions. later...sharon

  4. Just an aside - I had a great time at your recent seminar in Seattle! Ky fellow teachers and I are all eagerly reading your book and implementing the thinking we're drawing from it.
    I am very intrigued by this need to reflect on writing. At my school, it has become commonplace for all grades K-3 to start with personal narratives as their first unit. How many times do they need to do that same writing genre in 4 years? So, we need to figure out where that works best, and then start considering how do we build on those skills and move on in the next grade. I'm going to share this blog with some of my coworkers and challenge them to "start thinking outside the narrative box". I will be looking into the illustration study mentioned by other respondents, and considering some of the other ideas you mentioned.
    Another aside: I am having trouble locating the Youtube video you mentioned, so if anyone has a link, I'd love to have it! Thanks!

  5. Hi All—please note the correction made to the above post. Changed "personal" to "persuasive" essay.

    And here's the Youtube link to David Coleman's Youtube presentation as you (Stephen) requested. I hope it works to copy and paste it. let me know. thanks.


  6. That link did not work, but it did help me search and find it! This link might work better. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51KX2i13dWU
    However, sometimes when pasted into these boxes, there is a change in how it is formatted which messes things up. If you search for "David Coleman on the ELA Standards of the Common Core State Standards", it will take you to the right place. Thanks! I'll be listening to it soon!

  7. Thanks Stephen for letting folks know how to find Coleman's YouTube link.

  8. Very interesting to see how similar questions are popping up in different areas of the country! Naturally, real world is key as we ponder teaching purposes and practices. Just as you said, Sharon, we should be spending a lot of time working both informally and formally on helping students develop and defend their thinking within all areas of inquiry. The CCSS certainly reflect this emphasis. Long-term experience and time to "muck around" with informative writing will help students learn firsthand how writing is actually a mode of learning--an invaluable tool for expanding and clarifying one's thinking.