Understanding the Writing Standards: A Narrative (or is it Informative?)

By on April 7, 2015

This week, a 4th grade teacher contacted me about the three writing types outlined in the new state standards. We exchanged emails for a few days and had a great discussion about writing types. The question she asked really challenged both of our understanding about writing and how to teach writing. In this eCoach, I will include some of our emails we exchanged and add some commentary in order to explore narrative and informative writing as they are outlined in the new state standards.

I would like to begin with a question in her first email.

I have attached a sample assessment for the WA State SBA testing. I am struggling to fully understand the scope of the standards and how they relate to various writing genres. The writing prompt for informative/explanatory texts wants students to fill in the main idea for an essay about a personal experience. To me, the structure looks more like a narrative structure. Then, the exemplary explanation says that “interesting” is the main idea driver, but that, along with the additional supporting descriptions, would create more of an opinion write. Would you please explain to me the alignment between the standard the state is assessing on and the prompt given?

I took a look at the attachment she sent. Her 4th grade students were asked to complete the following writing task.

A student is writing a report for her teacher about a recent class trip to a local museum. Read the draft of the report and complete the task that follows.

Three paragraphs were given. Students read about a girl’s experience at a museum. The student writer talked about the features of the museum and added narration to explain what her and her classmates did at each exhibit. Then, students were asked to respond to the following task.

Write an introduction that clearly states the main idea of the report and sets up the information to come in the body of the report.

My new teacher friend and I sent a few emails back and forth trying to figure out if this was a narrative or informative text. Before I go any further, what do you think? How would you tell your students to respond to this? Here was my response.

"After reading the SBAC sample, I can see where this writing type is causing some confusion. First, let's explore informative writing. We know that informative writing is about information. Someone is explaining or describing something or giving information about a person, place, thing, or idea.

Based on the task, Smarter Balanced most likely wants students to explain an experience and add narrative elements to make their writing more interesting. They use the word “report” to signal informative writing. Traditionally, we teach informative writing as compare and contrast, cause and effect, definition, etc. Although they are taught as separate types of writing, they are actually organizational patterns that exist in any expository writing (informative and argumentative). There are 8 common patterns that writers use in informative and argumentative writing. Narrative is one pattern which also happens to be the way fictional texts are written. When we teach narrative as stories and cause and effect as informative, we confuse patterns with actual genres, so when we see narrative elements in informative writing, we become unsure about the expectations. The SBAC sample you sent me wants students to write about a real event and add narrative elements and description. Even with narrative elements and a clear sequence of events, the text is informative."

My response might have caused more harm than good because I failed to talk about fictional texts like short stories and novels as a separate genre. I also could have talked more about how stories like biographies and autobiographies are informational texts even though they are mostly written in narrative. I loved the response.

"I thought that the reason we teach the three different genres of writing (narrative, informative, and opinion) in fourth grade, was to help the students understand and personally experience the different structures of those types of writing. Narrative writing includes events, most often in sequence, which may also include dialogue, facts and personal experience. Informative writing consists of specific information or explanation about a particular topic that can be searched in an index and found on a particular page or section under headings and subheadings, quoted from transcripts of a speaker. Opinion writing includes a paragraph structure that begins with a specific statement with supporting evidence and leads into paragraphs which expand upon those evidential points. We teach these writing types so that students can understand and identify the different formats and structures of the various writing genres."

She is absolutely correct. Her clear explanation of the three types of writing is accurate. However, informative writing can be much more than our teacher guides tell us. For example, informative writing can have dialogue, events, and sensory details. It's not always dry and process oriented. Think about essays by Richard Rodriguez, Malcolm X, and Booker T. Washington or vivid slave narratives from Olaudah Equiano and impassioned speeches from Elizabeth Stanton. All of these writers use narratives as a primary organizational pattern. Yet, they would all be considered informational texts. They are not stories, nor do they fit under non-fiction narratives like an autobiography. This is why this discussion can become very confusing.

Our emails continued as we talked about the intention of all three writing types: narrative, informative, or opinion/argument. First, we must explore the word “narrative.” Since the writers of the standards decided to use the term “narrative” as a type of writing, we must be ready to teach students how to write narratives and how to use narrative elements in informative and opinion writing. I guess what I am arguing is this: students must learn that narrative is both a type of writing and an organizational pattern.

In our final emails, my new pen pal had this to say.

Genre of writing is not based solely on content, but is a combination of content, purpose and structure. Not all non-fiction is written in the informational text format. Furthermore, not all informational text is non-fiction. They are in fact not synonymous. My son has an "informational text" about the minion characters from the Despicable Me movie. While it is written in an informational text format, it is clearly about fictional characters. A fictional narrative may also contain actual facts, yet it is not an informational text. The facts are what make it "realistic fiction". Likewise, a non-fiction story, like a personal narrative or biography, may be written in a narrative format. Reference material is informational, yet also structured in a different format.

Right again. What we can say is that teaching writing is tough. Our job is to make it as clear as possible for our students. If I could give one word of caution it would be this: try not to teach writing in absolutes. Words like “never,” “can’t,” and “always” set up false boundaries and cause students confusion down the road as they develop as writers. We must teach students how to be careful readers of writing tasks and teach them how to write passionately with strong words and creativity for both fiction and non-fiction. We also have to teach them how to recognize purpose and audience. Understanding the task, knowing the structure of a genre, and identifying a purpose and audience will help students respond correctly to any writing task.

In the case of the SBAC sample, students need to recognize that they have been asked to write a report. They should know that they are not writing a fictional text. They should also know that a report will need to include facts. At this point, they know that they are writing an informative text. Since the students have been asked to write a report about a day at a museum, they should start to think about interesting ways to report on this event and find ways to make the museum come to life. A narrative might be in order. Instead of simply listing the exhibits in the museum, students can talk about how the exhibits were visited in chronological order and what students did and learned at each stop.

I appreciate the stimulating conversation I had with my 4th grade teacher friend and I appreciate her willingness to let me use our conversation as this focus of week’s eCoach. We are all learning together!

Interested in learning more about evidence-based writing skills, come join us this summer in San Diego at LiteracyTA University.

Remember to contribute to our National Professional Learning Team (NPTL) writing project. We want to compile a list of amazing short writing prompts for teachers to use all over the country. Don't worry about format, one of the team members will come through and make sure every slide looks amazing. Want to know more? Check out the eCoach.

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Literacy Standards In Action

We've mapped our literacy lessons and reading, speaking, and writing skills to state standards, Common Core, and NGSS. The standards are "the what" to teach. Our lessons are "the how" to meet the expectations defined by the standards. Click on the links below to view our quick reference table that maps standards to literacy lessons.

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
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