Teach English Writing Skills: Narrative Challenge

Write a Narrative

Writing skills: idea and organisation

Creating a cohesive narrative is one of the most challenging aspects of learning how to write in English. Many ESL students do not know how to write a short passage that focuses on one main topic or how to include essential supporting ideas.

Students often create gaps in understanding by leaving out details that address basic questions like who, what, where, when, why and how. This writing assignment helps students learn these skills by forcing them to notice and fix obvious gaps in a story.

The purpose of this intermediate+ writing lesson is to help students develop an awareness of idea cohesion and story organisation. The focus of the assignment is a narrative, not an essay. However, the elements of a good narrative are similar to an academic essay: create a single overall idea that is supported or demonstrated by including and linking details.


Step 1 Describe Purpose

Students are going to write a story about a person.

Step 2 Interview Prep

Students need a partner. One student will interview a partner. Ask questions to learn about that person’s likes, dislikes and character. This exercise works best if students focus questions on two or three specific topics rather than asking questions about a wide range of surface topics.

Boring questions, like “Where do you live?” should be discouraged. Encourage students to take notes during the interview; note taking in English is a good skill to learn.

Step 3 Interviews

Students interview their partners; 10 to 15  minutes should be enough time for this task.

Step 4 A Twist

Before students start writing their narratives, introduce the next part of the assignment. It creates a surprise and writing challenge.

Show students a picture of a far away destination. It might be a crowded street in Hong Kong, a street market in India, a cow farm in Canada or an old woman in the desert. Whatever. The key point is to show a scene which is different from the students’ context.

Now tell the students they have to combine two sets of information into one story: the people and/or setting in the picture and the information they collected about their partner.

After the groaning dies down, explain that there is a good reason for this odd exercise. Combing these two things forces students think about and answer key questions (e.g. who, what, why, and so on). Plus, the students will need to be a little creative.

Remind students that their stories need to have a beginning and end.

Optional Teaching Tips

Student learning might be enhanced if this writing lesson follows a previous lesson on noun modifiers.

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This English writing lesson is based on an activity by Dave Eggers in the book, “Don’t Forget to Write For the Secondary Grades.”

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