Ray Villareal

If you’re going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all.―Joseph Campbell

A standard assignment given to students in most language arts classrooms is for them to write personal narratives. Teachers do this because they feel that their students will write with greater authority if they tell about things that happened to them, which, on the surface, makes sense.

But just because children experienced an event doesn’t necessarily mean that they can write about it in a coherent, elaborate way. Nor that what they write about will be of interest to their readers. Bear in mind that when teachers talk to their students about author’s purpose, they say that authors write stories to entertain their readers. Personal narratives about building a snowman, taking piano lessons or spending the night at Meemaw’s house don’t generally have that effect.

A librarian friend disapproved of having students write personal narratives. She claimed that personal narratives don’t have real-world applications. Therefore, assigning them is a waste of time.

“We need to teach kids how to write essays, because that’s what they’re going to be writing when they go to college,” she said.  

Her comments led me to ask the participants at one of my workshops why they assigned personal narratives.  

“I’ve learned so much about my students by reading their personal narratives,” a teacher told the group. “For example, I didn’t know that the parents of one of my kids were going through a divorce until he wrote about it.”

Another teacher said, “One of my students read her personal narrative aloud about the death of her grandfather, and she had the whole class in tears. I think it was very therapeutic for her to write about it.”

For me, neither of those responses justified having students write personal narratives. There had to be a better reason, other than being able to pry into their lives or to provide therapy sessions for them or because it’s an easy genre to address.    

One teacher offered a more pragmatic answer: “’Cause it’s gonna be on the test!”

Now we’re getting closer to the truth. In many state writing exams, students are required to write a personal narrative. As a result, teachers focus more on that genre than on the others.

In a way, my librarian friend was right. Personal narratives, in and of themselves, have no real-world applications. I mean, there isn’t exactly a high demand in the job market for personal-narrative writers. My friend, however, was looking at personal narratives through a narrow lens. Each time students write them, they use skills that do have real-world applications: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, word usage, sentence structure, etc.

The problem with assigning personal narratives, though, is that students often write what I call “grocery list” compositions—a list of events with little elaboration. For example:

Yesterday, I went to Six Flags.

I got on this ride, this ride and this ride.

I ate this food, this food and this food.

I played this game, this game and this game.

Then I went home.

Interestingly, the main culprits of these grocery list compositions aren’t the students, but their teachers, who instruct them to organize their personal narratives like this:


Whenever teachers use this approach to teach personal-narrative writing, they practically invite their students to write grocery list compositions.

The term personal narrative, by the way, is educationese. It doesn’t exist outside the classroom. Browse through any library or bookstore, and you might find titles categorized as essays, memoirs, autobiographies, diaries and letters (or epistles), but you won’t find any shelves labeled personal narratives.

A personal narrative is actually an abbreviated memoir. The difference between the two is that a memoir is a collection of memories, while a personal narrative centers on just one (maybe we should call it memoir lite).

To keep your students from writing grocery list compositions, it’s important to teach them the meaning of the term personal narrative.

Personal = you; an individual

Narrative = story

A personal narrative, then, is a story about the writer. And since personal narratives are stories, it stands to reason that they would contain the same elements found in fictional stories: plot, characters, setting, conflict and resolution. The only thing that separates a made-up story from a real-life story is the truth. Other than that, the structures should be the same.

Teach your students to include the five basic elements in their personal narratives, and they’ll never write grocery list compositions again. Not only that, their personal narratives will be a lot more entertaining to read.