Writing a Literacy Narrative
Narratives are stories, and we read and tell them for many different purposes. Parents read their children bedtime stories as an evening ritual. Preachers base their Sunday sermons on Bible stories to teach the importance of religious faith. Grandparents tell how things used to be (sometimes the same stories year after year). Schoolchildren tell teachers that their dog ate their homework. College applicants write about significant moments in their lives. Writing students are often called upon to compose literacy narratives to explore how they learned to read or write. This chapter provides detailed guidelines for writing a literacy narrative. Here is an example.
In the following literacy narrative, Shannon Nichols, a student at Wright State University, describes her experience taking the standardized writing proficiency test that high school students in Ohio must pass to graduate. She wrote this essay for a college writing course, where her audience included her classmates and instructor.
The first time I took the ninth-grade proficiency test was in March of eighth grade. The test ultimately determines whether students may receive a high school diploma. After months of preparation and anxiety, the pressure was on. Throughout my elementary and middle school years, I was a strong student, always on the honor roll. I never had a GPA below 3.0. I was smart, and I knew it. That is, until I got the results of the proficiency test.
Although the test was challenging, covering reading, writing, math, and citizenship, I was sure I had passed every part. To my surprise, I did pass every part—except writing. “Writing! Yeah right! How did I manage to fail writing, and by half a point, no less?” I thought to myself in disbelief. Seeing my test results brought tears to my eyes. I honestly could not believe it. To make matters worse, most of my classmates, including some who were barely passing eighth-grade English, passed that part.
Until that time, I loved writing just as much as I loved math. It was one of my strengths. I was good at it, and I enjoyed it. If anything, I thought I might fail citizenship. How could I have screwed up writing? I surely spelled every word correctly, used good grammar, and even used big words in the proper context. How could I have failed?
Finally I got over it and decided it was no big deal. Surely I would pass the next time. In my honors English class I worked diligently, passing with an A. By October I’d be ready to conquer that writing test. Well, guess what? I failed the test again, again with only 4.5 of the 5 points needed to pass. That time I did cry, and even went to my English teacher, Mrs. Brown, and asked, “How can I get A’s in all my English classes but fail the writing part of the proficiency test twice?” She couldn’t answer my question. Even my friends and classmates were confused. I felt like a failure. I had disappointed my family and seriously let myself down. Worst of all, I still couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.
I decided to quit trying so hard. Apparently—I told myself—the people grading the tests didn’t have the slightest clue about what constituted good writing. I continued to excel in class and passed the test on the third try. But I never again felt the same love of reading and writing.
This experience showed me just how differently my writing could be judged by various readers. Obviously all my English teachers and many others enjoyed or at least appreciated my writing. A poem I wrote was put on television once. I must have been a pretty good writer. Unfortunately the graders of the ninth-grade proficiency test didn’t feel the same, and when students fail the test, the state of Ohio doesn’t offer any explanation.
After I failed the test the first time, I began to hate writing, and I started to doubt myself. I doubted my ability and the ideas I wrote about. Failing the second time made things worse, so perhaps to protect myself from my doubts, I stopped taking English seriously. Perhaps because of that lack of seriousness, I earned a 2 on the Advanced Placement English Exam, barely passed the twelfth-grade proficiency test, and was placed in developmental writing in college. I wish I knew why I failed that test, because then I might have written what was expected on the second try, maintained my enthusiasm for writing, and continued to do well.
Nichols‘s narrative focuses on her emotional reaction to failing a test that she should have passed easily. The contrast between her demonstrated writing ability and her repeated failures creates a tension that captures readers‘ attention. We want to know what will happen to her.
Key Features / Literacy Narratives
A well-told story. As with most narratives, those about literacy often set up some sort of situation that needs to be resolved. That need for resolution makes readers want to keep reading. We want to know whether Nichols ultimately will pass the proficiency test. Some literacy narratives simply explore the role that reading or writing played at some time in someone’s life—assuming, perhaps, that learning to read or write is a challenge to be met.
Vivid detail. Details can bring a narrative to life for readers by giving them vivid mental images of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world in which your story takes place. The details you use when describing something can help readers picture places, people, and events; dialogue can help them hear what is being said. We get a picture of the only treasure Bragg has ever known through the details he provides: “a water-damaged Faulkner,” “a paperback with two naked women on the cover,” books “wrapped in fake leather.” Similarly, we hear a three-yearold’s exasperation through his own words: “I’d like to see a menu.” Dialogue can help bring a narrative to life.
Some indication of the narrative’s significance. By definition, a literacy narrative tells something the writer remembers about learning to read or write. In addition, the writer needs to make clear why the incident matters to him or her. You may reveal its significance in various ways. Nichols does it when she says she no longer loves to read or write. Bragg is more direct when he tells us he would not trade the books for a gold monkey. The trick is to avoid tacking onto the end a statement about your narrative’s significance as if it were a kind of moral of the story. Bragg’s narrative would have far less power if he’d said, “Thus did my father teach me to value books of all kinds.”
A GUIDE TO WRITING A LITERACY NARRATIVE
Choosing a Topic
In general, it’s a good idea to focus on a single event that took place during a relatively brief period of time. For example:
- any early memory about writing or reading that you recall vividly
- someone who taught you to read or write
- a book or other text that has been significant for you in some way
- an event at school that was interesting, humorous, or embarrassing
- a writing or reading task that you found (or still find) difficult or challenging
- a memento that represents an important moment in your literacy development (perhaps the start of a LITERACY PORTFOLIO)
- the origins of your current attitudes about writing or reading
- perhaps more recent challenges: learning to write instant messages, learning to write email appropriately, learning to construct a Web page
Make a list of possible topics, and then choose one that you think will be interesting to you and to others—and that you’re willing to share with others. If several seem promising, try them out on a friend or classmate. Or just choose one and see where it leads; you can switch to another if need be. If you have trouble coming up with a topic, try FREEWRITING, LISTING, CLUSTERING, or LOOPING.
Considering the Rhetorical Situation
|PURPOSE||Why do you want to tell this story? To share a memory with others? To fulfill an assignment? To teach a lesson? To explore your past learning? Think about the reasons for your choice and how they will shape what you write.|
|AUDIENCE||Are your readers likely to have had similar experiences? Would they tell similar stories? How much explaining will you have to do to help them understand your narrative? Can you assume that they will share your attitudes toward your story, or will you have to work at making them see your perspective? How much about your life are you willing to share with this audience?|
|STANCE||What attitude do you want to project? Affectionate? Neutral? Critical? Do you wish to be sincere? serious? humorously detached? self-critical? self-effacing? something else? How do you want your readers to see you?|
|MEDIA / DESIGN||Will your narrative be in print? presented orally? on a Web site? Will photos or other illustrations help you present your subject? Is there a typeface that conveys the right tone?|
Generating Ideas and Text
Good literacy narratives share certain elements that make them interesting and compelling for readers. Remember that your goals are to tell the story as clearly and vividly as you can and to convey the meaning the incident has for you today. Start by writing out what you remember about the setting and those involved, perhaps trying out some of the methods in the chapter on GENERATING IDEAS AND TEXT. You may also want to INTERVIEW a teacher or parent who figures in your narrative.
Describe the setting. Where does your narrative take place? List the places where your story unfolds. For each place, write informally for a few minutes, DESCRIBING what you remember:
- What do you see? If you’re inside, what color are the walls? What’s hanging on them? What can you see out any windows? What else do you see? Books? Lined paper? Red ink? Are there people? Places to sit?
- What do you hear? A radiator hissing? Air conditioners? Leaves rustling? The wind howling? Rain? Someone reading aloud? Shouts? Cheers? Children playing? Music? The zing of an instant message arriving?
- What do you smell? Sweat? White paste? Perfume? Incense? Food cooking?
- How and what do you feel? Nervous? Happy? Cold? Hot? A scratchy wool sweater? Tight shoes? Rough wood on a bench?
- What do you taste? Gum? Mints? Graham crackers? Juice? Coffee?
Think about the key people. Narratives include people whose actions play an important role in the story. In your literacy narrative, you are probably one of those people. A good way to develop your understanding of the people in your narrative is to write about them:
- Describe each person in a paragraph or so. What do the people look like? How do they dress? How do they speak? Quickly? Slowly? With an accent? Do they speak clearly, or do they mumble? Do they use any distinctive words or phrases? You might begin by DESCRIBING their movements, their posture, their bearing, their facial expressions. Do they have a distinctive scent?
- Recall (or imagine) some characteristic dialogue. A good way to bring people to life and move a story along is with DIALOGUE, to let readers hear them rather than just hearing about them. Try writing six to ten lines of dialogue between two people in your narrative. If you can’t remember an actual conversation, make up one that could have happened. (After all, you are telling the story, and you get to decide how it is to be told.) If you don’t recall a conversation, try to remember (and write down) some of the characteristic words or phrases that the people in your narrative used.
Write about “what happened.” At the heart of every good narrative is the answer to the question “What happened?” The action in a literacy NARRATIVE may be as dramatic as winning a spelling bee or as subtle as a conversation between two friends; both contain action, movement, or change that the narrative tries to capture for readers. A good story dramatizes the action. Try SUMMARIZING the action in your narrative in a paragraph—try to capture what happened. Use active and specific verbs (pondered, shouted, laughed) to describe the action as vividly as possible.
Consider the significance of the narrative. You need to make clear the ways in which any event you are writing about is significant for you now. Write a page or so about the meaning it has for you. How did it change or otherwise affect you? What aspects of your life now can you trace to that event? How might your life have been different if this event had not happened or had turned out differently? Why does this story matter to you?
Ways of Organizing a Literacy Narrative
Start by OUTLINING the main events in your narrative. Then think about how you want to tell the story. Don’t assume that the only way to tell your story is just as it happened. That’s one way—starting at the beginning of the action and continuing to the end. But you could also start in the middle—or even at the end. Shannon Nichols, for example, could have begun her narrative by telling how she finally passed the proficiency test and then gone back to tell about the times she tried to pass it, even as she was an A student in an honors English class. Several ways of organizing a narrative follow.
Writing Out a Draft
Once you have generated ideas and thought about how you want to organize your narrative, it’s time to begin DRAFTING. Do this quickly—try to write a complete draft in one sitting, concentrating on getting the story on paper or screen and on putting in as much detail as you can. Some writers find it helpful to work on the beginning or ending first.
Draft a beginning. A good narrative grabs readers’ attention right from the start. Here are some ways of beginning; you can find more advice in the chapter on beginning and ending.
- Jump right in. Sometimes you may want to get to the main action as quickly as possible. Nichols, for example, begins as she takes the ninth-grade proficiency test for the first time.
- Describe the context. You may want to provide any background information at the start of your narrative, as I decided to do, beginning by explaining how my grandmother taught me to read.
- Describe the setting, especially if it’s important to the narrative. Bragg begins by describing the small Alabama town where his father lived.
Draft an ending. Think about what you want your readers to read last. An effective ending helps them understand the meaning of your narrative. Here are some possibilities; look also at the chapter on beginning and ending.
- End where your story ends. It’s up to you to decide where a narrative ends. Bragg’s story ends with him standing in front of a pile of books; mine ends several years after it begins, with my graduation from college.
- Say something about the significance of your narrative. Nichols observes that she no longer loves to read or write, for example. The trick is to touch upon the narrative’s significance without stating it too directly, like the moral of a fable.
- Refer back to the beginning. My narrative ends with my grandmother watching me graduate from college; Nichols ends by contemplating the negative effects of failing the proficiency test.
- End on a surprising note. Bragg catches our attention when his father gives him the boxes of books—and leaves us with a complicated image to ponder.
Come up with a title. A good title indicates something about the subject of your narrative—and makes readers want to take a look. Nichols’s title states her subject, “Proficiency,” but she also puts the word in quotes, calling it into question in a way that might make readers wonder—and read on. I focus on the significance of my narrative: “How I Learned about the Power of Writing.” Bragg takes his title from something memorable his father said: “It’s all over but the shoutin.’ ” See the section on guiding your reader for more advice on titles.
Considering Matters of Design
You’ll probably write your narrative in paragraph form, but think about the information you’re presenting and how you can design it to enhance your story and appeal to your audience.
- What would be an appropriate typeface? Something serious, like Times Roman? Something whimsical, like Comic Sans? Something else?
- Would it help your readers if you added headings in order to divide your narrative into shorter sections?
- Would photographs or other visuals show details better than you can describe them with words alone? If you’re writing about learning to read, for example, you might scan in an image of one of the first books you read in order to help readers picture it. Or if your topic is learning to write, you could include something you wrote.
Getting Response and Revising
The following questions can help you study your draft with a critical eye. GETTING RESPONSE from others is always good, and these questions can guide their reading, too. Make sure they know your purpose and audience.
- Do the title and first few sentences make readers want to read on? If not, how else might you begin?
- Does the narrative move from beginning to end clearly? Does it flow, and are there effective transitions? Does the narrative get sidetracked at any point?
- Is anything confusing?
- Is there enough detail, and is it interesting? Is there enough information about the setting and the people? Can readers picture the characters and sense what they’re like as people? Would it help to add some dialogue, so that readers can “hear” them? Will they be able to imagine the setting?
- Have you made the situation meaningful enough to make readers wonder and care about what will happen?
- Do you narrate any actions clearly? vividly? Does the action keep readers engaged?
- Is the significance of the narrative clear?
- Does the narrative end in a satisfying way? What are readers left thinking?
The preceding questions should identify aspects of your narrative you need to work on. When it’s time to REVISE,make sure your text appeals to your audience and achieves your purpose as successfully as possible.
Editing and Proofreading
Readers equate correctness with competence. Once you’ve revised your draft, follow these guidelines for EDITING a narrative:
- Make sure events are NARRATED in a clear order and include appropriate time markers, TRANSITIONS, and summary phrases to link the parts and show the passing of time.
- Be careful that verb tenses are consistent throughout. If you write your narrative in the past tense (“he taught me how to use a computer”), be careful not to switch to the present (“So I look at him and say . . . “) along the way.
- Check to see that verb tenses correctly indicate when an action took place. If one action took place before another action in the past, you should use the past perfect tense: “I forgot to dot my i’s, a mistake I had made many times.”
- Punctuate DIALOGUE correctly. Whenever someone speaks, surround the speech with quotation marks (“No way,” I said.). Periods and commas go inside quotation marks; exclamation points and question marks go inside if they’re part of the quotation, outside if they’re part of the whole sentence:
Inside: Opening the door, Ms. Cordell announced, “Pop quiz!”
Outside: It wasn’t my intention to announce, “I hate to read”!
- PROOFREAD your finished narrative carefully before turning it in.
Taking Stock of Your Work
- How well do you think you told the story?
- What did you do especially well?
- What could still be improved?
- How did you go about coming up with ideas and generating text?
- How did you go about drafting your narrative?
- Did you use photographs or any other graphics? What did they add? Can you think of graphics you might have used?
- How did others’ responses influence your writing?
- What would you do differently next time?