Wondering how to teach genres of writing to upper elementary students? Start with the nuances of narrative, informative, and argumentative. Work on common strategies as you go. Finally, introduce specialized forms of writing like poetry and drama.
Introducing Genres of Writing
Begin with the two sides of writing – expressive (fiction) and informative (nonfiction) – in your ELA block. For this basic lesson, spread your arms out wide. Then explain the two sides. On the right, we find literature, which is an expressive form of writing. Then on the left, we find informational text, which is informative.
Even in this early lesson, you can explain fundamental vocabulary terms:
- expressive, fiction, literature
- informative, nonfiction, informational text
Furthermore, each of these sides uses (for the most part) a specialized format. Narrative writing, which is mostly associated with fiction, follows a story arc. The structure for informational text can be compared to a hamburger.
Since these concepts provide the foundation for genres of writing, you will refer to them often. Every time your kids read or write, spread your arms and review. Then ask them where that day’s assignment falls in the continuum.
Narrative Overlaps Two Genres of Writing
Narratives tell stories. However, this format can be used for two genres of writing.
On the fiction side, kids will write stories that they’ve made up. While personal narratives and historical accounts may follow the same format, they fall on the nonfiction side.
The Problem with Narrative Writing
When teachers ask kids to write stories or personal narratives, chaos may reign. Unfortunately, without guidance and structures, their writing may be all over the board. On one hand, they may write a few sentences and say, “I’m done.” On the other, they may go on and on with no apparent point.
The Solution: A Story Arc
Fortunately, there’s a solution. Whenever upper elementary students write narratives, use a story arc. It provides a strong, satisfying structure.
- Exposition – At the beginning of the story, authors establish the setting, introduce characters, and provide the situation. Most times, the main character has a problem to solve or a goal to achieve.
- Rising action – As the character attempts to solve the problem of meet the goal, the action rises. Often, they struggle or encounter setbacks. Step by step, the plot moves forward.
- Climax – At the most exciting part of the tale, the character accomplishes what they set out to do – or not.
- Falling action – Afterward, the author quickly wraps up the story and resolves unfinished business.
Furthermore, when kids write personal narratives, they should limit their storytelling to a specific, compelling part. Otherwise, they’ll write pages of meandering memories without a true point.
Informative Writing Explains and/or Informs
As good readers and writers know, the structure of informative text looks different. Whether it’s one or many paragraphs, this genre of nonfiction writing includes a main idea and supporting details. Actually, it can be compared with a hamburger. First, the top bun offers the topic sentence or thesis. Second, the burgers provide details and evidence. Finally, the bottom bun concludes, often restating the main idea.
Argumentative Writing Takes Two Forms
In fourth and fifth grades, kids explore two genres of argumentative writing: opinion and persuasion. Both forms use the hamburger structure.
For opinion writing, students write in first person. In the first paragraph, they state their opinion and provide reasons. Then, in the body, each paragraph elaborates on one reason with evidence. Finally, the conclusion restates the opinion and reasons.
When persuading, students write in second person (“you”), addressing the audience directly. The format is similar to opinion writing. However, in the final paragraph, kids write a call to action. This command tells the audience exactly what to do.
Building Expertise with Genres of Writing
Skills for Narrative Writing
In upper elementary grades, narrative writing instruction focuses on organization, elements, and style. When teachers repeat and reinforce these strategies, kids’ writing improves.
As discussed earlier, the story arc provides a strong organizational structure for this genre of writing. Each narrative piece begins with the exposition, which introduces characters, setting, and situation. It continues with rising action, climax, and falling action.
Fourth and fifth graders are ready to develop characters, setting, plot, and theme. Fables provide a perfect starting point. Why? These short stories have strong characterization, simple settings, clear plots and themes. Let’s take a look at the process.
First, kids select a lesson, or moral for their story. For ideas, look at lists of proverbs.
Second, they develop a simple plot to teach the lesson. In a nutshell, the character works to solve a problem. How their actions affect the outcome provides a theme.
In fables, characters are generally animals with human traits. This provides a great opportunity for characterization. Students select animals to depict each trait. Then they consider what the characters will do and say to develop each character.
For this, kids must know how to write dialogue. This language skill must be taught before or during the first narrative writing project of the year.
Although fable settings are often underdeveloped, they can play an important part. For example, day may turn into night or summer to winter (as in “The Grasshopper and the Ants”). Use this first writing project to introduce the way setting affects characters and their actions.
Writing without style can be flat, choppy, and/or wooden. What can teachers do to improve narrative writing? Throughout the year, encourage students to choose precise, expressive language; vary sentences; and use transition terms. Fourth and fifth grade students are also ready to experiment with voice.
Be a broken record. Tell kids to use specific nouns and active verbs. To drive the point home, try this simple activity:
- Ask kids to close their eyes and imagine a dog.
- Now ask if they were imagining a Dalmatian (or other breed).
- Next, ask them to imagine the Dalmatian moving.
- Explain that what you really meant was the Dalmatian laid down.
- Compare two sentences: (1) The dog moved. (2) The Dalmatian laid down. Specific language helps the audience understand what’s happening in a story.
You’ve heard it before: show, don’t tell. Ask kids to practice this skill. For example, instead of saying, “Night was coming,” they might say, “The sun hung low on the horizon.” After they’ve tried it out, students can incorporate it in their writing.
Additionally, students can use figurative language. Tie language instruction into this genre of writing with similes, metaphors, personification, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and hyperbole.
Varying sentences comes in all shapes and sizes:
- For a quick, amazing start, ask kids to begin every sentence in a paragraph differently. You’ll be amazed at the difference!
- Next, suggest using different sentence types. Instead of all declarative sentences, for example, they can throw in a question.
- Another game changer is varying sentence lengths. Students in fourth and fifth grade can use this strategy with surprising effects. Just remember: long sentences flow and short sentences punctuate.
For all genres of writing, transitions connect ideas. Additionally, they move the audience through the text fluently. Whenever kids write, provide a page of transition terms and encourage them to use them.
For kids in fourth and fifth grades, giving different voices to different characters is an easy place to start. Maybe a character is shy or has an accent. Playing around with other voices will help students find their own.
Skills for Nonfiction Writing
In upper elementary, kids scaffold from one- to five- or six-paragraph essays. Of course, when they write research papers, their work may be even longer.
For this genre of writing, they continue to work on word choice and sentence variety. Transitions become even more important as they signal different informational text structures. Instead of expressive language, however, kids need to stick to the facts.
Although fourth and fifth grade teachers may begin with a hamburger analogy, moving to boxes and bullets simplifies planning. It helps them remember to write a topic sentence – supported by details – for every paragraph.
Scaffolding from One to Five Paragraphs
To reinforce basic informative writing structure, begin with one paragraph.
- The topic sentence expresses the main idea. Beginners should write it at the beginning. As kids gain expertise, they can move the topic sentence around in the paragraph.
- Detail sentences support the main idea. Over time, students can practice support with different text structures. Although they will probably begin with a descriptive structure, they can branch out to sequence, cause-effect, problem-solution, and compare-contrast. For each of these structures, different transitions signal relationships.
- A concluding sentence wraps up the paragraph, generally restating the thesis in a different way.
Once kids have mastered single-paragraphs in this genre of writing, it’s time to move to five paragraphs. Surprisingly, these longer essays take the same structure:
- The first paragraph includes a thesis statement, which expresses the main idea. Three detail sentences support the thesis. Additionally, kids may write sentences that elaborate or clarify.
- The second, third, and fourth paragraphs each elaborate on one of the supporting details from the introduction.
- Finally, the conclusion restates the thesis and supporting details.
After moving to five-paragraph essays, you can return to single-paragraph writing to practice time and time again. This will help your students work on specific writing strategies. Additionally, you’ll be able to squeeze shorter projects into your overcrowded day.
In fourth and fifth grades, students explore five basic informational text structures: descriptive, sequence, cause-effect, compare-contrast, and problem-solution. Since they’re novices, kids usually work on identifying text structures in informative text and writing paragraphs. Additionally, they learn to use specialized transition terms for each structure.
Informative writing strategies transfer to research writing. At this level, however, research papers may not be as “tight” as five-paragraph essays. Instead, kids can use text features, such as headers, to organize information.
Additional text features, like images, captions, maps, graphs, and diagrams complement research writing well. Teaching these skills works well with this genre of writing.
Skills for Argumentative Writing
Opinion and persuasive writing are fun and easy to teach in upper elementary classrooms. Kids quickly catch on to the opinion-reason-reason-reason-conclusion structure. Furthermore, they can easily find information to back up their reasons. Because of this, you may want to teach argumentative before other informative genres of writing.
Introducing More Genres of Writing
Genres of Writing Poetry
To expose students to more genres of writing, spend some time on types of poetry:
- Rhyming Poems – When people think of poetry, rhyming poems are top of the mind. Patterns of rhythm and rhyme appeal to the senses.
- Limericks – These playful poems are fun to read and write. The first, second, and fifth verses have three beats and rhyme. The third and fourth verses have two beats and also rhyme. Traditionally, limericks describe (and make fun of) a person in a humorous way.
- Diamante – For this diamond-shaped poem, kids write seven lines: one noun, two adjectives, three -ing verbs, four nouns, three -ing verbs, two adjectives, and one noun. In most cases, nouns chosen for the first and last lines are antonyms. Through word choice, the author morphs the topic from one to the other.
- Haiku – This expressive form of Japanese poetry is exactly three lines in length. The first verse uses five syllables; the second verse, seven; and the third, five.
- Cinquain – These five-verse poems use lots of figurative language and a 2-4-6-8-2 syllable pattern.
- Concrete Poems – Also called a shape poem, the words fill a shape that illustrates the topic.
- Acrostic – Traditionally, a word is spelled down the left-hand side of the page. Lines of the poem (or just words) begin with each of the letters.
Of course, you’ll spend some time on elements of poetry as well:
- Verse – one line of poetry
- Stanza – group of verses
- Rhythm – beats, or stressed syllables
- Meter – pattern of stressed syllables
- Rhyme – syllables that sound similar
If poetry’s not a part of your curriculum, just carve out some time in April, which is Poetry Month.
We usually think of a play as something to act out. However, kids in fourth and fifth grades should know about elements of this genre of writing as well:
- Cast of characters
- Stage directions
Enjoy Teaching Genres of Writing
How often should fourth and fifth grade students write? All the time! Don’t be afraid to dive in. Your kids will love exploring genres of writing with short and long compositions.