Writing the narrative-style research report in elementary school

Thompson, John Taylor

Polly, a 3rd-grader, sat down to begin her assignment to write about an animal. She decided to write about a turtle. After a few minutes of writing, however, she raised her hand and asked the teacher, “Mr. Crane, what are turtles’ shells made of?” Mr. Crane suggested she look up information about turtles and find the answer for herself. Polly learned the valuable lesson that sometimes writers must do some research in order for the story to be correct.

Mr. Crane also learned something important about the value of a technique that could be called narrative-style research writing. This writing style uses a narrative, story-like framework, and includes elements of both expressive and expository writing.

Expressive writing communicates an author’s thoughts, impressions or feelings about a topic. Elementary level writing usually involves no research, but rather draws from children’s own experiences, such as a family trip. Expressive writing can take on a narrative framework or it can be organized along more descriptive lines.

Expository writing describes, gives directions, lists facts or in some way informs the audience about a subject on a more objective basis. A teacher’s prompt for an expository writing assignment might be, “Describe your school so that a visitor would understand what it looks like and what goes on there.” A teacher who wants students to write in a narrative structure might prompt them by saying, “Pretend that an alien has landed in your backyard. Although the alien speaks English, he has never experienced school. Tell what happens as you escort the alien through the school and explain the school environment to the alien so that he understands completely.”

A fact-based composition written in a narrative format allows for more student subjectivity than the standard format of introduction, supporting details and conclusion. Before giving the alien a description of the school, for example, children might have to do a little fact-finding. While much of the narrative would be factual, in some sections the student could express opinions or relate a personal experience that happened at school.

Writing theorists disagree somewhat about what kinds of writing students prefer at various stages of growth. They all maintain, however, that students eventually need to practice writing in a variety of formats and genres.

Prater and Padia’s (1983) study of 4th-and 6th-graders concluded that students performed better with expressive writing than with expository writing because expressive writing is more “egocentric” and elementary students generally get more practice in expressive writing. Thus, one rationale for teaching research-based narrative writing to elementary students is that it can ease the transition from subjective to objective writing by making the writer part of the story.

According to Moffett (1989), writing that requires students to conduct research can act as a “bridge” between early personal writing and more advanced assignments, such as essay writing. Students progress from self-centered to outward-focused writing. Although Stotsky (1993) might disagree about the value of using a narrative structure with research-based writing, she commends the value of research itself. She believes research encourages students to write on unfamiliar topics.

Calkins (1986) stresses that narrative fiction depends upon character development and finding a topic that is of interest to the child. These two factors should not be ignored in favor of researched facts.

The following titles work well with this type of writing:

1. “Billy and the Wasp Adventure”

2. “The Formula That Made the Grass Stop Growing”

3. “Why the Balloon Went the Wrong Way”

4. “The Carlsons Visit a Civil War Battleground”

5. “My Grandfather’s Greatest Adventure”

6. “A Wagon Journey Across Kentucky”

The format of narrative-style research writing can vary. Olenn (1984) describes a 4th-grade student who wrote about gray squirrels. After researching the topic, he wrote his report in a narrative style, working the factual information into the story. This type of writing requires the writer to research pertinent data, and then synthesize and transform it into a more personal style. Another format for narrative/research writing is the “personal touch” assignment. A student assigned to write a “letter to your parents from a summer camp in Alaska” (Smith, 1982), for example, would have to incorporate research on Alaska.

Calkins describes narrative leadins to researched writing. A 4th-grader wrote, “The boat started with a sputter as I, Celia Thaxter, and my family left for the Isles of Shoals . . . I couldn’t wait to see the island we would live on. Nearer and nearer we came until…” (Calkins, 1994, p. 447).

Asking students to write a research report about an imaginary animal adds a slightly different twist to the combined narrative/ research writing assignment (Gray, 1989). Students first design their own fantasy creature, and then list questions a researcher might ask about the animal. As the writing assignment progresses, each student answers the questions. Thus, although no actual research is conducted, the writing structure is similar to an expository-style report.

Some of Patricia Lauber’s children’s books serve to illustrate the ways that facts can be used in a narrative format. Champ, Gallant Collie (1960), a fictional story about a sheepherding collie, contains much specialized information about the ways of farm animals and the effects of flooding. Volcaylo (1986), the story of the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption, combines scientific fact with an exciting, narrative description of the eruption. Both of these books can be used to show students that “real” authors sometimes use research in their works.

The Young Researcher

Teachers need to consider several things before they encourage students to use the narrative style for a research-based writing assignment. Elementary-age children may need a lot of time to find information from printed sources. They have usually not learned how to properly skim reading material, for one thing. Therefore, children need enough time to comprehend the material that they are researching (Yonan, 1982).

Also, consider that children may not be very skillful in writing down the information they find in usable form, other than by copying it verbatim. Show students how to select information that is useful to their writing assignment. Allow students who are researching the same topic to meet in peer conferences and share what each has found. In the process they may discover areas that require more research or individuals may be able to fill in gaps (Jacobs, 1984).

Students will probably need to do more research at certain points in the writing process. If Billy finds that he needs more information about the gray squirrel, he will have to stop and look for it. This procedure teaches the valuable lesson that one does not just find information and write about it. Sometimes a writer has to find additional information during the writing process, in order to maintain the story’s continuity or logic. “Share meetings” (Calkins, 1994), in which students can read their works to each other, will help them improve clarity, interest and content. Some students may want to make changes based on the results of these meetings.

The advantages of allowing children to use a personal, expressive narrative style in expository writing are numerous. Students tend to feel the work is more their own. They also learn to discern when they need to include more information, and will not need to rely on copying directly from references. Finally, using a narrative style smoothes the transition from personal to objective writing.


Calkins, L. M. (1986). The art of teaching writing (1st ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L. M. (1994). The art of teaching writing (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gray, M. A. (1989). Creatively developing research writing skills. Reading Teacher, 42(4), 347.

Jacobs, S. E. (1984). Investigative writing: Practice and principles. Language Arts, 61(4), 356-363.

Moffet, J. (1989). Bridges: From personal writing to the formal essay. ED 305 643. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Writing.

Lauber, P. (1960). Champ, gallant collie New York: Random House.

Lauber, P. (1986). Volcano: The eruption and healing of Mount St. Helen’s. New York: Bradbury Press.

Olenn, V. M. (1984). The dual function of writing in a child’s narrative. Language Arts, 61(4), 376-382.

Prater, D., & Padia, W. (1983). Effects of modes of discourse on writing performance in grades four and six. Research in the Teaching of English, 17(2), 127-134.

Smith, A. (1982). Personalizing social studies: A step in the right direction. Clearing House, 56(1), 20-22.

Stotsky, S. (1993). The uses and limitations of the writer’s personal experience in writing theory, research, and instruction. ED 359 511.

Yonan, B. (1982). Encyclopedia reports don’t have to be dull. Reading Teacher, 36(2), 212-214.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education Summer 1995

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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