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You know how sometimes you look around the room at your writers and realize they all have some version of describing their favorite birthday at Disney World, their trip to Pennsylvania, or just a description of their BFF and why they love them so much. As you start to pull out your hair, you wonder how in the world am I going to make them focus on ONE moment and tell a story, not just summarize!

One of the initial hurdles I see for most students with personal narrative is their lack of ability to zoom in on one moment and tell the story inside it, meaning the reader feels like they are going along on the journey with the writer/characters/narrator. This resource isn’t going to cure all of your personal narrative needs, but it will give you clear actions (pun intended) to head in that direction.

Actions and Words is an adapted strategy from the book The Big Book of Details by Roz Lynder . This book is amazing and I use it for all genres! This strategy helps students add dialogue and clear small actions to their writing. Rather than saying, add dialogue, this gives them clear strategies to balance the character’s actions and their dialogue. Plus, (and most importantly) it is SO. MUCH. FUN. Let me tell you, I may have had more fun with this writing than the students. The beauty of this strategy is that it can be used across a wide group of grade levels. The writing naturally differentiates the strategy. (This is one reason why I love writing so much!)

I used this with students from 6th grade all the way up to high school seniors, but it is absolutely appropriate for elementary writers. In this post, I’m going to walk you step by step how I used this strategy in my classroom. But first…

When should you use this strategy?

✏️When you have that desire to tell your students to add more details (um, what does that mean? It’s very generic and doesn’t teach a specific strategy. “Adding more details” can mean so many things. This gives a super-specific way to do that!

✏️When you need a break in your unit to make writing feel more engaging. You know how sometimes you are in the middle of a unit and things begin to feel stale. Your students need to revise, some are still working on a plan, and you want to wrap the unit up, but their writing needs some work. This is one of those lessons that help to breathe some fresh life into your unit. Many students just wanted to take this one lesson and turn their practice into separate stories. 

✏️I highly recommend teaching this whole group FIRST! Then, you can tuck it into your conferring binder and use it as a reference in your writing conferences or small groups. 

✏️When your students’ writing looks more like a summary, rather than a story. As a reader, you don’t feel like you are actually in the story. The writer needs to slow down the story. 

✏️When your students have zero dialogue. If you tell your students to add dialogue, then they might just go add a bunch of dialogue. This strategy helps students to balance their dialogue (words) with actions. 

✏️When you are between units and want to teach an isolated writing lesson that is fun and engaging but will be useful later on. You know how sometimes you are between writing units and aren’t quite ready to start a new one, but you want to teach your students something in writing. And not just fluff. You want it to be valuable and replicable. Something they can actually apply to their writing. This is that lesson. This lesson can be taught completely separate from a unit if you needed that kind of activity. Of course, it will work better inside of a narrative unit, but it’s also a lesson that will get your kids excited and engaged in writing. What more could you ask for? 

So let’s jump in – step by step!

Materials Needed:  

  • student notebooks
  • chart paper
  • Actions & Words Task (These give the step-by-step for you and your students)

//Part One//

1.  Model with the Example:

Share the part 1 task card with your students. Have them glue in at the top of their notebook so they have an example right in their notebook and they can practice right below it. Once you have completed the lesson, they will always have this in their notebook. So later on in the unit or throughout the year, you can reference it. This is especially helpful during independent writing, conferences, or small group. There is an example on the card. Have students underline the actions and circle the dialogue. This way they have an example in their notebook of what specifically they are trying to do in their writing. 

2.  Shared Writing

Next, you’ll do some shared writing. You can use chart paper or even type on a Google Doc – whatever is easiest. You will be writing your students’ ideas and revising them in the process. As you can see, it doesn’t have to be your neatest teacher writing. It’s about the process. Have students turn and talk with a writing partner to brainstorm two characters. Based on what you hear your students say, select two characters that YOU know and would be comfortable in guiding them. Remind students that they can use any characters during independent writing. Decide quickly on a scenario that might be happening – don’t spend too much time on this. This is to just guide what the characters might say to each other. If you choose two characters that most of your students are familiar with, then it will be a lot easier. You can also take characters from books that your class has read so there is some common familiarity among your class. Students can turn and talk to share their ideas and you record their ideas. Just remind them, it’s actions, words, actions, words. So every time students come up with an action – dialogue comes next. Then, actions. You get the idea. 🙂 For our example, we used Spiderman and Kermit the Frog. 

Some students wrote with me in their notebook because this helped them to follow along and stay focused.

4.  Independent Writing

After you have completed the shared writing, students will come up with their own characters. If you feel like your students still need some scaffolding, then have them work with a partner. 


As students are writing, you can confer, coach, and support. You can take notes on which students seem to be having difficulty and this is also a great time to integrate grammar.

5. Integrate Grammar, Revision, & Editing

At the end of independent writing, students will have about a paragraph of writing. This is a PERFECT opportunity to authentically integrate grammar, revision, and editing. Remind students what dialogue should look like in their writing. You might even take an example sentence and write it incorrectly on the board and ask what needs to be changed. Then, model how you add quotation mark, capital letters, and comma(s) in the appropriate place. Have students reread their writing to see if they have done the same. Have them reread again to be sure their writing makes sense or is there anything that needs to be revised and edited. You could set the timer for 3-5 minutes and have students focus solely on editing and revising during this time. Even if they are not finished. This is a great way to create an opportunity to build the habit of editing and revising. We can’t expect students to do edit and revise if we aren’t building time for it in our regular instruction. 

6. Partner Share

Have students partner up and briefly share their writing with a partner. They probably came up with some entertaining material and will enjoy hearing what their peers wrote. If you have time, you might read some of your students’ writing aloud to the whole group. 

At this point, you’ve probably used most or all of your writing block! Part two is an extension of this lesson and can be used the following day OR have students complete it as an early finisher task. 

//Part Two//

  1. Cut the feeling words and let students choose an emotion to convey the feeling. You can do a shared writing just like above and include the same or different characters. We selected two characters: Mickey Mouse and Thanos (from Avengers- Infinity War had just come out. 🙂 )
  2. Our emotion was NERVOUS and Mickey Mouse was the character that was nervous. Understandably. 😉 

Instead of independent practice, you can also have students work in partners. We used those large and fantastic Post-it notes. Students worked on them together. This way, we could display them on chart paper and other students could see their writing. 

//Part Three//

Finally, students apply this strategy to their own writing. If you are using this strategy in conjunction with your narrative unit, you really want to make sure students have the opportunity to apply this to their own writing. So even if you skip part 2 and jump into part 3 – that’s where the magic happens. This is a great opportunity to use as a formative assessment. 

Formative Assessment

Have students highlight, star, or circle a place in their writing where they applied this strategy. They may have to revise or a place where they already did it. Then, you can collect their notebooks and give a really easy grade. Please note, I used this grading system for quick assessments. You may or may not use this is an actual grade for your writing. This depends on your classroom, district, etc. This grading system is NOT meant to criticize student writing and must be handled with care. I suggest ONLY applying this grading system if you have thoroughly taught the strategy and offered support for your students. Another thought is to ONLY use this formative assessment to pull your small groups or to plan for conferences. This is how I used this grading system MOST of the time. I only assigned an actual grade in the gradebook if    a) students were aware it was for an actual grade b) they had several opportunities to practice the strategy   c) I had given support along the way in the form of a conference or small group. I’m sharing how I determined and assigned grades with this grading system WHEN I used it.  X’s and O’s were not often given. If you have a lot of those, then that just means it is time to revisit the strategy – scrap the grade in the gradebook. 🙂 

✅➕ (Check plus= A) They did an amazing job! There is clear dialogue that conveys feelings and actions that make you feel like you are in the story. 

(Check = B) They used both action and dialogue. There may be some errors with punctuation. 

✅➖ (Check minus = C) Some parts are missing (either action or dialogue). Correct punctuation is missing. 

❌ = (X = D) There is very little (if any) evidence of using the strategy. 

0 = 0 They just didn’t do it. 

So there you have it! Be sure to grab your free resources so that you can try out this lesson in your own classroom! How would you use this lesson in your classroom?