Unit 3: Powerful Narrative Tools Inform and Improve Academic Writing

Oct 12, 2020 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

by Jean Nichols and Janet Spitler


When I began using IEW’s Structure and Style method in my classroom in 2001, I was anxious about teaching Unit 3: Summarizing a Narrative. Classroom Supplements hadn’t been published yet, so there were no lesson plans to guide teachers through the units. My colleagues and I watched the Teaching Writing: Structure and Style seminar one unit at a time on videocassette during faculty meetings, trying to stay ahead of our students. We caught on quickly to Units 1 and 2, and so did our students, but as Unit 3 approached, I began to panic. Moving from Unit 2 to Unit 3 was going to be a difficult leap. It was easy to pull key words from sentences to create an outline. The Unit 3 process was so different that I didn’t feel prepared to teach it to my sixth grade classes, and I confess that I considered skipping Unit 3 to jump ahead to Unit 4.

I had purchased a copy of the Student Writing Intensive Level B* course so I could observe Andrew Pudewa as he taught each unit to students. As I mulled over how to teach Unit 3 to my students, I had an idea. Could Andrew help me teach it?† I gave my students a copy of “The Lion and the Shepherd,” popped the tape into the VCR, and pressed play. In those days, each classroom had a 24-inch television mounted on the wall at the front of the room, making it difficult for the students to see well, especially those who were sitting in the back of our classroom. I stood at my whiteboard as Andrew began the lesson. Whatever Andrew wrote on his whiteboard I wrote on mine, and following his example, we got through that first Unit 3 outline. As he brainstormed dress-up options with his students, I paused the tape and did the same with mine. Andrew modeled the lesson. I imitated him. My students and I were learning from a master teacher. (These days due to current copyright restrictions, this aforementioned strategy is not doable for online instruction.) By the second lesson I felt comfortable enough to try it on my own. As we worked our way through the Unit 3 lessons, I realized that I finally had a clear pathway and effective method to teach my students how to write well-structured stories with descriptive details. Now after twenty years of experience with IEW, I understand that the power and importance of the skills taught in Unit 3 go well beyond learning to write a story.

Unit 3 introduces the basics of story writing, following a structure that teaches students to pull specific information from an existing story to create an outline called a Story Sequence Chart. Students then organize that information into a three-paragraph summary. The paragraphs follow the narrative sequence: the beginning (which introduces the main characters and describes the setting), the middle (in which the plot or conflict is developed), and the end (where the climax occurs, the problem is solved, and a lesson is learned). Over time, with consistent practice, students internalize the components of a well-constructed story. This three-paragraph narrative format can be used to write summaries, variations, book reports, and critiques. It also introduces students to how to use dress-ups to create an image, a mood, or a feeling and to make the characters and the plot come alive. The structure of this unit and the stylistic techniques presented give students the skills to not only write good stories but to succeed in every type of writing they will do as they move up through the grades. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of Unit 3 that can be applied to other academic writing.


Students learn that every paragraph has a purpose.

In Unit 3, paragraphs are organized around the narrative sequence: exposition in Paragraph I, the rising action of the plot in Paragraph II, and the climax, falling action, and resolution in Paragraph III. As students outline a story, they must decide where each detail belongs. Think of your own experience when you created the Story Sequence Chart for “The Bat and the Nightingale” in the Teaching Writing: Structure and Style seminar. It was challenging, wasn’t it? Deciding where to place details applies to expository writing as well. Whether you are writing a report or an essay, the ability to decide where facts, details, and ideas go is critical. Teaching students to ask, “What is the purpose of this paragraph? What am I trying to say?” helps to keep paragraphs focused. Unit 3 clearly builds the foundation for this.


Students learn that order matters.

The ability to sequence information is important in writing stories. It also applies to a well-told joke or relating an experience, a situation, or an event. For example, you don’t want to introduce a character in Paragraph I who won’t appear in the story until the climax or resolution. Sequencing carries over to Unit 4: Summarizing a Reference. Students must think about the order information should be within a paragraph. From Units 6 to Unit 9, students must also consider the order of the paragraphs in a report or essay. These decisions become more complex—and more important—as the units progress and as students move from grade to grade and toward more advanced essay writing. Sequencing events in a story helps to build the skill of sequencing information in expository writing.


Students discover the flow of a narrative.

Purpose and order in writing creates flow. Writing flows when it is cohesive and ideas are communicated clearly in a way that makes sense to the reader. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Good expository writing is similarly organized. Just as a narrative is structured to tell a story from beginning to end, an essay should be structured to communicate ideas, explanations, and arguments, and the connections between them in an order that makes sense. Flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph helps the reader to follow the writer’s thinking and understand what the writer is trying to describe, explain, or persuade. Understanding narrative flow contributes to flow in reports, essays, and public speaking.


Students learn the habit of asking questions of a text—and of their brains.

To create purpose, order, and flow, students need to ask questions of the text and of their brains. This process is first introduced in Unit 3. The ability to ask questions of a text and of oneself helps students to extract information from a story and flesh out details about the characters and setting. When students move on to the remaining units, they will ask questions of source texts, their brains, or both in order to collect and organize information, but will also apply critical thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) to illustrate, to explain, or to persuade. As Andrew Pudewa says in the seminar, “The process of asking questions, hearing the answer in your mind, and taking a key word outline from your own thoughts is essential to creating the independent, analytical writer.”


The imagination students need to include stylistic techniques in the narrative structure provides the practice they need to skillfully improve academic writing.

The dress-ups that students use in Unit 3 can provide specific and sensory details that add a memorable voice and breathe life into essays and reports. Decorations lend themselves to narrative non-fiction. The dramatic open-close or anecdotal open-close can set the scene in the introduction and provide a powerful conclusion in a report or essay. Similes and metaphors can add a splash of color and imagery to a sentence. Conversation and dialog can bring a human touch to a subject or reveal the thoughts, feelings, and struggles of the subject of a biographical report or of the student writer in an essay. When teachers model these techniques in the remaining structural units, students make faster and stronger connections in their academic writing.

We hope that you see the value of the Story Sequence Chart process and narrative skills in developing academic writing. Narrative techniques allow students to deliver information and share their views from their own point of view or from their personal experience. The skills that begin in Unit 3 can become powerful tools in your students’ writing repertoire for the remainder of the school year and in the years to come.


*While the Student Writing Intensive courses are no longer available, teachers can now find videos of Andrew teaching Unit 3 lessons in Structure and Style for Students.


†No rebroadcasting of any digital or video or audio files, including the video-based courses Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, Structure and Style for Students, or theme-based lessons containing Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C. lessons or other copyrighted materials, may be transmitted over the Internet or social media, e.g., Google Classroom, FaceTime, iMessage, Skype, Google Hangout, Zoom, or any other online tutoring platform.


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