Narrative vs. Expository

Texas requires all 4th graders to write a narrative AND an expository piece for their state assessment.  Now, if your school is anything like mine, students very rarely (if ever) write any sort of expository piece before stepping into a 4th grade classroom.  Nope, I’m not blaming the other grade levels because I know that they have their own battles to fight and win, I’m just stating reality.

So how do we tackle this?  How do we get students to understand the difference (and similarity) of narrative vs. expository writing?  What do we tell these kids?  My answer is simple.  Make it concrete.  Make it relevant and meaningful.  Allow students a visual that shows them, rather than just telling them.  I use grandma.

Grandma, you say? Yep.  I use an activity that I created (mostly on my own) that helps kids to compare narrative and expository writing.  It takes several glances at it to understand it completely, but my kiddos love to take “grandma” out and look at her and talk about writing.


Here goes: I searched for kid-friendly grandma and balloons clipart.  I just googled it and found some that I liked.  I saved them, and then put the grandma pic in the center of a Word document.  I inserted a dashed line down the middle of the page.  I put the pics of the balloons on separate pages, so the students actually started with a page with only grandma and then a separate page with balloons.  I like to talk them through the process and leaving the balloons for later helps with our discussion.

I give the students about 10 minutes to color their grandma (helps with the management since they just HAVE to color her), and then we get down to business.  We then add Narrative and Expository labels at the top of each side of the page.  We talk about how grandma represents our topic.  I choose grandma because all students have some experience with a grandma, whether their own or someone else’s.  You see, the topic can be the same for both types of writing–it’s how the piece is written that makes the difference.  We notice how she appears on both sides of the page because of this.  We then label her as, “topic.”

Then we fold our page down the dashed line and talk about one side at a time (hence the lighting in the picture).  We start with narrative which is most familiar to them.  Narrative writing is when we tell stories from our hearts about a time we did something.  We use our Writer’s Tools to tell a story in the order that it happens.  In narrative, order matters!  I refer to the story of the 3 little pigs.  It just wouldn’t make sense or be the same story if the wolf visited the third pig’s house first.  It would change the whole outcome of the story, thus proving that order matters!  We discuss other stories and even refer to their own stories and think about how the stories only make sense in order.

Next we cut out and glue the cluster of balloons in her hands and label them one through five.  This represents the paragraphs that happen–yep–in order.  We put our own ribbons on the balloons and attach them to her hands.

Last, we add our sentences to the side that remind us of our purpose for narrative writing.

When we have finished with the narrative side, we flip our paper over and begin our discussion about expository writing.  This type of writing is not a story.  Instead, we are required to explain our beliefs on something and give reasons why we believe it.  In expository writing, order doesn’t matter.  We discuss various topics and give reasons why we believe what we believe, flip the reasons around, and then talk about how the reasons don’t have a specific order–unless you have a spectacular reason (like why you just can’t do your homework) that you want to save for the “grand finale,” as one of my students mentioned.  But overall, the order of your reasons really doesn’t matter.

We then cut out and glue the one balloon onto the paper and label it with “central topic” and “WHY?”  This represents the main idea of our paper and the purpose for writing.  We draw only one ribbon from the balloon to grandma’s hand and put flags on it with our Writer’s Tools.  Those tools help us to explain our beliefs and make our papers longer and coherent.

When finished, we add our sentences to the side that remind us of our purpose for expository writing.

It is very detailed and takes lots of time, but the students really respond to it, especially when you tell them that they will be required to add to a final discussion about the similarities and differences of these two types of writing!

Hopefully this makes sense to you.  It makes sense to us.  Please feel free to ask questions if you have them!

What do you do to help your students with this?  Leave a comment with your ideas!!  :)



  1. Love it. LOVE IT! Thanks for sharing. We will be doing this…

  2. Noe Vargas says:

    Love the idea. Would you mind sharing the template of the grandmother?

    • Kayla Shook says:

      Hi, Noe! I just took an image off of the internet. I googled “grandma clip art” and picked one that I thought was appropriate! 😉

  3. staciah Scott says:

    Excellent!. I think I just learned the difference between them and I thought I knew. Lol. Thank you, my 4th grader is on the spectrum and the more concrete the concepts are, the better. Can’t wait to show him.

  4. I will be teaching 4th grade next year (2015-2016). I’m crazy excited but also very nervous. I absolutely LOVE reading your blog. You’re full of wonderful ideas. I get so motivated when I read it ❤️! I would like to know what book by Gretchen to buy first. I’ll eventually get more, but for now, I’d love to hear which book or books (2-3) you’d suggest I start with?

    Thanks for the plethora of information. You make me excited for my new venture in 4th!! (Moving up from third)

    • Kayla Shook says:

      Hi, Amy! Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and for your kind words! 😉 I highly recommend Fun Size Academic Writing, Crunchtime, and Story of My Thinking. Those are the 3 books I use the most…and out of those, FSAW more than any! Gretchen has also just released a new book called Grammar Keepers that you will find helpful for teaching grammar rules. I know that’s 4 books…but I love them all! As you’ve already discovered, I have several blog posts that describe in detail the steps we take to take our thoughts and make them into fabulous written pieces. The majority of these are adapted from those books. Gretchen actually teaches 6-8 grades, so I have to make them work for 4th grade little minds.

  5. I did this with my fourth graders as a transition into expository from narrative writing today. After the lesson we looked a few samples and all but a few of my kids were able to tell me which type of writing it was. Great lesson, thanks for sharing!

    • Kayla Shook says:

      Awesome! Thanks for your feedback! I’m so glad it helped your kiddos differentiate between the two types of writing!! Doesn’t it feel great that they can AREADY hear the difference?!

  6. I’m thinking this is a great activity to do, and I want to try it. However, I’m confused when you say to cut apart and glue sentences–where are those? What are those? Help….

    • Kayla Shook says:

      Hi, Amber!

      We cut apart and glue down the balloons, not sentences. I print them separately and have them do this so that it’s more interactive. :)

  7. Are the Writer’s Tools that you add to the single balloon the five senses and then a heart? I truly appreciate this idea. I start teaching Expository writing tomorrow and I could not think of a creative way to get started other than another Anchor chart. I love this idea and look forward to using it tomorrow! Thank you!!

    • Kayla Shook says:

      Hi, Teresa!

      I just add any writer’s tools. I want the kids to understand that we use the same writer’s tools no matter what we write. :) The main difference is that they change from past tense in narrative to present tense in expository. That’s the main reason for those. I hope you and your students enjoy the activity!

  8. Wow, what a great post! I was trying to google information on ways to practice writing with my twins who are starting 4th grade. Thanks for sharing!


  1. […] Narrative vs. Expository ( […]

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  4. […] Just like in years past, I begin our expository unit with explaining the difference between narrative and expository with my “Grandma” page.  You can read more about that here. […]

  5. […] We did this for two days.  And the kids really enjoyed it.  So it was a complete WIN!  You can read a previous post ALL about Grandma here. […]

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