How To Differentiate Your Personal Narrative Unit For Emergent Learners and ESL Students

How To Differentiate Your Personal Narrative Unit For Emergent Learners and ESL Students

I know, I know....differentiation is a buzz word, and you may be tired of hearing it tossed around. But here’s what else I know: when you differentiate well, you truly serve your students, and you can use the same concept with different classes and create a clear path to mastery for all your students.

I remember one year I had such a crazy schedule that I was teaching 9th graders who were struggling with reading and writing, while also teaching AP seniors. I remember thinking, “well at least I can try out all types of lessons this year!” What I learned that year was that there are actually concepts that both my 9th graders and seniors needed to work on, like personal narrative writing. 

With some skillful scaffolding I was able to teach this concept to both groups effectively. I’m going to show you how you can do it in a meaningful way if you have students who struggle with reading or writing or if you have ESL students. 

Picture of teens reading with the banner that says How To Differentiate for emergent learners and ESL students

Tip #1: Differentiate With Different Mentor Texts

Using mentor texts is the secret sauce for teaching writing well. It makes sense, if you think about it. Who are the best writers you’ve taught? I bet they were also strong readers, right? They were students who had (on their own) exposed themselves to hundreds of mentor texts. They took all those volumes of beautiful writing and, over time ,they applied those concepts to their own writing. 

pull out quote that says "exposing students to great mentor texts is key to teaching writing."

What your strong writers do on their own, your not-so-strong writers need you to guide them through the process. This is why when you’re teaching narrative writing (or any type of writing), you need to expose your students to lots of great mentor texts. 

Now, the type of mentor text you use is going to vary depending on your group of students. 

For instance, on the first day of a personal narrative writing unit, you can give students a lot of personal narratives to read, and also give them a bunch of personal narratives to listen to. This exposes them to many texts that vary widely in subject, but are the same in form. 

If you use different mentor texts depending on the reading level of your students, you'll meet their needs while keeping the structure of your lesson similar no matter what grades or level you teach. 

I love Gary Soto’s narratives for emergent learners and ESL students. His stories are rich in meaning, but they are short, and the vocabulary is not too difficult. These stories are well-written, and Soto absolutely crafts his writing, but he does so in ways that emergent and ESL students can imitate and practice on their own. 

quote that says "I love using Gary Soto's narratives because they are rich in meaning, but they are short."

I also love to bring in podcasts to help differentiate writing lessons for struggling writers and ESL students because listening comprehension can be a powerful tool in the reading and writing process. I’ve written more about that here (4 Reasons Why Teaching Podcasts Is So Important)   which will blow your mind. 

Also when you allow students to listen as well as read, your struggling readers can still “get” the concept of the narrative form without as much effort as it might take to read through several essays in a single class period. 

A few of my go-to podcasts to expose students to the narrative form are The Moth and StoryCorps.


Tip #2: Allow Students To Talk Before They Write

Another super simple way to differentiate writing lessons for your emergent learners and ESL students is in the brainstorming process. 

Brainstorming can be intimidating for emergent learners who may have a lot of baggage when it comes to writing and the writing process. 

What if instead of having students write their first draft, instead you have them tell the story verbally as if they are talking to a friend? They could literally tell another student in the class the story they are considering writing about or they could record it using a recording device like a phone or tablet. 

By just getting the story out verbally the writing process becomes less daunting. You can then tell students to literally just write what they recorded or told their classmate. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to be long. You will work on crafting it later. Just put the story on paper just like they told it to their classmate. 

One of my favorite quotes by Charles Wheelan in his book Write For Your Life, explains the drafting process as just “writing one ugly sentence after another.” 

Tell your students that. They just have to write something. It can be ugly. That’s ok. Write what you just said. 

A tip for drafting narrative is to allow students to talk before they write.

Tip #3: Focus On One Skill, and Camp Out There

The key to a good writing lesson is to focus on one skill at a time, and really spend some time there. Pitch a tent. Take your shoes off. Get comfortable. 

For instance, when teaching the concept of characterization, you can give students a few minutes of direct instruction on what indirect and direct characterization are. 

Then really spend some time allowing students to look for examples of each type of writing. They might do this in small groups or individually.  Be prepared to devote a chunk of class time to this. 

I love allowing students to again work with mentor texts to go deep here. By giving students works by Gary Soto or Amy Tan, students will be able to understand the topic and really focus on the technique of characterization. 

Give students a graphic organizer like this one where they can record their observations and then consider having them change partners and compare responses. 

You can also bring podcasts back in here and allow students to listen to a well-told personal narrative and record observations about the techniques used regarding direct and indirect characterization. When students listen to a podcast for this type of activity, be sure your emergent learners and ESL students have a means to pause it and replay when they need to. 

Once students are getting the concepts of direct and indirect characterization, then they can start thinking about how to apply it to their own writing. 

Again, give them a purposeful graphic organizer to walk them through this process before they tackle that draft. Once it’s all on the graphic organizer, putting it in their draft is far less intimidating. 

Short on time? I’ve got an entire 2 week narrative writing unit done for you that you can use today and it includes all the lessons I’ve talked about here. Plus, it’s got tips for differentiating in every single lesson. You can grab it here and take the guesswork out of your personal narrative unit this year!


picture of graphic organizers for writing and narrative writing lessons



Differentiation does not have to be complex, but it is absolutely necessary to allow your emergent learners and ESL students a path to mastery when they are writing their personal narrative essays. 

By incorporating these simple strategies, students will feel less overwhelmed and enjoy the writing process more. 

Give students mentor texts that are written for their reading ability but are still rich in language, give students opportunities to tell their stories before writing them, and last, spend a lot of time on one concept at a time allowing students to observe that concept in mentor texts before applying it to their own writing. 

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Personal Narrative Essay-2 Week Unit

Related Reading

5 Ways To Spice Up Your Narrative Writing Unit

4 Reasons Why Teaching With Podcasts Is So Important

How To Teach Narrative Writing With Graphic Organizers

Personal Narrative Writing In ELA

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