Written by Pamela Spycher, Senior Research Associate and Project Director for WestEd’s Leading with Learning.

Early grades teachers often ask us the following questions about supporting young children to engage with, understand, and write stories:

  • “I’m not sure how to get my students to talk more about the complex storybooks we read together.”
  •  “Is it okay to work with complex stories? Will the kids understand them? Isn’t it a good idea to focus on lower level texts first and build them up?”
  • “How do I get my kids to write more interesting stories? Are they too young to learn this?”
  • “Their stories don’t seem to have any of the vocabulary I taught them. How do I help them to use it?”

These are all great questions, and this short blog post offers some ideas to address them, along with some resources that preschool through first grade (PK-1) teachers can add to their instructional repertoires.

The Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC)

To begin with, we share a supportive framework — the Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC) — that we use to scaffold young children’s extended discussions about complex stories, their comprehension of the literal and deeper meanings in the stories, and their ability to write their own engaging and language-rich stories. A graphic representation of the TLC is provided below.

Using the five stages of the TLC with stories takes about five days. The process starts with several days of interactive read alouds (stage 1: building the field), during which teachers use interactive reading techniques, promote peer-to-peer discussions about the literal and deeper meanings in the story, and draw children’s attention to the illustrations and language used in the story, including vocabulary, dialogue, and figurative language. By the third day, the children discuss the themes or life messages in the story. All of this “building the field” cultivates children’s comprehension of the layered meanings in the story and their awareness of the powerful language used in it. After each read aloud, the children write/compose/draw in their journals about one of the questions or big ideas they discussed during the read aloud.


Culturally Sustaining Storybooks

In the writing sample shared above and in the photos shown below, the children engaged with the book Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. We love this endearing story, and we especially love observing young children as they connect with and discuss the ideas in it. The story is about a young boy named CJ and his grandmother (Nana), who take a trip on the city bus through their urban neighborhood. At the beginning of the story, CJ is upset that he has to ride the bus while his friends get to ride in a car. As the story progresses, Nana teaches CJ to appreciate the experience of riding the bus, the people they encounter, and the beauty that is all around their neighborhood. At the end of the story, we learn that their destination is a soup kitchen where they volunteer to feed the people in their community.

Last Stop    Last Stop2

We chose this book for several reasons. First, it aims to communicate the importance of valuing the positive and beautiful things in one’s community, which promotes an assets-orientation. Second, it expresses the idea that all people can work together to support those in need and improve the well-being of one’s community, which is empowering for young children. Third, it illustrates the important role older relatives play in educating the children in a family, a bond that is familiar to many culturally and linguistically diverse children and one that should be celebrated. Our team intentionally uses this type of culturally sustaining storybook in professional learning with teachers as it promotes dialogue about the importance of culturally relevant instructional materials and culturally sustaining pedagogical practices.

Explicit Discussions about Language

On about the third day, teachers guide the children to explore the language of the story more deeply (stage 2: exploring the language of the text type). This could entail discussions about how the story is organized in sequence, how the vocabulary used creates a precise image in readers’ imaginations (e.g., “hawks slicing through the air”), or how dialogue reveals how characters are feeling (e.g., “Sure wish I had one of those”). Teachers write this language on charts so the children can use it in their own stories, if they so choose.


On about the fourth day, teachers support the children to orally retell the story with their peers. As the children collaboratively retell the story, their teachers help them negotiate how to retell it in writing (stage 3: jointly constructing texts). They ask questions such as, “How should the story start? What words should we use? Is this a good time to include some dialogue? What happened next?” This teacher facilitation is critical. Teachers don’t merely write down the first thing the children say. They stretch the children to elaborate on and expand their ideas, use new language and literary techniques (e.g., dialogue), and organize the story so it flows well. In this phase of the TLC, teachers are apprenticing young children into the craft of storytelling, and children are rehearsing for independent writing.

Picture1  Picture2  Picture3  Picture4

Just after orally retelling and jointly constructing the story in writing, the children are well-prepared to write their own versions of the story (stage 4: independent construction). This doesn’t mean that the children are taking a test or writing exclusively on their own. Just as professional writers do, the children use the resources available to them in the room—including their peers, language charts, word walls, and books—as they compose.

When they write their stories, the children also use success criteria to keep them on track. They will use the same success criteria the next day when they share their writing with a peer and receive and provide feedback (stage 5: reflecting on own writing). For young children, success criteria for story writing looks like this:

  • My story has a title.
  • My story includes a problem and a solution.
  • My story has dialogue.
  • My story has “big kid” words from the book.

Picture6  Picture5

Story Writing with the TLC: A 5-day Outline

Here’s a basic 5-day outline for using the TLC to scaffold children’s story writing:

Day 1. Interactive Read Aloud & Text-based Discussion: “On-the-surface” Questions
Students become familiar with the story, discuss “On-the-Surface” (literal comprehension) questions, and begin to notice the language in the text.

Day 2. Interactive Read Aloud & Text-based Discussion: “Below-the-Surface” Questions
Students develop deeper understandings of the text by discussing “Below-the-Surface” (inferential comprehension) questions and exploring the story’s basic details and organization.

Day 3. Interactive Read Aloud & Text-based Discussion with Guided Retelling: “Deeper-Dive” Questions
Students use their understanding of the now-familiar text to explore how the text is organized and notice the language used in it. Teacher charts notes about the story’s organization, important events, and language as they read the text. Students discuss “Deeper-Dive” questions about the story’s themes and big ideas.

Day 4. Jointly Reconstructing the text
Students orally retell the story and “rehearse” their independent writing of it by co-constructing a written version with the teacher and peers (teacher charts), negotiating what will be written. Students then write their own versions of the story using success criteria. (Alternatively, students might write a new ending, use different characters or settings, or make themselves the main character.)

Day 5. Students share their writing with peers and get feedback
Students read their stories to a partner and provide and receive feedback, using the same success criteria. Students engage in creative extension activities related to the story and the week’s discussions.

Here are three final words of advice before trying out the TLC to support children’s deep engagement with complex stories and their story writing: planning is key, start with one new strategy, and have fun!Here’s a blank weekly planning template, a sample day 1 lesson plan for Last Stop on Market Street , along with sticky notes for Day 1Day 2, and Days 3 and 5 you can place right in the book to help you remember what to focus on. Also provided is a sample weekly plan for another one of our team’s favorite stories, Mango, Abuela, and Me , written by Meg Medina and illustrated by Angela Dominguez. In this story, Mia’s abuela (grandmother) arrives from a far-away place with parrots and palm trees to live with Mia and her family in the city. Mia doesn’t speak much Spanish, and Abuela doesn’t speak much English, so they have a hard time understanding one another. Love and patience—and a parrot named Mango—help them to learn new things and communicate. In our experience, all children can make connections to this story, and it especially reflects the experiences of multilingual children, dual language learners, and English learners.

To learn more about the TLC, follow these links: