Guidelines for Writing an Autobiography for Elementary Students

Telling the stories of their lives can motivate young children to write and help them to understand themselves better.
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Young children enjoy telling stories about themselves and their lives, so working with them on writing an autobiography can be an effective approach to teaching writing in general. Elementary school children's conceptual and writing abilities vary dramatically by age and stage, so pre-writing and writing activities should be geared to grade level. Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders can approach the writing of autobiographies similarly, yet more advanced students should be able to write more complex sentences and exhibit higher-order thinking.

1 Teaching the Concept of Autobiography

Beginning writers are often advised to write about what they know best, and schoolchildren learning narrative writing are no different. Before beginning the unit on writing autobiographies, discuss with students what an autobiography is: a narrative of a person's life written by himself. Be sure students understand the difference between autobiography and biography, which is a narrative of a person's life written by someone else. Choose a short, grade-appropriate biography and autobiography, and read both with the class. Discuss the differences in perspective between the two genres, especially examining the qualities of the first-person account of a life.

2 Third Grade

For third-graders, writing is still a relatively new skill, so begin your unit on writing autobiography with a focus on different methods of information gathering. Constructing a timeline helps children organize events and memories visually, which will lead to organization in writing. Interviewing other members of his family can provide a student with facts about important events in his own life as well as about his family heritage. The student will also have memories he will want to write about. Brainstorm with the class about what questions might be useful to ask family members. Provide students with worksheets to fill out with questions about who they are and what in their lives has shaped them.

3 Fourth Grade

As with third-graders, fourth-graders will find the development of a personal timeline useful as a first step in assembling and organizing information about their lives. Interviews and worksheets to gather data work for this grade level as well. Once the timeline has been established, ask students to create a written outline based upon it. They can then map out the autobiography by creating categories they will flesh out with details of each event. Suggested categories are a history of events in the student's life; the student's likes, dislikes and favorite things to do; and what the student wishes for his future.

4 Fifth Grade

Fifth-graders are able to start with the timeline as an organizational tool and begin constructing paragraphs with topic sentences based on the categories they have developed. As part of the prewriting stage of the autobiography project, pair students with partners and ask them to share their timelines with each other, to gather feedback on which events might be best to develop in their written narratives. Talk with students about whether they see a "theme" or "arc" in their life stories; such a theme can help to create an organizing thread throughout the written autobiography.

Betsy Beacom is a writer and editor with experience in education, marketing, Internet content, social media, the performing and visual arts, literature and more. She holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in literature, has taught English at Yale University and has more than 20 years' experience writing and editing.