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6 top tips: Preparing for the NAPLAN narrative writing test

Very soon, around the country, tens of thousands of primary school students will be sitting down to write creative stories for half-an-hour. How cool is that!?!

Rapid writing in action

Writing workshops: we demonstrate rapid writing in action

For a moment, let’s put aside all discussion about NAPLAN and tests and examination stress, and look instead at HOW FABULOUS it is to give kids this opportunity.

Half-an-hour to write a story!

And the stories can be about ANYTHING! Monsters or zombies or magic or football or flying or horseriding or whatever. Even better, the NAPLAN marking key rewards kids for being imaginative and for writing in their own voice. Narrative writing is just story-telling, and kids love telling stories.

47 marks, and less than half of them for grammar

Not everyone (including me) has perfect spelling and fabulous grammar and a terrific command of punctuation. But spelling, grammar and punctuation represent less than half of the marks available.


NAPLAN narrative writing marking key 2010

So, here’s my thing: Even someone with an awful command of the English language can have a terrific imagination and can tell an emotionally engaging or funny or scary story. And there are boggins of NAPLAN marks available for that. Five marks for good ideas. Four marks for a well-sketched character or setting. Four marks for using conflict to structure your story and ramp it up. These marks can make the difference. But let’s forget about marks for a moment.

Let’s look at the bigger stumbling block:

Question: What stops kids with rotten spelling/grammar from writing terrific stories?

Answer: Fear of getting it wrong.

So here comes my first — and most important — tip for preparing primary school kids to do well in the NAPLAN narrative writing test:

Tip #1: Rapid writing, every day

This is it. Write. Kids who hate writing will hate the NAPLAN test unless they lose their fear of writing. So make them write, every day, for ten silent minutes. They’re allowed to write anything. They don’t have to show anyone or share their stories. They don’t get checked for spelling or grammar. They just have to write, without stopping, without editing, without getting stuck for an idea, and for ten minutes. I call this technique Rapid Writing and I use it in all my workshops. I’ve seen it work wonders in primary school classes where it’s used regularly.

“But Miss…I don’t have an idea.”

So write about how it sucks to have no ideas to write about, and how you wish you could be playing football instead of writing. And keep writing. For ten minutes.

“But I still don’t know what to write about…”

Then write “I wish I had a great idea to write about. Instead of writing this story, I’d rather be making my own video game, and it would have characters riding on dragons and eating lollipops the size of UFOs and noone in that story would have to sit and write because they’d be too busy making lollipops.” And keep writing. For ten minutes.

Tip #2: Make your characters BIG!

NAPLAN sets aside a massive nine points for ideas and character/setting. This is because ideas and characters/setting are what stick with us most when we read a story. We don’t want to read about Bob who woke up and went to school and then came home and ate afternoon tea and then woke up and it was all a dream.

We want to read about Ivan the Terrible who has a bright red beard that hangs down to his knees, and Phoebe Friday who only eats passionfruit for breakfast, lunch and tea, and William Frederick II who last bathed in August because he’s deathly afraid of ducks and can’t stand the smell of his mother’s favourite soap. We want a COLOURFUL character who ACTS in ways we wish we could act, who SAYS THINGS we wish we had the courage to say, who is BRAVE when the rest of us would be cowering in our clodhoppers.

Tip #3: Make the reader feel sorry for your character

The fastest way to encourage a reader to feel for and engage with your character is to do something terribly unfair to your character in the first few lines. James and the Giant Peach begins with James’ parents being run down by an escaped rhino. Terribly unfair. Harry Potter lives under the stairs with his beastly relations. Terribly unfair. Even Cat in the Hat begins with a day so rainy the kids are trapped inside and can’t play. Terribly unfair.

Tip #4: Show us how your character feels

NAPLAN rewards stories that are emotionally engaging. A great way to engage a reader is to show how your character is feeling during the story. During the story, include a line or two that describes how your character feels about what is happening to them. Write about what they imagine might happen, or what they’re afraid of, or how they’re so hungry they’re thinking of eating a slug, or how they’re so sad they want to cry but won’t let the bully see their tears, or how they’re so happy they’re jumping up and down like a kangaroo on a pogo stick. Show us how your character feels.

Tip #5: Make bad stuff happen

If your character desperately wants to win a race, make them twist their ankle and trip over a dog and stop for a slow-moving train. If your character wants to be left alone, give them a surprise party. If your character needs to chase a bank robber across a bridge, make the bridge incredibly high and your character horribly afraid of heights. Whatever your character lives for, thwart it.

Tip #6: Don’t take it too seriously

Just write. Forget it’s a test and just tell a story, the kind of story you’d love to listen to. And if you run out of time, don’t write AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM. Instead, go for the cliffhanger: leave the character in EVEN DEEPER TROUBLE AND WITH NO WAY OUT…. And know you’ve done a very fine job.

So that’s it.

I hope you can use these ideas to make a difference for your writing and for your students. Every child deserves to be able to sit down at NAPLAN time and crank out a story they have invented from their own brain and feel happy about it. There’s nothing cooler than inventing a great story 🙂

Good luck and happy writing! And please let me know if these tips help 🙂

Want more?

I can run narrative writing workshops and incursions with your students, to help put these ideas into practice. For more information or to tailor a workshop, please drop me a line.


So, since I first wrote this post, my own kiddy has had a first experience of NAPLAN. OMG! The pressure! And the sadness in the eyes of kids who get their result and feel they’re not good enough.

I’m not sure NAPLAN is the way. Even so, I think my tips for encouraging your kids to enjoy the process of writing will work, and I do believe that if they enjoy writing, then writing for NAPLAN will be infinitely less scary.

Writing is about being joyful and creating and thinking about your place in the world. Hopefully, these writing tips help your students to discover that.