Speakers and writers often use an anecdote as an example of an
Anecdotes are very, very short stories told to make a point. The
writers and speakers hope that associating their point with a memorable
story will make the point memorable, too.
Anecdotes are usually true stories about real people. They can
be personal stories told in first person by the person to whom they
happened. Or they can be third-person stories told by someone who
saw or read about the incident.
One of the best places to see an anecdote example is in the Reader's
Digest joke columns such as "Humor in Uniform." Analysis
of any one of items in those columns will reveal each anecdote has
a setting, characters, and action (a plot) just as a novel does.
Because the anecdote is so short, it cannot contains any detail
that is not necessary to making the point.
The bare-bones nature of anecdotes makes them very useful tool
for teaching correct use of narration. Writers are forced to select
only the details relevant to their point.
Prompt use of anecdotes
Most students are not naturally good storytellers and many wouldn't
even think of using a story as an example or illustration without
You can prompt students to provide an anecdote example by incorporating
that requirement within a writing prompt. However, you shouldn't
require anything so fancy until your students are writing competently
using the old standby expository
Using an anecdote requires a greater degree of writing skill and
creativity than following a formula. Most students can handle it
only if they already have a good understanding how to develop paragraphs
by traditional means.
How the requirement works
Requiring an anecdote example in the development of a traditional
requires students to connect book learning with daily
encourages use of social networks to locate
information sources (an important 21st century skill)
Having to write only one little story as part of a bigger project
they know they can do provides students a sense of security at the
same time it challenges them to try something new.
Problems of using anecdotes
Using anecdotes as one supporting point within a piece of expository
nonfiction presents some challenges for inexperienced writers.
The first, of course, is choosing what to relate.
The story cannot be so long it swamps the essay or so short it doesn't
make its point clearly.
FYI: Students have much more difficulty relating personal anecdotes
than relating third person narratives.
Another challenge is to draw out the significance
of the anecdote without insulting the audience. Writers cannot just
tell the story any more than they can just present a statistic and
hope the readers figure out how it supports the thesis.
In teaching these writing skills, you cannot rely on a formula.
Each situation is unique and demands a unique response.
Teach the anecdote as example
What you can (and should) do is draw students' attention to how
other writers use anecdotes. Make that part of your literacy
You could also have students read anecdotes and then write a sentence
summarizing the point.
Again the Reader's Digest anecdotes might make good practice
Another third major challenge, especially for students who crave
the security of rules for writing, is how to paragraph the
The rules of grammar may call for the anecdote to be a couple of
short paragraphs. That can freak out students who believe a five
paragraph essay has to have exactly five paragraphs each of
which has exactly X sentences. Teaching the five paragraph essay
as a way of thinking about a topic helps avoid that problem.
Using an anecdote is one of several alternatives to standard body
paragraph development a writer can use. Others include:
Students learn new content best when they can compare new
information with their prior knowledge
experience. Good teachers bring students' prior knowledge to their
conscious attention before they introduce new content.
Using an anecdote as an example makes sense to students if you
help them see that the single story (new information) replaces the
three pieces of evidence in the body paragraph of the formula five-paragraph
essay (prior learning).
Informal writing questions answered
Learning, Reshape Teaching, I answer 24 questions teachers at all levels
and in all content areas ask about informal writing.
The ebook shows informal prompts on writing mechanics topics and discusses
them to help teachers foster and monitor learning.
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