Try this lesson: Making Choices about Tense and Voice

I'd like to share a really simple, one-off lesson that is both fun and really digs deeply into some technical aspects of creative writing. It was my go-to lesson whenever I had to do cover for an English class (best for year 8 & up): it fits beautifully into a 55 minute slot (with plenty of scope for extension if you teach longer lessons) and requires no prep, powerpoint or resources. It's fun, and it resulted in a lot of 'aha' moments for kids and hilarious writing.

Sold? Good. Try this lesson:

Objective: Explore the effects of choices about tense and voice in your creative writing

BEFORE YOU BEGIN: Get each student to choose a number between 1 and 3, and a letter between a and c. Have them write this down on a piece of paper and swear solemnly not to change it after the lesson begins. Extension for very able students: add another letter - either y or z.


Outline this simple plot: A boy is walking down the road, holding a balloon. A car goes by and hits a puddle. The boy is splashed, and lets go of the balloon. The balloon floats into the sky. 
Ask the students to turn this into a very short story -- between a paragraph and half a side. They can write from any perspective (the boy, the car, a bystander, a narrator or even the balloon).

Part 1: 

Introduce three modes - past, present and future. Don't worry about distinguishing between different types of past present and future tenses. All they need to know from this introduction is how to recognise and form (at minimum) the simple past, present and future tense.

Do the same for voice -- 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. Again, they just need to be able to recognise and form these voices.

If you're doing the extension version, you can add in omniscience. Can your narrator 'hear' the thoughts of more than one character (y) or not (z)?

Hinge activity: Think of examples of books that are written in different tenses and voices. Here are some questions:

  1. A lot of YA fiction these days is 1st person present (See Divergent, The Hunger Games). Why? (Hint - if you write in 1st person past, it's usually an indicator that the protagonist survives the book).
  2. What are the advantages of writing with an omniscient voice? 
  3. Can you think of anything written in the 2nd person? (Choose your own adventure, and, by extension, video games).

Part 2:

Draw this grid on the board:

1. 1st person (I)2. 2nd Person (You) 3. 3rd person (He/She/They)
A: Past I walked You walked She walked
B: Present I walk You walk She walks
C: Future I will walk You will walk She will walk

There will be groans. Gasps. Even tiny, horrified screams, as little Timmy realises he wrote down 2c at the beginning of the lesson.
Now, ask them to rewrite the balloon story using the combination of voice and tense they have selected at the beginning of the lesson. Generously offer the students who picked the same combo they wrote the first one in the chance to pick something more exciting.

If you have bleating students who want to know how in heck they're going to write that story in second person, encourage them to frame the story in a way that makes the voice logical. I've had students write the story as if a therapist is reminding the boy what happened:
 "You were walking along the road when that car came past. Can you remember what happened? How did you feel?".

Another student used a fortune teller at a fair who was predicting a traumatic event for the boy:
"One day, you will find yourself on a seemingly deserted road..."
Some of the best writing I've ever had out of kids has come from this activity. My favourite was from a student who wrote from the perspective of the balloon, who was trying desperately to escape the sweaty grip of the little boy the whole time.

Plenary/wrap up:

Ask the students to share their work with the people around them. Then, answer these questions:
1. Which story felt more comfortable to write? Why?
2. Which was more interesting to read and why? (have them talk to their peers about this one)
 Extension: Why do you think being forced to pick an unusual voice made your writing more engaging (or not?)

What happens next?

This lesson is a great starting point for talking about choices that writers make. Pair this with a reading lesson, and tense, voice and omniscience are no longer 'invisible' to your students. They've made these choices, so they can start to evaluate the choices other authors make as well. 

I personally never used a rubric to assess this activity, because the learning that happened was pretty immediate. But, if you make this a part of a larger Creative Writing SOW, you may want to make use of this (or a similar) rubric: Creative Writing Rubric on SmartRubric. Here's the Free Printable Version for people who don't use SmartRubric (yet!).

If you try this lesson, please tell me how it went! I'd love to hear what your students come up with. Tweet me @SmartRubric, leave a comment or HMU on facebook at


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