in honing their writing craft can be daunting because most of us don't
feel accomplished ourselves as writers. That's why focusing on beginnings
and endings works so well: it's concrete and manageable. The approaches
outlined in this cover story are favorites of the teachers I visit, and
are easily adapted for students of any age.
In this article, you'll
SIX STRATEGIES TO
HELP STUDENTS MASTER BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS
A kiss hello...a wave
good-bye...an airplane fading in the sky.
Our lives are marked
by beginnings and endings. In the things we do every day, we look for
starting and ending points. We hold those images' sight, smell, taste,
and feel. It's no wonder, then, that writers take such care to develop
strong introductions that grab readers and conclusions that leave them
The best leads and
endings don't just happen; they are crafted. This can be a painstaking
process that, as any experienced writer knows, becomes somewhat easier
with practice. When we teach children how to generate leads and endings
using their own drafts, and expose them to good models, they become better
If you take some time
to make leads and endings the focus of your lessons, youmay be surprised
at how quickly students' overall writing skills improve.
Conduct read-alouds from favorite books.
Explore examples of leads and conclusions. Have students read the first
sentence or paragraph to the whole class. As a group, discuss whether
this opening makes you want to keep reading and why. Then read the whole
story, paying special attention to the ending. How does it make students
Together, you may
also want to create separate charts for beginnings and endings.Classify
the beginnings you read according to whether they contain dialogue, a
"climactic moment," helpful introductory information, or other categories
you discover through reading. Use the second chart for endings, with categories
such as summary statements, predictions, reflections about the events,
and others inspired by the books. Later, in individual writing conferences,
refer back to these charts to help students think about potential leads
Share your own work.
Show three rough starts or finishes that you have written. Have the class
decide which ones work best, and then talk about how you made your choices.
Have students choose a first draft and rework the beginning.
Make sure students understand that the time to write stellar beginnings
is after they've completed their first drafts. At that stage they can
return to their original beginning and be merciless, hacking off as much
as necessary to find a good lead. Tell them that even the most accomplished
writers have to dig through a few bad sentences and paragraphs before
they get to the good stuff. After your students have done this a few times,
and learned the power of a strong introduction, they are more likely to
make cuts willingly.
I have found three
kinds of leads that work well, because students must use their own writing
as a basis for developing them. Teaching these leads alleviates some of
the anguish of making cuts, and puts students on the road to well-crafted
It may help students
in their revising if you share the following three kinds of great leads.
- The circular lead/close:
Once a first draft is completed, a circular lead/close is easy to create.
I have students look at their endings and ask them if they can begin
with those closing words as well. This type of lead is a favorite of
many students, since it brings their pieces full circle. It's a tidy
way to begin and end. Eric Carle's The Grouchy Ladybug, with
its opening and closing image of two ladybugs arguing, is a good example
of this type of lead.
- The dialogue lead:
Who can forget E.B. White's classic lead from Charlotte'sWeb? "'Where's
Papa going with that axe?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting
the table for breakfast." Indeed, dialogue can be the stuff of sweet
beginnings. Teach students to scan their writing until they reach the
first quote, and then consider moving it to the start of the piece.
If the first quote doesn't lend itself to a strong lead, encourage students
to look for others that might.
- The climactic lead:
Writer Becky Rule says it's a good idea to pick up your readers by the
scruff of their necks and drop them into the heart of a conflict. Every
piece of writing has a climax, which doesn't always come at the very
end. I ask students to find the point of greatest tension in their writing,
and then to move those words to the beginning. For example, Thanksgiving
stories are typical at this time of year, and most of them start out
as repetitive, sentimental slog. But who wouldn't want to read Mary
Comstock's holiday story after this opener?" The remains of Thanksgiving
dinner sat like an abandoned wreck on the dining room table: she had
eaten it all and the guests hadn't even arrived yet. This would have
to stop." Mary's words promise humor and pathos. But it's that"abandoned
wreck," the climax of the story, that gives the lead immediate energy.
Promote listening for potential leads.
Have students pair up and talk about a story, plot, or incident they are
working on in writing workshop. Ask the listener to note when his interest
is piqued and to share those moments with the storyteller. Those points
of intrigue are all potential leads.
Take a look at endings that don't work.
With endings, I find it works best to teach students what not to do. There
are countless wonderful ways to finish a poem, essay, or narrative, depending
on your purpose and audience. But there are three kinds of horrible endings
that rear their heads again and again in writing workshop. If you teach
students to recognize these blunders in their writing, they are more likely
to avoid them and craft more original closings.
- Unnecessary repetition:
The first mistake involves not trusting that your writing says what
you want it to say. When this happens, writers repeat their main point,
bludgeoning it in the process. Students who have this tendency often
just need to be reassured that they've done a good job in conveying
their ideas earlier in the piece.
- Uninspired chronology:
Students also make the error of reverting to chronology, often ending
their writing with the characters dying or falling asleep. If you ask
students never to end their pieces with phrases such as "...and they
all went to bed," you'll eliminate lots of abrupt conclusions.
- The "Dallas Syndrome":
This catchall ending is used when the writing is implausible, or contains
loose ends that the writer can't tie up. In these instances, it's typical
for students to conclude with passages such as, "It was all just a dream,"
or anything that provides an easy return from fantasy to reality. Local
teachers dubbed this tendency the "Dallas Syndrome," a nickname inspired
by the night-time soap opera in which the lame plot device was used
in explaining the absence of one character for an entire season. One
solution: Don't allow it.
Encourage kids to use one another's leads and conclusions.
This mini-lesson involves freeing writers from the burden of writing beginnings
and endings. Have each student give a classmate just the first line of
something he or she has been working on. The recipient has to write something
starting or ending with that line. If the student likes what she writes,
she deletes her classmate's line, and replaces it with something original.
This activity reduces the struggle of finding leads or endings, or of
being overly invested in them in first draft.
ARE YOUR STUDENTS
READY TO REVISE?
Fostering an awareness
of good beginnings and endings may be developmentally more realistic, and
therefore more effective, than demanding revision from primary students.
A first-grade teacher
I know found that out the hard way. She was continually frustrated because
her students could spot good leads, as well as extraneous words in their
endings, but still opposed revising their work to bring them out."I finally
realized how hard physically it is for some of these kids to grip that
pencil and put any words on the page. Of course they refused to cut!"
she explained. After much thought, she decided to have students underline
or star strong potential leads and endings in their writing, using bright
colored markers; she didn't require them to begin or close their pieces
with those words.
A STARTING POINT
Teri Beaver of the University
of Northern Colorado Laboratory School has developed an innovative assessment
tool, "The Author's Profile," which enables teachers to evaluate writing
through a series of development scales. These are her categories for leads.
piece begins without introduction.
PICTORIAL: A beginning has been attempted in picture form.
EMERGING: A lead is written, but lacks connection to the story.
DEVELOPING: Beginning provides a better opening to the story.
PRACTICING: Beginning is complete enough to capture interest.
PROFICIENT: Beginning hooks and leads reader into the story.
ADVANCED: Beginning shows a unique style and purpose, hooking the reader
and flowing expertly into the story.
Primary students would
probably be working within the first three or four categories, with intermediate
students at the upper end of the scale. For more information on the complete
Author's Profile, contact Teri Beaver at 1811 42nd Ave., Greeley, CO 80634.
Here are some invaluable
professional resources on the writing craft. Many of them address beginnings
and endings specifically.
In the Company
by Joanne Hindley (Stenhouse, 1996)
A terrific guide to writing and reading workshops. Hindley works with
language-arts innovator Shelley Harwayne, which is evident in the graceful
way she integrates literature lessons into her writing workshop. (800)
Crafting a Life
in Essay, Story, Poem
by Donald Murray (Boynton-Cook, 1996)
Murray is the master of teaching the craft of writing. Though his book
is written for adults, it is a treasure trove of potential minilessons
for students of all ages. Particularly useful for specific advice in different
genres of writing. (800) 541-2086
Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way
by Georgia Heard (Heinemann, 1995)
This book is a series of writing exercises. Many involve crafting leads
and finding ways into writing. It's impossible to read far into this book
without picking up a pen and starting to write. (800) 541-2086
What a Writer
by Ralph Fletcher (Heinemann, 1993)
Fletcher includes some of the best advice available on teaching leads
and endings to students. His extensive experience as a writer and teacher
of children shows. (800) 541-2086
Revise Their Writing
by Marianne Tully (Scholastic, 1996)
How do you convince students that revising is an essential part of writing?
Marianne Tully shows you how in this practical guide, with a section on
openings. (800) 724-6527
The National Writing
The NWP has helped teachers for more than 20 years develop their abilities
as writers and writing educators. This consortium of classroom teachers
and university faculty sponsors institutes and workshops in almost every
state. To find a NWP group near you, write to The National Writing Project,
5511 Tolman Hall, School of Education, University of California at Berkeley,
Berkeley, CA 94720-1670; (510) 642-0963, or visit their site on the World
Wide Web at http://www-gse.berkeley.edu/research/nwp/nwp.html.
teaches at the University of Maine, where she works with teachers and
children of all ages. Brenda is the cofounder of Teacher Research:
The Journal of Classroom Inquiry. Her sixth book, Taking Note:
Observation Strategies for Teachers, is available from Stenhouse.
To order a copy, call (800) 988-9812.