Make Kids' Writing Shine:
Using Beginnings and Endings to Teach Craft

by Brenda Power

Supporting children 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 find:

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 feeling satisfied.

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 craftspeople.

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.

l. 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 feel?

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 and endings.

2. 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.

3. 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 writing.

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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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 FOR ASSESSMENT

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.

NONASSESSABLE: The 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.


YOUR RESOURCES

Here are some invaluable professional resources on the writing craft. Many of them address beginnings and endings specifically.

In the Company of Children
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) 988-9812

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

Writing Toward 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 Needs
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

Helping Students 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 Project
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.


BRENDA MILLER POWER 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.

Back to top