Beginnings and endings often confound writers. And yet they are critical to the success of a piece of writing. Many of the young writers I work with simply dive into their content…regardless of genre or text type.
We recently gave our students a writing performance task to inform our teaching of informational writing. Students watched a short video about animal defenses and either read a short article on the same topic or listened to a picture book on that topic. After reading, watching, taking notes, and answering a few questions, they were prompted to write an article describing and comparing animal defenses. Our students were immediately engaged in the task, eagerly taking notes and excitedly writing about the animals. It was clear that they understood the material and wrote effectively about the content.
But…many of our students dove directly into the body of their writing without any kind of introduction at all. They started with sentences like, “The porcupine has sharp quills…” or “Puffer fish blow their bodies up so other animals can’t eat them.”
I’ve often wondered why this lack of introduction is so noticeable (not just in my class) in prompted writing and less evident in classroom products that make their way through the writing process, including the use of mentor texts and mini lessons along the way. Does the written prompt encourage students to see the writing as an answer to a question rather than writing that stands alone? Or is the missing step the writing response group or individual teacher conference? Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.
My teaching partner and I have thought long and hard about this phenomenon and decided that we would use our students’ prompted writing, and our analysis of it, as an opportunity to teach our students about introductions and conclusions.
In planning our introductions mini lessons, we took a careful look at non-fiction/informational texts we had read in our classroom recently. We ended up using both texts from the performance task…a picture book and a short article. We also used an article about pumpkins from Scholastic News that we had read as a class, a book about rock collecting, and then an unrelated book about rain forests that we had not read. We chose all of these because they demonstrated different approaches to introductions. With our students we noticed a “preview” introduction, one that set the stage with a context and overarching idea, an anecdote that took us right into a place, and one that used a list to get started.
We sent students off to try our a new beginning for their animal defenses piece…with varying success. Some of our younger students actually started rewriting the same information they had already provided! As a class, we looked at a couple of student examples and noticed what they had tried out.
Today we returned to our introduction mentor texts and reminded ourselves about the purpose of the beginning. And then we asked students to write a short piece about the fruit trees we had been out photographing and studying yesterday.
With beginnings fresh in mind, students began to write. We limited the time…giving them 7 minutes of “power writing” to write their beginning and whatever else they had learned about fruit trees.
Here are a few examples;
So here’s a second grader’s attempt, “Hey, want to know about trees?” I’m not that crazy about the “Hey” or the simple rhetorical question…but it is an attempt at at a beginning.
This first grader took a very formal approach, “This article is about trees.” She made a very definite attempt to set the context and expectations for her writing.
This third grader attempted the more complex and creative anecdote approach, “Walk carefully through the big apple orchard. Notice everything that has happened in the trees. Sketch it out in your notebook and take a minute to write about it–hope you have fun!”
And this second grader tried out a broad overarching idea, “Trees are amazing parts of Mother Earth.”
I feel like our students are getting the idea of the importance and variety of introductions. Tomorrow we will take another look at introductions–both from our mentor texts and from some student examples. And then we will ask students to write another short informational piece about another topic they are familiar with…with an emphasis on the introduction.
And then next week we will shift our focus to endings…and continue to explore ways to support our students’ development of writing that includes beginnings and endings as well as rich content!
Writing is complex…and we can always work to make our writing better. How do you support student writers?