There's nothing quite like reading the first paragraph of a good piece of writing. But what if that first paragraph isn't so great? For many readers, we simply abandon this piece of writing and move onto something else. But for those pieces that have incredible first paragraphs, putting down this piece of writing simply isn't an option because we're instantly addicted!
This is why after my students and I have drafted any piece of writing, we move right into Revising for a Good Beginning. Here's how we get started...
Establish Evaluation Criteria First
Regardless of what genre/form we're writing at this particular time, I always find several samples for us to take a closer look at (which match the purpose and audience for that particular genre/form). After I've found several samples (from either previous students, other high school students, or published writers), we read them together and talk about this key question:
What makes this a Good Beginning paragraph (lead paragraph)?
As students share their ideas, I jot them down on an easel size Post-It Note and called this "Five Star Good Beginnings" (I've also called these the "Gold Standards for What Makes a Good Beginning"). I like to have my students come up with 5-7 different bullet points that become our grading criteria for what makes a "Five Star Good Beginning." Our list often looks something like this:
- Hooks readers attention
- Readers will want to keep reading
- Fits the type of writing we're working on
- Includes catchy words
- Includes a clear thesis statement (when needed)
Once we have read some samples together and established our evaluation criteria, it's time to begin writing our own. I model this for my students using A Glossary of Good Beginnings. I try to choose the best types of beginnings that will work with the type of writing that I'm doing. For our research unit last spring, I thought these types of beginnings would work best:
14. Main Idea
If you're traveling to the Middle East, or parts of Africa, familiarizing yourself with the Arabic language could be to your advantage.
Read from right to left. No capital letters. Revered as an art form. Out of all of the world's languages, Arabic has a unique history quite different from the English language.
Traveling to a different country can be an expensive, but worthwhile experience. Too often, American travelers assume the country they're traveling to will have English speakers within it. Travelers to countries where Arabic is spoken need to understand learning Arabic can be a worthwhile and rewarding experience.
After I've written my beginnings, I have to test them against the evaluation criteria my students and I established earlier in the lesson. Then, I see how it stacks up against my original beginning in my draft. Most of the time my revised beginning sounds much better than the first, which requires me to cross out my original and add this one in.
After I've modeled how to Revise for a Good Beginning, it's time for my students to get to work. I equip them with a copy of A Glossary of Good Beginnings and ask them to:
- Try out at least 3 different types of Good Beginnings (or more if you feel like 3 isn't enough).
- Share these in your group.
- Choose the one that sounds the best (use our "Five Star Good Beginnings" criteria to help you in your selection).
- On your draft, cross out your original beginning and add in your best beginning. (In my class, we skip lines for all drafts, so this makes it easy for us to add in our beginnings).
As they work, I walk around to each group to check for understanding and offer my guidance as needed. I also give my feedback on the Good Beginnings I like and advice on how to improve others. During student work time, we do a lot of small group and whole class sharing. We also vote for our favorites.
Results Readers Count On
Good readers demand Good Beginning paragraphs and this is an area that doesn't require a great deal of instructional time to teach (we usually spend 1 class period the first time around and 15-20 minutes or less once my students get really good at them).
By teaching my students about Good Beginnings, I can simultaneously teach them about audience and purpose as well--areas young writers need a lot of support in. We can begin having deeper conversations about sentence structure (e.g. List type of beginning with short, choppy sentences or Thesis for more complex sentences), about why certain beginnings work over others, and about connecting our beginnings to the rest of our pieces. We can even keep track of Good Beginnings we find in our books and expand our Glossary of Good Beginnings by including them. Or, we can just work on writing Good Beginnings that our readers can count on every time they come back to another piece we've written!
A Glossary of Good Beginnings can be found on pages 89-90 in The Writing Teacher's Strategy Guide.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.