The first sentence of a story can lure readers in, like a wiggly worm on a fishing hook. Or the first sentence can cause readers to pound the snooze button.
How can you show students how important first sentences are?
Here’s one way:
- Show students a single drawing or photo in which some kind of human or animal action is going on. It could be the first page of a picture book (if so, cover up the words), a sports photo from a magazine, or something you’ve downloaded. Try to find a picture which is clearly focused on one or two characters and without a lot of distracting background.
- Ask the students to write the first sentence of a story about the events in the picture. (No, you are not going to write the whole story. No, I can’t offer any help.) Let students muddle through how to approach the writing. If they make a tentative suggestion, wanting your approval, affirm their suggestion, however good or bad you think it is.
- Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, but this time they are to start the sentence with a direct quote. It could be someone speaking aloud or someone musing.
- Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, this time focusing on descriptive detail. The weather, clothing, posture, the look on someone’s face—any details which seem noteworthy are okay to write about.
- Now tell them to write still another first sentence, focusing on the emotions of a person or animal in the picture.
- Now write a sentence focusing on using specific vocabulary, especially specific verbs.
That gives you and the students several sentences to evaluate.
- Ask the students to read aloud each of their sentences.
- Ask which one seems the weakest or least alluring. If there are two somewhat bad sentences, that is fine. Ask the students to identify why those sentences seem not as good as the others.
- Ask which sentence seems the best. If the students think one, two or three are superior, ask why.
- Go slowly, offering the students plenty of time to consider and reconsider their choices and reasons. Evaluating takes time. Accept all responses.
- Now, ask the students to take the best elements of the good sentences and combine them into one final sentence.
- Ask them to read that sentence aloud, and to explain why they chose particular elements to include.
Lastly, ask the students what they have learned about writing from this exercise.
Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?
Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle. Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.
Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison. I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.
Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:
- I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
- I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
- I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
- I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid. You can see it happening.
- I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
- I like Student One’s word, “outraged.” That is a strong word.
- I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
- I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
- I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
- I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
- I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.
After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing. They said:
- Use details, lots of details.
- Use dialog or thoughts.
- Use names.
- Show emotions of the characters.
- Verbs are really important to show action.
- Use good vocabulary words.
One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”
A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders? Really? I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”
Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea? You decide.
Posted in active verbs, dialog in writing, elements of a narrative, how to teach writing, Including details in writing, Introductions, lack of details, motivating writers, narrative writing, revising first drafts, revising weak verbs, teaching writing, verb choice, writing tips
Dysgraphia is a writing disability. Children have trouble handwriting: writing fast enough, forming letters clearly, and holding a writing tool.
In order for a student to qualify for special education services, the student must have a disorder named in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Dysgraphia is not named. However, dysgraphia is described under the category “specific learning disability.” An assertive parent or teacher could make a case for the child’s being formally tested by a licensed psychologist or school psychologist.
Signs of dysgraphia are many, making it hard to diagnose. But here are some common signs. Not all children will show each sign, and showing one or two signs does not mean a child has dysgraphia.
- Has trouble with letter spacing and spacing between words.
- Writes letters which go in all directions.
- Writes letters of various sizes within the same word.
- Writes letters and words which jam together.
- Leaves words unfinished and omits words.
- Has trouble writing on lines.
- Holds a pencil awkwardly.
- Holds the arm, wrist and shoulder awkwardly when writing.
- Writes slowly.
- Loses her train of thought before she has finished a sentence.
- Has trouble thinking and writing at the same time.
- Says words out loud while writing.
- Has trouble following directions.
- Has more trouble spelling when writing than when speaking.
- Mixes upper case and lower case letters in the same word.
- Finds her own handwriting illegible.
- Complains of a tired or cramped hand.
- Erases more than usual.
- Prefers to leave out details.
- Won’t write some ideas because “everybody knows that.”
- Speaks far better than writes.
Children with undiagnosed dysgraphia fall behind their classmates, taking longer to finish written assignments or refusing to add details. They become frustrated, leading to problems following a teacher’s directions and socializing with other children.
Next blog: What can a parent or teacher do to help a child with dysgraphia?