Category Archives: revising opening sentences

Show writers how important first sentences are

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.Some creative sentence options.
  • 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.

Use colored pencils to help students revise drafts

Most of my elementary and middle grade students write first drafts in pencil.  A few type theirs into a computer.  But when we revise–hard copies or electronic ones–we use colored pencils.

copy-showing-use-of-colored-pencils-to-revise-001

This book summary was written and revised by a third grader.

I ask students to circle verbs and verbals with one bright color, such as red.  It’s easy to find verbs when they are encircled in a bright color.  We list them, use tally marks to identify which ones are overused, and then go back to the copy to replace overused verbs or weak verbs.

Next I ask students to choose a different bright color, one that is easily distinguishable from the first color, such a violet, green or blue.  Now the student encircles the first word of each sentence with that color.  Because the color prominently displays the first words, those words are easy to spot.  I ask students to read them aloud, listening for repetition.  When we find the same word used frequently, the student rewrites the sentence beginning to add variety.

For older students, we look at those same sentence opening words and identify their parts of speech to see if the student is overusing one part of speech, such as adverbs, and under-using another part of speech, such as prepositions.  If he is, he makes appropriate changes.

Some children overuse particular words, such as “so,” “just,” “then,” and “and.”  If I notice this, I ask the student to choose another color and to circle the overused word.  The abundance of color helps the student to recognize how frequently he has overused a word.

Revision might mean moving sentences or paragraphs around, or inserting new information missing from the first draft.  That too can be identified with arrows and stars in bright colors.

For poor spellers, I either encircle misspelled words in a particular color or highlight them with a marker.  From those words, I create a spelling study guide.  At the next lesson I quiz the student on the misspelled words.

When students see a first draft spotted with color, cross-outs, X’s, erasures, arrows and inserted words, they know they have revised.  So do parents without reading a word.

Sentence beginnings should vary

Here is how many younger children write:

Today I woke up and ate breakfast.  Then I got on the school bus with my friend, Anya.  I sat near the window.  I put my backpack on a hook and I sat down.  I did my morning work first, and then I said the pledge.  I did math until it was time to go to specials. 

Do you notice that almost every sentence begins with “I,” and the two sentences that begin with another word use “I” as the second word?  What is the effect?  Boring.

Yet this is how beginning writers start their sentences.  Their world is “I” focused, and so is their writing.  As they grow older, this tendency wanes, but repeating the same word at the beginnings of many sentences continues.

Revising general wording to more expressive wording.

An excerpt of a third grader’s essay with his revisions.

Here’s how I break students of this habit.  First, I ask the students to circle the first word of every sentence, using a color quite different from the color they used to encircle verbs.  That is so the first words stand out.

Next, the students read the words aloud and listen for repetition.  Almost always they find it.

For new students, I offer suggestions on how to vary sentence openings.  This is a skill older students learn quickly, so after the first few lessons, they can work independently on future writing.  What are some easy yet effective ways to improve sentence openings?

  • Many sentences begin with a pronoun like “he” or “she.” I suggest using the person’s name if it hasn’t been used, or repeating the person’s name.  If it has been used as a sentence opening in a nearby sentence, I suggest using a relationship, such as “My mother” or “My music teacher.”
  • Sometimes there is a prepositional phrase later in the sentence which could easily be moved to the front of the sentence. “I went to school in the morning” could be changed to “In the morning I went to school.”
  • An adverb can often be added to the front of a sentence unless this technique is overused by the student. I help students find a less common adverb, such as “later” rather than “next” or “then.”
  • Sometimes consecutive sentences can be combined to eliminate a repetitive opening word. “I did my morning work first, and then I said the pledge.  I did math until it was time to go to specials” can be replaced with “I did my morning work, said the pledge, did math and then went to specials.”
  • Sometimes writing a new sentence beginning is what works best.

Next we will talk about changing parts of speech at the beginnings of sentences.