Mentor Text Suggestions:
Hey Al by Arthur Yorinks (description of character and question)
Bigmama’s by Donald Crews (question)
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray (description of a person)
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (setting the mood)
All About Owls by Jim Arnosky (question lead)
Vote! by Eileen Christelow (What if..? Scenario)
The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles (quote)
My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris (anecdote)
It is amazing how even this one mini-lesson can dramatically improve student writing. When a writer begins with a good lead s/he sets the tone for the entire story and entices the reader to read on. It is important that the first few sentences of a story grab the reader’s attention. Young writers often fall into the trap of beginning with a generic lead that is boring and dry. We can begin to teach students how to develop good leads by first showing them how not to grab the reader’s attention. I begin this mini-lesson by shaking my students’ hands using a limp handshake. I explain that when we meet someone for the first time, we want to look them in the eye, smile, and give them a firm handshake. In other words, we want to make a good first impression. Writers want to do the same thing.
Then I introduce some ways NOT to make a good first impression in our writing. Some of these ways include:
- Hi! My name is…
- My story is about…
- Once upon a time…
- One sunny day…
Students will recognize these beginnings from their own stories and even begin to chuckle when they realize how boring they sound.
Here is one of my students’ “stick to the facts” boring leads:
The next step is to give students some specific techniques that can be used to grab the reader’s attention. These techniques include:
- Use dialogue: have the main character talking to someone.
- Jump right into the action of the story
- Pose a thought-provoking question
- Describe a character’s thoughts or feelings
- Begin with an astonishing fact
- Use a sound effect
- Start with a quotation from an expert or someone well-known
- Describe a setting
- Use humor or word play
While presenting these techniques to students, it is helpful to read examples of them in children’s literature and have students try to identify which technique(s) the author used.
Next give students a topic and have them practice writing 2 or 3 leads, trying out various techniques. Explain that authors usually try out several leads before settling on one. Share the fact that E.B. White experimented with over a dozen leads before settling on one. You may want to show some of them to your students. You can find some of them here: Charlotte’s Web leads.
I have my students purposely write boring leads and then revise them using the techniques we have studies. Here are some examples of their boring leads and revisions: