Literacy experts Phil and Sharon Callen reveal that learning to ‘read like a writer’ is one of the best ways for students to improve their story beginnings.
The beginning of a text, whether it be fiction, a letter, a persuasive piece or something else, can be one of the most powerful elements. So, it’s critical for teachers to help students understand how to craft the perfect introduction.
When faced with the challenge of helping students to improve their writing, Sharon found her solution through the concept of ‘reading like a writer’.
“So what it means to read like a writer is to really be looking at texts and decide what the writer is doing here and what effect it has. So, we’ll look at crafting beginnings, and [the students] will say ‘okay I’ve started my story’. And then we look at it and go, ‘Oh, well, you don’t really catch me?’ And sometimes we can talk about, does it hook the reader in and has it got a good start?” Sharon said on Episode 21 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy.
It’s important for students to firstly understand the seven main types of beginnings writers can use, so they can be identified when reading.
“Number one, start by making the reader wonder. Number two, start by asking a question. Number three, start with someone talking. Number four, start with a punch. Number five, start with a fact. Number six, start with an opinion. Number seven, strange one here, but amazing how many times it comes up, start with the weather. The weather is all about mood and all about creating the atmosphere for something,” she said.
Once equipped with this knowledge, teachers can then engage in the ‘reading like a writer’ process. Sharon revealed the first part, ‘name and notice’, where teachers and students explore a collection of books and identify the type of beginning they feature.
“If I was doing this with a class, the name and notice part, I would have the categories up and I would read the first sentence or lines of the books, and I’d get them to notice. And we would sort them into those categories,” Sharon said.
“Is it going to fit neatly into only one category? Already it’s making us think further then. Did it tell us who, when, where, what, why?
“I could write them up or I could, with older students, pass some paper out and get them to write them as we’re going, and then we can put them up as an example. However, the next thing I’m going to ask them to do is to go back, to have a look through their books that they’re reading at the moment or through the library, and go and look for some more.”
An extension of this activity is then ‘exploration’ and forming a collection of beginnings in a ‘writer’s notebook’.
“We really want to go exploring, and what’s more, I want to go collecting. So in a writer’s notebook, I could have these categories now and I could have a double page of beginnings and I can find some examples of those. So I’m learning how they work. I’m learning what they can look like,” she said.
“So now what I have, and we often talk about this, is that literacy is about choosing and using. So now when I come to write, I’ve now got some choice. I can think, how am I going to begin? Hmm, well I’ve got some new crafting techniques for crafting a beginning …”
Sharon then explained the next step in the process, which is to ‘give it a go’ and practice writing a beginning. She described the usefulness of ‘quick writing’ activities, where students are given a limited time period to write a short piece of text.
“[You] might give a prompt or a word and say, ‘you’ve got two minutes to write. How are you going to begin?’ Sometimes [you might say] try beginning with a question. Try beginning with the weather,” she said.
“We might do two or three quick writes on one day and that’s taken 10 minutes. And that might be like the little warmup part of the mini lesson and warm up for writing that day, and you’d share some of these writings.
“And I saw from my own students’ writing, it elevates their writing to a different level because they are really writing like a writer.”
Phil added: “This would be great for kids who have found writing a bit of a struggle. It gives them an immediate entry point.”
To further enhance these activities, Phil and Sharon also gave insight into using ‘quick write books’ as a key resource for students to reference and reflect on.
“[With a quick write book], I can reflect on those and go, ‘wow, I love being able to start a story in this way’, and I’ve never done that before. So, when it comes to doing something else, now I’ve got some things to choose from. I’m not just stuck with one way of doing it. It’s opened up all these doors for me,” Sharon said.
“So, after the quick write, it’s a really nice time to reflect and for students to actually think about the effectiveness of that beginning that they wrote. To reflect on it is now really empowering them as the writer, because they’ve got some time to make that choice and think about its effectiveness, rather than when they’re editing one whole big piece … and it’s not just a reflection, it’s a celebration of this is what they were trying to do as a writer.”