Jenny Bender

Author and Literacy Consultant

Selected Works

Education Trade Book
A must-have for anyone who wants to teach young writers to craft focused, detailed and meaningful realistic fiction.
An essential handbook for educators who want to know what and how to teach their students to write well.

Teaching Young Writers to Craft Realistic Fiction: Ready-to-Use Lessons, Mentor Texts, & Ongoing Assessments

Excerpt from Chapter 5:
Drafting—One Possible Lesson Sequence

During drafting, which will likely last three to five days, I have three primary goals. I want students to:
1. Consider thoughtful ways to begin and/​or end a story.
2. Write with detail.
3. Write with focus.

After all of their hard work—all their thinking and planning and imagining—our students are finally ready to write their stories! Your classrooms will likely brim with excitement on the first day of drafting, bringing a new wave of energy and stamina. Before we embark on the next stage of the unit, we’ll want to organize our materials. By now, we should have a mentor text, but if we don’t, we’ll want one on which we can rely in minilessons and especially during differentiated instruction (Anderson, 2000). We’ll also want a complete draft of our own realistic fiction story, again, something we can use as a model during whole class and differentiated instruction; you can use the sections in this chapter on using our own writing to help you compose your story. Finally, we need to stock our writing center with new paper choices to support students as they move from generating ideas and planning to drafting.

When it comes time to draft, I encourage teachers to create booklets by stapling together three to four pieces of paper (depending on the number of parts most students included in their plans; students can of course add additional pages as needed). Booklets encourage students to write each part of their stories on a different piece of paper, which supports several goals. For one, if students have a blank page for just the beginning, one for just the middle and so on, it encourages them to elaborate each part. Using separate pages also helps students stay focused: They are more likely to pause at the end of each part if they need to turn to a new piece of paper, which means they are also more likely to attend to what comes next in their plan, rather than letting their writing get away from them and carry the plot in all kinds of unfocused directions. Finally, drafting each part on a separate page makes it easier to add, rearrange, and/​or rewrite isolated parts when it comes time to revise.

Because I always offer students a variety of paper choices, I put at least two types of booklets in the writing center during drafting; I simply choose a couple different types of paper already in the class, one with more lines than the other so booklets can support students with different production levels. I also stock the writing center with individual sheets of paper, so students can independently add more pages to their stories when desired. Remember that we can avoid “traffic jams” at the writing center by putting blank booklets on students’ tables on the first day of drafting when we know everyone in the class will need one. From then on, students can independently go to the writing center whenever they want more paper.

Our options for which lessons to teach during drafting, as well for how to sequence those lessons, are fairly endless. In most classrooms, drafting spans three to five days. In this chapter, I suggest four minilessons (to span four days) as one possible approach to drafting, knowing the series of minilessons will not feel appropriate for every reader, because each of us works with a different group of students with unique needs and passions. In chapter six, I offer additional strategies for drafting (as well as revising), so you can easily add to, exchange and rearrange the lessons in this chapter to better support the students before you.

Day 1: Writers often begin our drafts with a lead that pulls our readers into our story and makes them want to keep reading. One way to write an engaging lead is to use action and/​or dialogue to show what is happening in the beginning of the story. (For more ideas on and strategies for crafting leads, see pages 151-157.)

As with everything we teach, we need to consider our students and their stage of writing development before we choose and plan the minilessons we want to teach. In some classrooms, I would teach a simpler strategy for leads, such as beginning with the problem (see page 152). (Remember that if this teaching point doesn’t feel appropriate for a whole class lesson, you might have individual writers who would benefit from the teaching in a conference or small group.) But if students are ready to think about how to craft their lead in addition to what content to include, we might teach them to use dialogue and/​or action. If students do not yet have experience using dialogue, we should teach it in isolation. Otherwise, we can teach both strategies (dialogue and action) in the same lesson. We might teach students to move between what characters say and do in a single lead. Or, we might teach them to imagine an action lead as well as a dialogue lead, and then, to choose the one they like best. Either way, we can talk with students about how using dialogue and action helps pull readers directly into the moment, because it lets us hear and see characters as if we are in the room with them; and once we are in the room with characters, we often want to keep reading to experience the next turn of events.

If we’re teaching dialogue in isolation, we might say to students, “Rather than telling your readers what your characters are saying, you can write the exact words coming out of their mouths. So instead of writing, ‘Zoe told her mom she was lonely,’ we could write, ‘Mama, I’m so lonely!’ Zoe said.’” Though it may seem like an obvious shift to us, it often takes a lot of modeling and coaching on our parts, and a lot of practice on the parts of our students, before they begin to internalize this skill. If students are already trying dialogue when they write, and I want to share a more sophisticated example of using the strategy to show instead of tell, I might say, “I could start my story by writing, ‘Zoe walked all over her house looking for someone to play with. She was lonely.’ But instead, I want to try using dialogue to show what Zoe is doing and feeling in the beginning of my story. Maybe I could write, ‘Hello?’ Zoe called into the kitchen. But no one was there to answer her. ‘Hello?’ she called into her mom’s study. But no one was there, either. ‘Oh well,’ Zoe thought to herself. ‘Another day with no one to play with.’ Do you see how the things Zoe says and does shows readers what she’s doing (walking around the house looking for someone) and how she feels (lonely, maybe even a little bored)?”

Another way to build on students’ knowledge if they are already using dialogue, is to begin our lesson by saying, “Today we’re going to talk about leads. Since so many of you are trying dialogue, I want to teach you that you can move between dialogue and action to show even more of what is happening. This is one, excellent way to begin your stories because it allows readers to be in the room with your characters… .”

Moving between dialogue and action is an effective way to craft a lead, but it is also an effective way to show instead of tell what is happening throughout a story. In turn, if students are developmentally ready, we will likely teach and re-teach them to move between dialogue and action, revisiting the strategy multiple times in the unit for a variety of purposes, from crafting leads to writing with detail to crafting endings.

Using Published Texts to Teach Students How to Craft Leads with Dialogue and/​or Action
When we teach leads (as well as endings), we often have to look to texts other than our mentor. When teaching something like details or focus, we can usually find multiple examples of the skill in a single text. But of course every story only contains one lead (and one ending). If our mentor does not begin the way we are teaching students to begin, or if we want to show more than one example of our strategy, we need to turn elsewhere.

The following examples include a published lead in addition to what the authors could have written were they telling instead of showing the beginning of their stories. I transcribe several sentences of each lead to show authors moving back and forth between what characters say and do. We could also simply show students the first sentence or two of a lead to exemplify just dialogue or just action.

Bunny Cakes, Rosemary Wells
Wells could have started her story by writing: Max wanted to give Grandma an earthworm birthday cake, but Ruby wanted to give her an angel surprise cake. Instead, Wells crafts a more engaging lead:
It was Grandma’s birthday. Max made her an earthworm birthday cake.
“No, Max,” said Max’s sister, Ruby. “We are going to make Grandma an angel surprise cake with raspberry-fluff icing.”

Peter’s Chair, Ezra Jack Keats
Keats could have begun his story with the following: Peter’s mom told him to play more quietly because his new sister was sleeping. Instead, he uses dialogue and action to show this event unfolding:
Peter stretched as high as he could. There! His tall building was finished. CRASH! Down it came. “Shhh!” called his mother. “You’ll have to play more quietly. Remember, we have a new baby in the house.”

Whistling, Elizabeth Partridge
Partridge could have started her story with: Jake’s dad said it was almost time, and Jake came out of his sleeping bag. Instead she writes:
“Jake,” Daddy whispers. “It’s almost time.” I poke my head out of my warm sleeping bag.

Creating Our Own Writing to Teach Students How to Craft Leads with Dialogue and/​or Action
Try this: Create three columns on a blank page. Use your draft plan to think about what happens in the beginning of your story. What might a character say to show this part of your plan? What might a character do? Write one to three action sentences (depending on the level of your students) in the first column and one to three dialogue sentences in the next, as two different ways to begin your story. In the third column, craft a third way to begin your story by combining some of your action and dialogue sentences into a single lead; to show students moving back and forth between the two strategies, you might need to create a new action or dialogue sentence and intersperse it with ones you already have.

For example, I wrote three, possible leads for my story about Zoe wanting a dog. I can shorten each depending on the level of students for whom I am modeling:
1. Zoe called her best friend on the phone but there was no answer. She asked her mom to play, but her mom had work to do. She looked around her empty house for something to do.
2. “I’m so lonely!” Zoe told her mom at breakfast. “I wish I had someone or something to play with.”
3. Zoe called her best friend on the phone but there was no answer. “Mom, can you play with me?” she asked, but her mom had work to do. She looked around her empty house for something to do. “I’m so lonely!” Zoe told her mom. “I wish I had someone or something to play with.”

Day 2: Today I want to teach you that it is important to write focused stories so your readers always understand what is happening and how it connects with the rest of the story. One way to write with focus is to move back and forth between our plan and our draft, making sure everything we write fits with what we planned—because remember, we already made sure our plans were focused. (For more ideas on and strategies for writing with focus, see pages 175-181.)