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How to tell tales 2: Attention-grabbing openings

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By Antony LishakLiteracy Time PLUS Writer-in-residence

In the second part of his story writing handbook series, How to tell tales, Literacy Time PLUS Writer-in-residence, Antony Lishak explores what makes a good opening.

These teachers’ notes refer to the guided reading leaflet, ‘How to tell tales 2’.

How to tell tales 2

Here he explains why it is important to help children gradually move away from formulaic story starters.

Telling Tales Boy.jpg

Removing the springboard

“One day…”

“Once upon a time…”

“I went to the park…”

There are some story starters that should come with a health warning on them! They appear formulaically at the beginning of so many stories – it’s as if it’s something children have to get off their chest before they can get on with telling the tale. It’s the literary equivalent of clearing your throat. Story starters like this are like springboards that children use to propel themselves into the story, and convincing children that they don’t have to use them can be a useful exercise in the virtues of redrafting – or in this case simple extraction. Let me show you what I mean (this is a good story to share with the children)...

Literacy Framework

See the Using this issue chart here to identify the Learning Objectives covered by these activities, to track progression from Year 4 through to Year 7, and to identify links with Year 5 and 6 Planning Units.

Steve’s story

Stevie desperately wanted a swimming pool in his back garden. He had his eye on the super deluxe model he had once seen his favourite film star posing beside, but quickly realised that no matter how long and hard he saved, being a lowly teacher, he was never going to be able to afford it. Eventually he settled for an economy pool and secured the services of the company who submitted the lowest estimate for the job. Not wanting to put up with the inevitable noise and mess involved in the installation process, he decided to move out for the month it was going to take to complete the work. On returning he quickly discovered why the pool-fitters he had chosen were so cheap – they had installed the pool but had omitted to sink it into the ground. There on his lawn, like a huge open box, sat the pool. He was livid, but the company assured him that they only agreed to install the pool – at no time did anyone mention anything about a hole. “But how am I supposed to get in?” pleaded Stevie. Eventually the fitters agreed to build a ladder and a springboard – thus allowing Stevie to enjoy his pool (and no doubt earning the wrath of his neighbours).


Paddling about

The How to tell tales series

  1. (July 09): Characterisation.
  2. (September 09): Grabbing your reader’s attention on the very first line.
  3. (November 09): Painting pictures with words – descriptive writing.
  4. (online): The pivotal moment of a story.
  5. (online): Playing with time – sequencing.
  6. (online): The redrafting process – the story of the story.

The point of this story is, Stevie could not get into his pool without the springboard, just as so many children can’t start writing unless they use one of the knee-jerk story starters listed. But once Stevie is swimming around in his pool he no longer has any need for a springboard. Similarly, once a writer is paddling about on line two or three, there’s no need for those first few springboard words they used at the beginning of line one. You can simply take them away. So… ‘One day a huge meteorite smashed into next door’s garden, smashing their swimming pool to smithereens’ becomes merely ‘A huge meteorite smashed into next door’s garden… etc’. Or ‘Once upon a time I went to the park and I saw vicious monster chewing up a tree’ becomes ‘I saw a vicious monster… etc’.



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