Why Teaching Beginnings, Middles, and Ends is a Problem
Updated: Mar 17
This unfortunately popular way to teach children about stories is actually a very big problem. I’ll explain why teaching beginnings, middles, and ends of stories is a problem, what it is actually used for, and then show you a better method for teaching students how stories work.
The first problem with teaching stories this way is that this is a tool for writers
The idea of breaking a story down into the beginning, middle, and end is a structure that’s taught to writers.
Authors should introduce a problem in the beginning of the story that has to be resolved by the end of the story. The middle is where the action takes place to bring about a successful resolution to the story:
The problem is introduced in the beginning
The problem is solved in the end
The middle is how the story flows between the introduction of the problem (the beginning) and the resolution of the problem (the end)
That’s a pretty handy shortcut for learning how to structure a story that you’re writing, right?
But what happens if you’re using this as a way to teach someone how to read a story?
Here's where the problem lies in using that structure
The beginning of a story isn’t necessarily the beginning of the problem. The very beginning of a story is written to hook the reader and convince her to continue reading.
It might start with the problem, but it might not. A story may start with simply introducing a character.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, what is the problem that needs to be resolved?
Is it that the Pevensie children aren't getting along as well as they could?
Or is the problem that Narnia is ruled by the White Witch?
Both are problems, and both occur early on in the story. If someone asks you about the story, do you describe the difficulties the other Pevensie kids are having with Edmund, or do you focus on the talking animals and what happens in Narnia?
The very beginning of the story is intended to keep the reader hooked, but it's the problem that needs to be resolved that keeps the reader's attention until that problem is resolved in the end.
The middle can be a huge portion of the book; it’s not just one specific action or location in the story. So using that framework to teach children how to understand a story is a problem.
I’m going to use a very simple story to demonstrate one of the problems with simply teaching beginnings, middles, and ends
and then I’ll show you what we should be teaching instead
I’ll use a very simplistic story, “The 3 Little Pigs,” as my example. Just in case it’s been a while since you’ve read it, here’s the summary:
The 3 pigs each decide to build a house—one house per pig.
Each pig builds a house out of different material than the other 2 pigs. One of straw, one of wood (or sticks), and one of brick.
The Big Bad Wolf comes and destroys 2 houses but not the third, and leaves still hungry because he couldn’t get to any of the pigs in time to eat one for lunch. Or dinner.
Then they live happily ever after. Or at least, the pigs do. We don't necessarily know what happens to the wolf.
So where is the beginning of the story? If you ask a young child who is still a very concrete thinker that question, the answer will most likely be the house of straw, since it's the first house the wolf approaches.
If you ask that child to identify or find or label the beginning, middle and end of the story, what will the answer be?
Each of the 3 houses, right?
But is the first type of house really the beginning? Didn’t something happen before that? Yes. Each of the 3 pigs decided to build a house and each one decided on a different material to use.
So which one is the beginning?
If you’re an author, when you write the story the beginning is the problem the pigs face, which is that all of the 3 pigs wanted to live safely and happily but they had no home.
Each pig attempts to solve this problem by building his own house instead of buying one or contracting someone else to build it.
Each pig also has a different idea of how to build a house, so there are three different potential solutions to the problem of safety in this story. As the wolf challenges the solution attempted by each of the pigs, they each discover whether or not they solved the problem.
The first two failed the challenge and almost lost their lives, but ultimately the problem is solved by the type of house—the one made of brick—that kept all 3 pigs safe from the wolf.
But Where Was the Beginning of the Story?
The beginning of the story was the desire for each of the three pigs to be safe by building their own house. If you identify the first house as the beginning—which is what an early learner would do—then you don’t know why the house is being built because the house is an attempt to solve the problem, so it can't be both the problem and the solution at the same time.
You wouldn't know why there are two other houses, either, because the other houses are also potential solutions to the problem.
The end of the story is that the 3 pigs live happily and safely. That’s not a resolution to the first pig deciding to build a house out of straw. It’s a resolution to the problem of the danger they were trying to avoid, which was shown in having a wolf who was trying to eat the pigs.
Also, if there is no problem to solve then having a house made from brick doesn’t solve a problem or answer any question, it’s simply a choice made by a talking pig.
If the problem is solved by building a house that’s safe, how do you know that?
A pig building a house of straw isn’t unsafe until there's a threat to the safety of the pig in the house. That threat could be:
Bugs eating the straw
A horse eating the straw
Birds or squirrels taking the straw to build their own homes
There's nothing about building a house that automatically tells the reader (or the pigs) that a wolf will come and try to eat the pigs.
If the beginning of the story is just that the three pigs needed houses, then that problem was solved when each of the three pigs finished building their houses.
This is a story for very young children, who are extremely literal in their thinking. If you ask a student a question, no matter how old that student is, she'll try to find the answer the teacher wants because students always want to please the teacher and get a good grade, a sticker, or some form of praise as a reward.
When you present a young child with three things to identify and three answers to give, they are going to look for a pattern of three.
If this is used with the beginning, middle, end framework, then where is the real beginning?
That could be houses, pigs, or attempts by the wolf. If left to their own devices, they're not going to identify the problem, the solution, and the path to the solution.
They're going to say whatever they think the teacher wants as an answer.
Most young children are going to see a pattern of three things that they're supposed to identify, and look for a pattern of three things in a story. In this example there are:
3 houses that are built
3 types of material used to build each of the houses (straw, wood, brick)
3 houses that the wolf tries to destroy
None of these potential answers is really the beginning of the story. So now she’s confused about what it means. If you have two children, one identifying the straw house as the beginning, and one identifying the decision to build as the beginning, then how do you resolve that?
The bigger problem is that the teacher is trying to help students with pattern recognition, but is using a tool intended for understanding the structure of stories.
Learning to put the construction of types of houses in order can be an aid for sequencing and pattern recognition, but it confuses the issue when the 3 houses are identified as beginning, middle, and end.
What has actually been taught is that:
The beginning of the story isn’t really the beginning of the story
The beginning of the story starts after the beginning
The end of the story isn’t really the end of the story
The end of the story continues after the end
The reader ends up confused about what to pay attention to and what directions to follow.
It also makes discussions about stories really boring, because (like many other exercises and tests) it teaches students that the logical answer is not the correct answer.
Wouldn't it be better to take a student's natural ability of how to think and develop that while she's learning to love reading?
We're not doing that most of the time, and it's a problem!
I have another suggestion. Teach them to think about the story in a different way.
Start by asking students what they liked in the story to help them remember specific things (characters, events, locations).
Then ask questions to help them remember the sequence of events, and why that sequence matters.
Young children don't yet have the ability to think abstractly, so avoid questions that have answers that require abstract thinking and instead focus on things in the story that appeal to their senses. That is going be more helpful to them in remembering what happened in the story, and in learning to love reading because it's won't associated with often having the wrong answer or being confused about the answers they're supposed to have.
Some questions to start with:
Who do you remember from the story?
Where did that person (or animal) go? What did that person do?
Why did that character do that?
Did you like any other characters? Why or why not?
Choose specific events they mention or that are associated with a character they mention and ask about other things that character did. Then ask which came first, second, etc. in the story
Questions like that provide a better discussion about the story for concrete learners, while developing the ability to remember details, and understanding why the sequence of events matters in a story.
If your students are older and you have them engage in a book club or literature circle, they can ask each other those questions as well as others they might wonder about. Each one will have different answers to some of the questions, and similar answers to others. If they talk about those different perspectives, their memory of the story is reinforced and they can help each other notice things that they did not see.
Aren't those questions going to lead to better discussions than simply filling out the same answers on a worksheet because they're all supposed to remember the same thing and have the same thoughts about a story?
If you're looking for an alternative way to help students learn about stories, I've created a series of printables to help develop critical thinking skills, and understand how stories work at the same time: