Teaching Essay Introductions

Introductions to Avoid

When teaching students how to write an introduction, teach them to avoid the following:

1) Clichés: Dead expressions will lose the audience.

2) The Definition of a Well Known Word: High school writers love defining words in the introduction that everybody over the age of three knows.

3) The Announcement Introduction: In this description of an announcement introduction, I’m giving you an example of an announcement introduction; then I’m going to tell you how annoying the announcement introduction is and how nobody will continue reading because you just told them what they need to know.

4) The Space Alien/Future Archeologist/Time Traveler Introduction: If a future archeologist looked at this reason he would ask himself why on Earth am I so popular. This introduction type is a subset of the cliché.

5) The “In Common" Introduction: What do Oprah Winfrey, Rosie O’Donnel, Elizabeth Taylor and my mailman Bob have in common? They’ve all fallen victim to one of the ten biggest fitness mistakes Be sure to read the previous statement in an annoying announcer voice.

NOTE: The thesis statement should come at the end of the introduction for short essays (less than six pages). For essays greater than six pages, add a thesis paragraph after the introduction that contains the thesis statement and an outline of the points you are going to cover.

Dead Fish Handshakes are a huge pet peeve of mine. You offer your hand in greeting and the other person returns a grip that is downright soggy, their hand flopping in yours like a lifeless cod. It’s not a huge offense in the grand scheme of things, but it also seems like such an easy thing to avoid. Just get a grip, people. Of course, pedestrian, soulless introductory paragraphs are much more difficult to avoid. Teachers of writing will instantly recognize these “dead fish” beginnings. We are all too familiar with them. I have, however, had considerable success using the following strategy to help students write more lively, effective introductory paragraphs.

I use a fairly common symbol to articulate the role of an introductory paragraph. This handout is probably something you have seen before, an inverted triangle (or funnel) that reminds students to begin broadly with a HOOK, narrow the focus of the essay with a few sentences that act as a BRIDGE, and then end the paragraph with a clear THESIS. Of course, this is not the only way to write an effective introduction, but it is an excellent model for most situations, especially for young writers.

(Yes, old writers can benefit from it too. You are a clever little monkey and have figured out that the introductory paragraph to this post follows the same format. Well done.)

I find that the portion of this model that flummoxes students the most is the BRIDGE. Beginning writers often need considerable practice to smoothly transition from one idea to the next. I try, then, to give my students more chances to work out this middle part.

The Steps

(Takes 2-4 one hour class periods, depending on the students’ age and skills.)

  1. I fill one bowl with slips of paper that have random NOUNS on them. (I actually add to the same bowl I use earlier in the year during The Metaphor Game.)

  2. I fill another bowl with predetermined thesis statements. (Use the ones at the end of the Effective Introduction handout or make your own.)

  3. After a quick conversation about the purpose of introductory paragraphs, I ask my students if they would like to see a magic trick. I then randomly pull a NOUN and a THESIS from the two bowls, and after a moment to gather my thoughts, I orally compose a sample introduction, on the spot. I do this trick a couple times with a new noun and thesis each time to show that, with practice, anyone can get pretty good at connecting two random topics.

  4. Students then find a partner and each student pulls a random NOUN and a random THESIS. They then practice creating sample introductions, speaking their paragraphs to one another. I circulate and give feedback and encouragement.

  5. After they have practiced in pairs, I ask a few students to share their sample introductions with the class. If nobody volunteers, we move on.

  6. Next, students review the Effective Introduction Handout. We review the three parts of an introduction (hook, bridge, thesis) and the list of hook strategies on the back of the sheet.

  7. After our review, I give students sample introductions, and in the same pairs as before, they read the introductions, labeling the hook strategy and identifying the three parts.

  8. We discuss these sample introductions, identifying the components and hook strategies.

  9. Students then pull another random noun and thesis, and write a sample introduction (either in class or as homework).

  10. With each new writing assignment, I refer back to these exercises, reinforcing concepts when necessary. Many students often request to pull a random noun as a way to kickstart their writing, too.

When using this strategy, it is very important to avoid spoon feeding the connection (a.k.a. the “bridge”). Practice with this sort of connection making is what students need, so the more chances we can give them to work out their own mental paths, in low-stress situations, the more likely it becomes that they can write original introductions on their own. Students certainly don’t find this work easy; one of my grade six students recently asked me, “Would you feel my forehead? My brain is overheating.” Yet, whether we are asking beginning writers or more experienced writers to complete such work, we are helping them develop a skill that makes writing entertaining and memorable–the ability to organize information in new, surprising, and playful ways.

Effective Introductions Handout Grade 6 Version

Effective Introductions Handout Grades 9-12 Version

Even more sample introductions from high school writers

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