Early in their educational careers, students are taught to write introductory paragraphs that start by them introducing themselves and then merely spelling out what they mean to suggest quite explicitly.
Over time, the writing matures and most students grow out of this very formulaic approach to writing.
Unfortunately, not all do and they cling to their predesignated ideas of what an introductory paragraph should reveal.
But if we want to break students of this older habit created as a means of scaffolding, then we must supply them with an alternative that is equally easy to follow.
We must free them from the formula by offering them freedom and creativity to engage with their own unique voice, applying different tenets of writing to draw their readers in.
Even for academic essays, the writer MUST consider his/her audience.
Here are some tips to consider when teaching students to craft engaging introductory paragraphs:
Avoid summarizing. Teach students to move away from just summarizing what it is they want to say and really focus their understanding around an argument.
Begin with context- This is information that the reader will connect with that is directly related to what the paper will be about.
It is general, but focused on a particular area and depending on the length of the paper, should vary proportionately. For a shorter paper, a few sentences should suffice. A short paper being anything up to five pages. Beyond that, the amount of context should be more, sometimes even a full paragraph for much longer papers.
When choosing the context, make sure it is appropriate to the topic the writer is addressing. Consider the following example: if I'm going to be writing about the varying views on marriage in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, I may consider talking about the reasons why people get married today or some variation on views of love in modern society that will be easy for a reader to connect with. I may even consider an anecdote about societal expectations and the contrast between those and a personal struggle of a character.
Avoid the first and second person. Any academic paper should be written in the third person objective and should avoid saying "I think" or "I feel" or using the direct address with the second person "you."
Switch from a thesis statement to a thesis section. A thesis statement is traditionally one sentence long (usually too long because there is too much information that needs to be in it and potentially can be unwieldy.) A thesis section is a few sentences strung together, sometimes with punctuation like a semi-colon or a series of a few sentences that address the specifics of what will be covered in the paper. This will give the writer more flexibility with how they craft their argument.
A solid thesis section should include the specific elements of what the writer is trying to prove, the piece of literature or topic that is included as well.
A thesis section written for a literature analysis paper should shift the focus away from what an author is saying to how the author is saying it speaking in terms of specific literary elements.
For example, going back to the Pride and Prejudice idea from earlier, consider this: Jane Austen challenges the reader's beliefs about marriage through her characterization of women. Each character is developed to represent either a stereotype of the time, to satirize what Austen believed to be a foolhardy past-time for her peers as seen through Mrs. Bennett or Lydia versus the more reticent approaches to love and courtship seen through Jane, Charlotte Lucas, or Elizabeth. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, the reader encounters ideas about marriage ranging from necessity to abhorrence demonstrated through carefully crafted relationships that portray these beliefs.
Remember a good introductory paragraph is a road map for the reader to follow and an organizational tool. If the writer makes a commitment to the map written in the introduction, there should be no surprises in the paragraphs that follow. Ideally, the paper will be written in the order suggested by the thesis section and will not introduce any new major ideas that aren't addressed with the thesis. This can be misleading and can often lead a paper astray.
A full essay should take the shape of an hourglass. The introductory paragraph should start broad and narrow toward the bottom and remain narrow throughout the developing body paragraphs where the meat of the essay will be written. In these paragraphs, the writer will show support of his/her thesis and make a compelling argument that builds as it goes, only to go broad again when he/she arrives at the concluding paragraph.
Come back in the next few days to see how to help students develop, full-bodied essays that support their thesis in meaningful ways and smoothly transition throughout.
Teachers should no longer suffer through formulaic reads by providing students the opportunity to develop their own thesis and academic writing style that offers both engagement and substance.
How do you teach young writers to improve engagement in their introductory paragraphs? Please share
*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in December 2015.