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How to Teach the Essay Introduction

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Although the three components of the essay introduction (introducing the topic, engaging the audience, and transitioning to the thesis statement) would seem to suggest a three-sentence paragraph, this application may work nicely with some essays, but not with all. The problem with teaching formulaic introductory paragraphs for argumentative (CCSS W 1.0) and informational-explanatory (CCSS W 2.0) essays is that the square peg does not always fit the round hole.

Teaching students how to write an essay introduction is challenging work. The thesis statement is not usually the issue; most teachers do a fine job of teaching the most important sentence of the essay. More often, teachers need help teaching their students how to introduce the topic and engage the audience. Some teachers refer to these introduction strategies as the hooklead-in, or transition. The instructional challenge is that some introduction strategies work for some writing tasks and some work for others. Students need to learn a variety of introduction strategies to begin their essays and transition into their thesis statements. The following introduction strategies and examples will equip teachers with a flexible, not formulaic approach to teaching How to Write an Essay Introduction.

Introduction Strategies: DQ REPS BC

1. Definition: Explains the meaning of an unfamiliar term or makes a general essay topic more specific.

Examples: Prior to the Civil War, the term popular sovereignty referred to the policy of allowing the voters of individual states to determine whether slavery should be legal or not. The issue of sports-related concussions requires special consideration with youth contact sports.

2. Question: Asks your audience to think about why the essay topic is important or relevant.

Example: Why has the President issued the executive order at this point of his administration?

3. Reference to Common Knowledge: States an idea or fact that is known and accepted by your audience in order to build consensus.

Example: Most Americans favor some form of tax reform.

4. Expert Quotation: Provides an insightful comment about the essay topic from a well-known authority.

Example: Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, called youth e-cigarette smoking “a major public health concern.”

5. Preview of Topic Sentences: Lists the main point from each topic sentence before or within the thesis statement.

Example: Both positive consequences and negative effects of the new law require close examination.

6. Surprise: States an unexpected fact or idea, one that is unknown to your audience, or one that provokes curiosity about the essay topic.

Examples: Women live longer than men. Few Americans know that the number of Supreme Court Justices has changed throughout history. The report offers new clues about how to improve memory.

7. Background: Describes the relevant problem, historical circumstances, or literary context of the essay topic.

Examples: Gang-related murders have increased dramatically over the last decade. Over the past 100 years the average increase of Arctic temperatures has nearly doubled that of the rest of the world. In Sharon Creech’s novel, Walk Two Moons, the main character, Salamanca, learns to cope with the unexpected death of her mother. 

8. Controversy: Sparks interest because many might disagree with what is being said.

Example: However, freedom of speech extends to the rights of speakers as well as to the rights of protesters.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Essay Introductions

Do…

  • Use the DQ REPS BC strategies which best match the topic and tone of your essay. For example, the Expert Quotation and Controversy introduction strategies might serve as perfect lead-ins to this thesis statement: State and local governments should pass legislation banning the use of plastic grocery bags. However, the same two introduction strategies would probably not be used as lead-ins to this thesis statement: Americans have changed taste preferences for their favorite ice cream flavors.
  • Use the DQ REPS BC strategies which best match the purpose and scope of the writing task. For example, a five paragraph argumentative essay would not include references to the argumentative strategy of the writer, but a half-hour argumentative speech certainly should. A five paragraph informational-explanatory essay would not include a separate introductory paragraph on the research methodology, but a five page research paper might necessitate such an explanation.
  • Use the DQ REPS BC strategies which best match your audience. For example, the Background introduction strategy may be essential if writing a response to literature essay to an audience unfamiliar with the novel; however, identifying the main characters and setting may be unnecessary or even condescending to an audience of students and teacher who have already read the novel. Furthermore, the Reference to Common Knowledge introduction strategy might be necessary for an audience of fourth graders, but not for eighth graders.
  • Place the thesis statement last in short essays. The audience (your reader) expects the purpose or point of view of the essay to be in this position. Don’t disappoint your audience unless you have a specific reason for placing the thesis statement elsewhere.

Don’t…

  • Make unreasonable statements. For example, absolute words such as neveronly, and always and causal connection words such as becauseresults, the reason for, caused, created, changed, led to are rarely accurate and often suggest a lack of objectivity in the writer.
  • Pad the introductory paragraph with overly general statements or say what does not need to be said. For example, The fact of the matter is that Americans have differences of opinions on this issue. Of course, Americans believe in freedom and justice.
  • Be uncertain or apologetic. For example, saying “it may or may not be true” or “more research needs to be done to reach a firm conclusion” does not build confidence in your audience that your essay will be convincing or informative.
  • Use anecdotes for short essays. For example, take this often-used anecdote: “When Abraham Lincoln was working as a clerk in a store, he once overcharged a customer by 6 1/4 cents. Upon discovering his mistake, he walked three miles to return the woman’s money.”  This anecdote might work nicely for a long essay or speech on the subject of honesty, but not in an introductory paragraph for a short five paragraph essay. The anecdote might serve better as evidence in a body paragraph. Plus, confusing narrative elements with exposition when establishing the voice of the essay in the introduction can be confusing to the audience.

The Big Picture

Think of writing an essay introduction much as how a prosecuting attorney might design an opening statement. The attorney would take time to consider which introduction strategies would best fit the nature of the case, the character of the defendant, and those listening and deliberating in the courtroom. The attorney begins by explaining the crime. (The crime is the topic.) Next, the attorney connects that crime to the defendant and engages the jury. (The defendant and jury are the audience.) Finally, the attorney states the assertion (or claim) that the defendant is guilty of the crime. (The assertion or claim of “guilty” is the attorney’s thesis statement.) Now that you have mastered How to Teach the Essay Introduction, your students will need the evidence strategies to convince their juries. Check out the FE SCALE CC to learn how to teach these types of evidence strategies.

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Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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