An English Teacher’s Toolbox of Time-Tested Strategies
I’ve been teaching high school English for over twenty years, and as they often say, the best way to learn something is by teaching it to others. Experience has been a beloved teacher and has taught me, for example, the benefits and value of writing a good introduction.
Within minutes of meeting someone, we subconsciously form opinions of that person, whether they are good or bad. The same is true of a piece of writing. Here are some of the tips and techniques I share with my students on ways to form introductory paragraphs. It is my hope they will be of value to you as well.
1. Personal Anecdote:
When opening essays or other pieces of writing, especially personal topics, start off with a short anecdote of the story’s topic as it applies to your own life. If written in a compelling format and kept fairly brief, it can serve many purposes. One of these purposes is that it draws the reader in or “hooks” them, both on the topic and on you as a person. It shows you have experience with the subject and are truly invested in the message you are delivering.
2. Real-World Narratives:
In this introduction type, take a compelling, real-world example of your topic as it has impacted an individual, and use it to introduce your story. To exemplify this technique in action, I am using information from NBC News reporter Elizabeth Chuck’s article “Bullying drove 13-year-old Rosalie Avila to kill herself, parents say.” NBC New’s online site featured the article, in which her parents connect Rosalie’s tragic act to the impact of bullying:
“Thirteen-year-old Rosalie was a beautiful young girl who spent her time doing most of the things all such teenagers her age loved: binging episodes of The Walking Dead and Stranger Things, dancing, and going camping. These adolescent entertainments, however, did not distract her from her lifetime goal of becoming a lawyer and writer. She was a dedicated student who knew the value of an education; however, school was not always a fun place to be for Rosalie. She was frequently teased by students for her braces, called “ugly” by her classmates, and taunted for her quiet, often solitary nature. Still, no one imagined that this sweet teen would, after hastily writing apology notes to both her parents, hang herself at her own home.”
Then, of course, you can lead into your main topic, bullying, by using a transition sentence such as:
“Rosalie, unfortunately, is only one of the untold numbers of children impacted by bullying.”
3. Sensual Imagery:
In this introduction type, the writer uses sensory images (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell)concerning the subject matter and draws them in. To show you this technique, I will use pretend to open an article on the beauty of winter:
“Crystalline snow that melts in your mouth like cotton candy. The relaxing crackle of a blazing fireplace, compelling you to gather near and drink in its glowing heat. The ironic beauty of a landscape, barren of leaf and flower, that somehow seduces you with its naked majesty.”
Then, to finish your introduction, follow with a sentence of two connecting your images to the main purpose of your writing:
“These are the gifts of the winter season, and they are often overlooked.”
In this introduction type, the writer makes an extended comparison between the topic and another item or issue. The author can use the words “like” or “as,” creating a simile, or simply compare the two objects or circumstances without these words, creating a metaphor. In my personal opinion, metaphors are more sophisticated; however, both techniques can be highly effective. Consider the topic of social media addiction introduced through this technique:
“We are a society of junkies, and social media is our drug of choice. We feed our addiction in the morning, as we drink our coffee, at lunchtime, as we eat our meals, and at night, as we watch television. Sometimes, in a moment of desperation, when our job responsibilities have caused the first suffering signs of withdrawal, we even “use” at work, our precious phones hidden under meeting agendas and conference tables.”
Then, once again, use a transition to move more directly to your main point, in this case, the problem of social media.
“In our society, social media has become a growing problem, one that zaps our time and focus, and pulls us farther away from true interaction, causing both our personal lives and our professional lives to suffer.”
In this introductory technique, the writer opens with either a positive or negative prediction concerning the topic on which he or she is writing. Let’s say I am focusing on the positive impact/strategies in teaching our children grit or perseverance:
“Grit, defined as strength of character and courage and resolve, is a quality imperative to success. If we work to instill this quality in our children, their futures will likely be bright ones full of possibility and potential. Facing their challenges with fortitude and determination will transform their dreams into realities, their hopes into victories, and even their defeats into valuable lessons from which they can learn and grow. They will not only survive life’s hardships, but they will also prosper from them, becoming more resilient learners, parents, workers, and productive members of society.”
Then, I can transition into the specific methods to teach the skill of grit.
6. Other Techniques to Consider:
There are countless more introductory techniques that can be employed. A few more to consider are:
- statistics and data on the selected topic
- a series of questions leading into the topic
- a shocking or controversial claim about the topic
- a provocative quote on the topic
Whatever your chosen topic, without a provocative introduction, no one will get to see the important ideas and messages writers feel compelled to deliver. Like a trip to a new restaurant, a customer’s opinions are often determined by the first bite of food from the menu. Make that bite delicious, and, I promise you, people will come back for more.