Introductory Paragraphs: How to teach and write them

When writing academic essays in English, students need to be aware that they will not only need to focus on their language accuracy (as well as tone, register, etc), but also that there may be differences in conventions of structure and logic. In EGAP, the introductory paragraph is an important part of any essay, and it is here that some of these differences may become apparent. Below is a brief guide to teaching learners how to write a good introductory paragraph for an EGAP essay – the guide can be used by students themselves, or by teachers who need some tips and examples for teaching this aspect of essay writing. 

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First, we need to be clear on the functions of an introductory paragraph

  • Attracts readers’ attention
  • Gives a BRIEF background of topic
  • Includes NO detail of support/evidence/examples
  • Narrows down the topic
  • Hints at the organisation of the essay
  • Guides the direction of the essay
  • Controls the essay’s scope
  • States the essay’s main message/point in the THESIS STATEMENT (more on this later!)

To encourage learners to ‘notice’ these features, it might be a good idea for the teacher to provide some good examples. These can be found in EAP course books, or from published essay-like articles, or by using previous students’ essay which had a particularly good introductory paragraph. Once this has been clarified, it makes sense to start at the beginning of the paragraph and walk through how the features can be realised.

The first couple of sentences are important for introducing the topic area as a whole and gaining the reader’s attention and interest.

There are various ways to open the introductory paragraph:

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General statement

e.g. Every day, the newspapers, and television and radio news programs are flooded with stories about the tragic results of drug addiction.

Question

e.g. Are standardized tests a fair measure of academic potential?

Statistics

e.g. The latest census shows that 75% of the population of the USA are Christian, but only 12% send their children to religious schools. 

Quote (famous person)

e.g. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”  Mark Twain’s famous quote highlights the heart of the debate about home-schooling in the USA.

Relevant anecdote

e.g. The British Queen finished her recent tour of Australia today by meeting a survivor of the Indian Ocean tsunami, whose story prompted a discussion of the precautionary measures that are appropriate for protecting the population from such natural disasters

 

To practise interesting opening lines, students can either look at example paragraphs and identify which approach the writer has taken, and/or pick one topic and practise writing opening lines using various techniques from the list above. Topics can be of general interest (like the examples above), or specific to the students’ fields of study. Of course, EAP teachers are not always experts in all of the fields of study their students are working in, but a quick look over the contents page(s) of an introductory textbook can provide a nice list of topic areas – or ask the students themselves for input here.

After the opening sentences, we need to structure the rest of the paragraph.

I find one of the easiest ways to present the structure of an introductory paragraph is showing that its shape mimics that of a funnel, filtering down from the general opening to the specific focus of the essay, and culminates in a thesis statement, which states the overall message of the essay and answer to the task question. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways which can be memorable for students, either visually (see below), or with hand gesture (rather like a flight attendant!), or by bringing your kitchen funnel to class as a prop!

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Whichever technique is employed to demonstrate the shape of a paragraph, it will probably be necessary for students to see the ‘funnel’ form in action, so to speak. To do this, example paragraphs which can be analysed into component parts are the most effective. Here are some examples (from general EAP) of how this “funnel” can work in practice (my own work – not necessarily amazing, but clearly demonstrating the ‘funnel’, and I’ve analysed the component parts to exemplify what I mean by this activity).

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Students should notice in the examples that there are usually a few sentences between the opening ‘attention catcher’ and the thesis statement. These narrow down the topic, giving more information about the context and the rationale  – They include information to answer the following questions:

Why is this an important / interesting topic to write about? Who is involved in the topic? Whose are the strongest voices in discussions on this topic? Which aspects of the topic are the focus of this essay?

And then we reach the final sentence of the introductory paragraph –

arguably the most important in the whole essay: the THESIS STATEMENT. 

Of all  of the functions on an introductory paragraph, the thesis statement can take over most of them, but the vital thing for students to do in their Thesis Satements is to state the essays’ overarching message or argument. If worded expertly, the thesis statement can also hint at the organisation of the essay and the kinds of evidence that are going to be presented.

Depending on the discipline the essay is being written in, it may or may not be a good idea for the author to state what you are going to do in the essay to ‘prove’ the argument expressed in your thesis statement. As an EAP teacher, this may be a point where some input from a subject teacher may be helpful! Nonetheless, I think it is important to make students aware that trite phrasing such as ‘This essay will attempt to” or “This paper aims to” is rather dull to read, and some of the readers’ attention the opening sentences so dynamically attracted may be lost. Students can be guided to try replacing them with statements such as “It is important to” or “An interesting approach is to” – OR, and this is what I personally prefer, they can include information about what they’re going to do whilst stating the overarching thesis or argument. That means that they would not explicitly state your intention (as you would in, say, a longer term paper or dissertation), but hint at it through some clever phrasing. Here are some good examples of thesis statements which employ this strategy:

  • An evaluation of the validity of the evidence for this view demonstrates that it is questionable, and highlights that the Supreme Court is right to ban the teaching of the Christian creation story as a part of the biology curriculum.
  • From the analysis of examples of countries throughout the world, considering economic, social and psychological indicators, it becomes clear that the division of countries into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ needs re-examining. 

To practice formulating this kind of Thesis Statement, I would ask students to first think about what they are planning to do in the essay, e.g. evaluate, analyse, compare, etc – and then use these words to lead in to the overall message/point they are trying to demonstrate within the essay. I think it is clearly exemplified above, but again subject-specific examples could be a help here. Also, teachers could devise practice tasks which include a topic and two verbs for what the writer aims to do, and then ask students to write the Thesis Statements for those essay. For example: Devise a Thesis Statement for an essay that aims to do the following:

  • evaluate evidence for critical period hypothesis (for learning languages)
  • focus on examples of deaf and feral children
  • argue overall: there’s probably a sensitive period, but not stringent critical period

–> Example Thesis Statement –> An evaluation of the evidence supporting the critical period hypothesis, primarily that provided by case studies of deaf and feral children, demonstrates why it may be more appropriate to talk of a ‘sensitive period’ rather than a stringently restricted critical period for the acquisition of language. 

Another good hint is to remind students that the thesis statement should summarise their answer to the task question in just one sentence. Here is a clear example:

Task/Question: Why has use of the English language expanded so much over the last 1000 years?

Thesis statement: Following key periods in the expansion of the English language over the last 1000 years highlights how these coincide with major world events and trends, including the British Empire, globalisation, international cooperation and the advent of the Internet, which can be identified as causes for the expansion of the language to a world language.

Once the introduction has some opening lines to attract readers’ attention, and some ‘narrowing down’ including information on the rationale, scope, etc, and a clear Thesis Statement, it is basically finished – although it might be a good idea to remind students to review the introduction once they have finished writing the essay, to make sure that the body fits to what they introduced!

 

One example task would be to provide examples of short essays, and two-or three introductory paragraphs on the topic: Students should pick the introductory paragraph that best fits to the body of the essay and justify their choice. To do this task well, they will need to know that:

The thesis statement should be supported by the information given in the body paragraphs of the essay. To ensure that the organisation is clear and flows logically, the aspects mentioned in the thesis statement should be discussed in the order in which they are presented there. For example, in the essay about the second example thesis statement above (about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries), we would expect body paragraphs first on economic factors, then social and then psychological aspects. The concluding paragraph should then weigh up all of the evidence given in the essays’s body (brief summary!) and then draw a conclusion that reflects the overarching message as it was presented in the thesis statement.

Finally, I would end any lesson(s) on writing introductions with the reminder that 

It is vital to have a good introductory paragraph for any essay – but having a good introductory paragraph is not a guarantee for a good essay!

 

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