No Dead Fish: Teaching Students to Write Effective Introductions

12 Jan

dead fishDead 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

8 Responses to “No Dead Fish: Teaching Students to Write Effective Introductions”

  1. Jordan April 15, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

    Love the idea! But, I’m stumped on how it’s possible to connect a thesis statement about video games, with a random noun, like a “frog” or a “hammer”. This confuses me!

    • rbneal April 15, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

      I tell my students to try to consider the random noun from different perspectives or values, looking for the “bridge” idea that might connect to the thesis. Therefore, if I have this thesis: “Video games should be used in more classrooms as they are wonderful learning instruments.” I might begin with an anecdote about a mini-hammer I keep in my classroom that has screwdrivers hidden in the handle. It looks like a silly toy without much purpose, but I’ve used it for over ten years for all kinds of in-the-moment solutions. The versatility of this one tool is surprising. Video games can also be surprisingly flexible and used for purposes other than entertainment….It’s the practice of working through the confusion and finding a connection (or several different connections) that students need to practice. Writing becomes more interesting when authors reveal connections we don’t see ourselves, and this exercise helps students gain practice with this skill in a concrete and low-stress way. Hope this response helps?

      • Jordan April 15, 2015 at 5:11 pm #

        I get it! It certainly does involve higher level of thinking. A great way to challenge students- and myself!

        Thanks for the clarification, and the quick response!

        Keep it up! I’m glad I stumbled upon your site!

  2. Lacy February 4, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

    Love this lesson. Anything fun for conclusions?

    • rbneal February 26, 2016 at 7:05 am #

      Thanks, Lacy. Nothing prepared for conclusions yet, but I’ll work on it.🙂

  3. Susan July 3, 2016 at 12:59 am #

    Stumbled across your site. Love it! As a relatively new teacher, I am SO appreciative of other experienced teachers, like you, who willingly share their best practices FREELY, to benefit all of us. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • rbneal July 5, 2016 at 8:25 am #

      Thanks for the thanks! I’m glad you find these posts useful.

  4. Henesis July 13, 2016 at 9:29 am #

    Hi! I tried the activity and it was really fun and at the same time useful and beneficial to the students to pump them up in writing their Introduction! Random nouns which I’ve asked them to write and random thesis statements which also came from them were drawn from different tambiolos and though sometimes the two doesn’t fit together, the students would pour their creative juices into the activity to come up with a good introduction. The activity went out well!😀

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