Teaching Intros and Conclusions to ELLs Without a Safety Net

WaltonBurnsA Guest Post by Walton Burns
Walton Burns has taught English for 13 years, starting in the Peace Corps in Vanuautu. Since then, he’s worked around the world. His  students have been Kazakh oil executives, Afghan high school students, and Chinese video game champions. As a writer, he was on the author team for Inside Writing, a genre-based writing course book for Oxford University Press. He currently writes ESL materials and blogs at englishadvantage.info.

Writing is like art. It’s hard to describe exactly what makes for good writing, but you know it when you see it. This is perhaps most true for introductions and conclusions, where you are targeting your audience most directly. And it’s hard to write something for a general audience. Unfortunately, as teachers our job is to explain to our students exactly how to produce effective writing. To make it easier to teach, we often build up a safety net of rules. However, the more I go over the rules in class, the more I realize how vague they are or how often great writing breaks the rule:

  • A good introduction should make the topic interesting—but what’s interesting to you isn’t always interesting to me.
  • A good introduction should have enough background information to open the topic, but not too much—and how much, exactly, is that?
  • We need a clear, strong thesis statement—but how many excellent pieces of writing do you read where the thesis statement is implied, or broken into two sentences, and those sentences are located far away from each other?
  • The introduction is the first paragraph—unless it’s the second because the first paragraph is an extended hook.

And conclusions?

  • A conclusion should sum up,
  • or make a recommendation,
  • or conclude the topic somehow, in some way, to satisfy the reader.
  • But it shouldn’t have new information—unless it’s brief new information, or everyone knows this information…

The rules are pretty vague.

And when we teach students to write by rote, let’s face it, the results are pretty boring. Remember that while beginners may not have great English skills, your students may be sophisticated writers with excellent writing skills in their own language. We don’t want to stunt them with a formula devised for school children.

So how can we get students to write good introductions and good conclusions? By taking away the safety net that makes the rules, and exposing them to as many authentic examples as we can. To make that process easier, I developed these two worksheets—one is for beginners and the other is for more advanced students that provide fairly formulaic intros and conclusions with pretty basic problems. They serve as jumping off points to get students reading analytically to inform their own writing:

The Worksheets

Introductions worksheet
Conclusions worksheet
Beginner Introductions and Conclusions worksheet

This is how I use them:

  1. Review what makes a good intro and/or conclusion as a class, which shouldn’t take long.
  2. Break students into groups and give them each a worksheet. Let them discuss and evaluate for about 15–20 minutes. Remind them that there are good and bad points about every example.
  3. Break students into different groups and have them share ideas with new students for about 7 minutes.
  4. Come back together and go over the good, the bad, and the ugly about each one.
  5. For homework, send students to a news opinions page (The New York Times is great, or BBC Words in the News has articles written for ESL websites. Local papers are also a good resource). Have them pick an introduction and a conclusion and analyze what is good and bad about it.
  6. The next day, students present their introductions and conclusions in groups.

For very advanced students, you could take away the safety net entirely by skipping the rules. Give them authentic materials in class and simply ask them what they think makes an effective opening or closing. You can even put their first drafts on the chopping block to be reviewed by the class.

I find that students love this exercise. It shows that you take them seriously as readers and critics as well as writers. It allows them to form their own insights about what makes good writing rather than forcing them to write to a set formula. And it produces more complex writing, which is the ultimate goal.

What do you find is effective for teaching your English learners to write good introductions and conclusions?

*Note: A version of this post first appeared on englishadvantage.info

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