Sunday, 25 November 2012

More opening sentences, but this time it's non-fiction

In this blog, I am going to write about a lesson I use for teaching the openings of non-fiction texts. In this I will write about examples of …  Gosh, I hate openings like that. Where is the mystery? Where is the suspense? Where is the hook? It seems that students ‘pick up’, from somewhere, this notion that the first sentence of an essay or text should state its intent. It is almost as if it is a text that has to assert that it isn’t a piece of fiction – bit like Daily Mail readers. I am not a story or a poem! We hate poems. The idea that I am a piece of poetry disgusts me, as I am clearly a discursive essay. I am proud to be a discursive essay and I wear a badge and wave a flag to prove it.

Imagine if stories were written in this way. In this story I am going to write about a vampire that falls in love with a human girl. I will write it so that you think they get together and then they fall out, but I will then write about how they get together at the end. Thank you – I don’t need to read the rest of the book now.

I don’t know if students feel that teachers aren’t that bright or that we need constant reminders of things as we have so many things to do. Maybe this provides them with this need to regurgitate the purpose of the assessment so they have it clear in their head. News flash: I set the task; I know what you are going to write about, so I don’t need you to tell me what you are going to write about.

What do I expect an introduction to do?

·Grab the reader

·Entertain the person

·Persuades the reader that they have to read the rest of the article

·Give a hint about what the text is about

·Inform the reader of the direction you are taking - agree / disagree

·Explain complex ideas

Quite a few English teachers across the land are preparing students for the English Language exam in January, and I am one of those lucky teachers. Like most of them, I have set the class a writing task to do and, when I received it completed, I noticed the same thing: introductions that don’t engage the reader. Introductions that don’t signal to an examiner that these students are bright, clever people. This blog is about how I got them to improve – ahh, I am doing it again.


The lesson started with a slide full of stills from famous film openings. There were shots from James Bond films, Star Wars, Jaws, Harry Potter and some other films. Students had to decide what the connection was. I think I played the opening music to Star Wars too, just to release some stored emotional memory linked to music. I could have cooked up some popcorn too to focus on the memory linked to smell, but I thought that was a bit too much.

Anyway, they saw the idea of openings and how they were good openings. Then I provided some examples to them. Now, these were not the best, or even A grade quality, but they were openings that responded to the following task:

Write a magazine article persuading teenagers of the dangers of smoking.

Students had to grade each one and decide on what makes it so good or bad, depending on the grade they awarded it.

1.       Cough. Cough. Sorry, I am struggling to say this as – cough, cough – I find it difficult to talk as I have had one lung removed due to cancer.

2.       Smoking is bad. It is the cause of millions of deaths every year.

3.       I know you can’t help it, but smoking is terrible and it makes you stink.

4.       £5000 is exactly how much money you waste on smoking each year.

5.       I am going to teach you about the dangers of smoking. In this article, I will give you the reasons as to why you shouldn’t smoke.

6.       Imagine you are on a date. Your date arrives. In the distance, they look gorgeous and worth the hours it has taken you to get ready. As they get closer, you notice something – a smell. The scent of an ashtray.

At this stage, I don’t go for the A* examples, as I find it works better if you start with an achievable introduction for most and then build up to the A* quality. However, I got some students that say ‘I am going to teach you’ introduction is the best one, and then I probed this further and found that students liked the directness of it. Eventually, we got to the point about engaging the reader.  Mostly, students prefer the first and last one as they show a more creative approach. Depending on the time, I might do some quick analysis of the lines. Which techniques have been used?


I then got students to look at some possible conclusions to the same task.  

1.       So, if you want to be another statistic on a long and ever expanding list, then carry on smoking.

2.       Finally, the reasons for not smoking are clear – it is bad; it causes cancer; it stunts your growth; it costs a lot of money.

3.       Act now and stub it out or expect to be ash quicker than you think.

4.       Smoking costs. Smoking Smells. Smoking kills.

5.       To conclude, smoking is very bad, so to save your life, do something now. 

I repeated the activity I used before of ranking and analysing lines, or I got students to match up the conclusions with the writers of the introductions. Which writer wrote which conclusion? This makes for some interesting group or paired work. We then recapped the features of a good introduction and conclusion.  Hopefully, students come up with something like this:


·Make the reader think 

·Leave a lasting thought or idea or question

·Try to make the reader remember something about it

·Link to the opening in some way

After this I got students to rewrite an introduction of a writing task they have previously written. This time, however, I stressed to them the importance of engaging a reader and being creative. Cue eight to ten minutes of scribbling. If any finish before the allotted time, they have to write the opening line of their conclusion, but it must be linked to their introduction somehow. If they haven't got a piece of written work, I give them this average introduction for a magazine persuading teenagers the benefits of healthy eating:

Recently, when I did this activity with a class, the students produced some excellent and creative approaches. I had students adopting a voice, using lyrics from a song, creating a call-to-arms war speech, writing a response to a Daily Mail letter and many more. Now, I could have taught students to do this, yet I don’t think it would have really stretched their creativity and playfulness. I loved the problem solving aspect of this kind of writing. How can I make this ‘dull as dish water’ writing task engaging and creative? Some get it quickly; others get it when they see the photocopied examples. And, failing that, they can adopt some of the approaches used in the examples. After all, all the best writers beg, steal or borrow.

Gifted and Talent Students

To step up the writing to a higher level, I focus on parody. Usually, I show an example from ‘The Simpsons’ to give students the idea of what parody is and the overall effect of its use. Then, I play a nice little game of 'name the source of a quote'. Obviously, this works best with top sets, but I have adapted it for other sets too by using song titles. I find that the A* students need to demonstrate a much wider understand of texts and the world around them than their peers.

Using parody in your writing to get an A*
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a bright student in possession of wit and a pen must be in want of an A*.




Who? What? Where?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too.
I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning, before a world in shock.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
To be, or not to be: that is the question
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him
Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon!
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. 





Students then attempt to use one of these famous quotes in their writing for comic effect. It is quite a challenging task, but I think it adds something original to their writing that separates them from other students.

As an extension task, I get the class to suggest some new quotes to add to this list. Or, I get them to write down as many as they can remember from the sheet.


This week I applied for the ‘Coordinator of Literacy Across the Curriculum ’ role and I was faced with writing an application letter.  That opening sentence stumped me. Do I go for the clich├ęd ‘In this letter I am writing…’ or do I go for something creative and original? What do you think I did? I went for the safe option and presented myself in the traditional manner, and it pained me. I so wanted to be creative:

Dear Headteacher,

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble male; but I have the heart of a giant and I am a giant of Literacy too...

Only time will tell if playing the safe option worked. However, if I was writing for an examiner, I would be sure to be creative. I would want to be remembered as the breath of fresh air in a pile of predictable and mundane writing. I’d want to be the one remembered for putting a smile on the examiner’s face. I’d want to be the one that impressed the examiner. Failing all that, I just want to be the one he remembers.








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