I like to spend a lot of time explicitly teaching, modelling, and rehearsing with students finely crafted introductions. I do this for each of the questions we face as part of AQA GCSE English Literature. By the time of the exam, students should be able to produce a really precise and confident introduction for any question they are asked, which then sets up the rest of the essay. But their ability to do this is the product of a lot of guidance and explicit instruction.
In this post, I’ll take you through each of these introductions, what they look like, and how they work. But, first, a question: Why place such a high premium on writing essay introductions?
Why Focus on Introductions?
1. Introductions create the argumentative groove for the whole essay. As such, they are vital. Here’s how I explain this to students. I ask them to imagine writing an essay is like bowling (bear with me). We want to release the ball with precision and force. It should carry itself along a planned trajectory, not deviating from this track. As it rolls, it should gather momentum until, with a satisfying thwack, it smashes into the pins. If we release too early or if we release in a clumsy fashion, none of this will happen. The ball will skittle off into the gutter. Our introduction is that moment of releasing the ball and if we get it just right then the ball will hurtle towards a strike. The argument we craft is the route that the ball takes, always deliberate, carrying itself to exactly where we want it to land. The introduction, I say, is the crucial moment that determines the future success of our essay before we have even written it.
2. Getting the introduction right with lots of modelling and scaffolding also serves, I’ve found, a psychological function. Exams, understandably, can be very stressful experiences. Getting into the ‘zone’ if you are already stressed can be even more difficult. I’ve found those first 5 minutes of any new essay to be absolutely central to settling students into the rhythm of the exam. Once they start writing often everything becomes a lot easier. So, helping students to take care of that first 5 minutes of writing (in other words the introduction) can have a significant benefit to the rest of the essay. My aim is for each student to have a clear and well-rehearsed schematic for how to approach the introduction for each question so that those first 5 minutes of writing are as seamless and easy as possible. But, of course getting to that point doesn’t happen by accident or automatically.
3. Finally, there is another psychological benefit, but this time to the examiner. A typical examiner might have 300 scripts to mark in one examination cycle, which, if AQA, means 600 essays for Paper 1 or, if Paper 2, 900 essays. That’s a lot of essays! As such, they are incentivised to mark quickly. The introduction of any essay is going to shape their initial view of the kind of essay they are reading. Of course, they’ll continue to read and form a judgement about the whole piece, but, nonetheless, the introduction is going to help to establish an anticipated horizon of likelihood. If the introduction is amazing an assumption will be made they are reading a good essay. The rest of the essay now just needs to justify that first impression. However, if it’s a bad introduction the rest of the essay has a uphill battle of dislodging the first impression. Up hill is harder than down hill. We want down hill. We want the examiner to arrive at the end of the introduction thinking this is an excellent essay and then the essay can flow forwards from that initial presumption.
So there we have it: why spending time really rehearsing the introduction can pay dividends. But, what do they actually look like?
An Inspector Calls or The Modern Text
For this question, I follow a tripartite structure that looks like this:
1. All the characters are constructs that serve a function
2. How so, related to the question?
3. The text warns/challenges/subverts/attacks/critiques, as relevant to the question
I’ve yet to find a question where this basic structure doesn’t work perfectly.
Here’s an example:
How does Priestley explore the importance of social class in An Inspector Calls?
When considering the ways in which Priestley explores the importance of social class in An Inspector Calls, it is important first of all to stress all characters within the play are dramatic vehicles, representing the damage entranced social divisions can bring about. Mrs Birling, for example, is used to represents the kind of heinous class prejudice that might have been typical of Edwardian society whilst the Inspector, Priestley’s mouthpiece, embodies an emphatic rejection of this mentality. In this, Priestley seeks to pit one ideology against another, underlining the urgent need for equity and the dismantling of social barriers.
Whilst, as we’ll see in a moment, I do have other basic structures for the other questions, this one can also be used for most of the other questions, or at least the Shakespeare play and the nineteenth-century novel. It offers a really flexible and robust opening to any essay and can be pretty much endlessly recycled.
The Anthology Poetry
Again, we follow a tripartite structure, which looks like this:
1. Specify the chosen poem
2. Thematic similarity
3. Thematic difference
This is very straightforward but works excellently: name the second poem and then bring them together to offer one point of thematic similarity and one point of thematic difference.
Here’s an example:
Compare how poets present attitudes towards a broken relationship in Neutral Tones and one other poem
When considering how Hardy presents a broken relationship in Neutral Tones one also immediately think of Sheers’ Winter Swans. Both poems depict the deep pain that a broken relationship can cause, reflecting on the difficulties and emotional hardship this can create. However, whilst Hardy’s poem maintains a bitter tone throughout, Sheers concludes his with a sense of reconciliation, suggesting a broken relationship can be overcome.
The key thing here, I feel is to include no language analysis and to maintain a purely thematic overview. This instantly places the essay in the realm of the conceptual, offering an idea or point of view that will then help to drive the analysis forward.
This one is a little bit cheating to include, since it doesn’t, by design, really have an introduction. Or, rather the introduction is a single sentence beginning with ‘Thematically speaking…’.
Here’s what it looks like in answer to this question about Island Man, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about home:
Thematically speaking, the poet presents the speaker’s feelings about his home as a vehicle through which to explore the way in which it shapes one’s identity and its deep emotional significance.
For this question, I used to recommend to students they they just dive straight in with an analysis of the poem. However, what I noticied is that the ensuing analysis seemed unmoored. It didn’t have any thematic direction. So, I tried to fix this by asking students to begin by explicitly addressing in the opening sentence their conceptual stance in regards to the question. This then provides a cue for the analysis itself, helping to ensure it is pinned to a wider understanding of the text.
The ‘thematically speaking’ element doesn’t really need to be there to achieve this, but it offers a useful prompt to help remind students the point of their introductory sentence is to root their response and subsequent analysis within a consideration of bigger ideas. Like all good sentence stems, it helps to cue up the thinking that is about to take place.
Macbeth and the Nineteenth-Century Novel
I’ve included these in the same section because I use exactly the same format for both introductions, given they both involve responding to an extract.
First, it’s useful to understand how I ask students to think about this question more generally. I explain whatever extract they’re given will be in some manner an important moment in the play. We need to think about this moment not in isolation but as a kind of pivot onto which the wider play, in some fashion, balances. We might think about how events in the play lead up to this moment or how subsequent events develop. But, the extract becomes a way into the play as a whole.
Here’s a graphic representation of this same idea that I use with when explaining this:
With this in mind, I introduction I advocate follows this format:
1. Express that the given extract is a pivotal moment within the wider play
2. How so? Does it instigate a chain of events within the play or is it the culmination of a chain of events?
3. How is this chain of events relevant to the question being posed?
And, here’s an example from Macbeth:
When considering how Shakespeare presents the character of Macbeth as ambitious one recognises this extract is a pivotal moment in the play. This is largely because the scene is the culmination of a chain of events in which Macbeth has increasingly displayed his almost aggressive ambition, leading to the murder of Banquo. Here, Macbeth is responding to the sight of Banquo at the banquet, suggestive of the violent consequences of his ambition and how it will haunt him.
This is a great way not only to write an introduction but also, more broadly, to encourage students to think about the relationship between the extract and the wider text for this kind of question.
I should also add, though, that the AIC style introduction does still work very well for this question too. And so if, for whatever reason, we wanted to avoid the chain of events style introduction, students could very easily repurpose the AIC one with still excellent results.
I suppose for a post on the introduction I could just leave it there. Who cares about conclusions, anyway?! Well, there is maybe ever so slightly some truth to this. Realistically, in the midst of a time-pressured and tiring exam, the conclusion will naturally get less attention. It also suffers from the law of diminishing returns where, in all likelihood, your mark has been more or less decided before we arrive at the conclusion. It probably isn’t going to add much. So, I do definitely spend less time rehearsing the conclusion.
Still, like now, there needs to be something. As a personal stylistic quirk, I suggest students conclude with the word ‘fundamentally’ (probably to do with that satisfying thwack I’m hoping to see) and that they cycle back to the initial claim they made. This will usually involve some variance of reiterating what the text is doing, whether warning, celebrating, challenging, admonishing, and so on.