Our Essential Lessons are a sequence of lessons that form the backbone of the Writing Program curriculum, illustrating what we want all students to learn across our program’s diverse course topics.
Most students know that they should include a thesis statement in the introduction to an academic essay, but they may not know that academic arguments begin with a predictable series of rhetorical moves that establish a relationship between writer and reader. This lesson asks students to identify and practice these moves.
Instructors can communicate an inclusive definition of excellence through the model texts we choose for writing instruction. As you select models–whether these texts are by professional writers or by students–consider whether they reflect the diversity of your students.
Students will be able to define the terms for moves in a standard academic introduction, identify these moves in texts, recognize a range of forms these moves can take, and compose an introduction using these moves.
current situation (common ground, background), question/problem statement, significance, claim (thesis)
This lesson should take place near the assignment of Academic Essay 1, toward the beginning of WR 120. You might deliver this lesson before assigning a draft introduction and then revisit it right before the essay is due.
Introductions to academic arguments typically include three main rhetorical moves:
- They say something about the current situation, creating common ground with the imagined reader and offering some background.
- They disrupt that stable context with a question or a problem, highlighting something debatable or not yet known that this reader cares or should care about.
- They respond to this question or problem with a claim, an answer, or the promise of an answer.
(While Kate Turabian identifies a fourth move, “significance,” we see significance as tightly linked to the question or problem and talk about it with students accordingly.)
Most students are familiar with the idea of claims (thesis statements), but they are less familiar with questions or problems–and this lesson seeks to foreground their importance. As Chapter 7 of Turabian states, “The centerpiece of your introduction is your disruptive research question,” also known as a problem statement. (This latter term may be more intuitive for WR 120 students, who are not yet generating arguments from their own research). By articulating a question or problem, a writer gives readers reason to care about the claim that the writer puts forth in response.
Emphasizing the importance of common ground and problem statement over claim supports students’ understanding of academic argument as conversation. In other words, writers must imagine what their readers already know in order to engage them by challenging, complicating, or disrupting this knowledge with a problem statement or question. Likewise, as writers move from common ground to problem statement, they must implicitly or explicitly acknowledge and respond to the ideas of others.
The parts of a standard introduction may be more easily be understood in other terms: some instructors like to conceptualize them in terms of the psychology of the reader, through analogy to the dramatic structure of fairy tales (see Turabian, p. 121), or by making analogies to real-life, non-academic conversations and disagreements.
The argumentative moves of introductions vary in style and content according to the rhetorical situation–for example, whether a writer is communicating for scholarly or professional purposes and whether the audience is made up of scientists, literary critics, or non-experts. However, the moves themselves are recognizable across disciplines as well as in some non-academic genres.
To infuse genre awareness, highlight the introductory features of texts you are reading on the course topic (including texts that are not scholarly). Ask students to consider how they do and do not conform with these standard academic moves. Examples: How does a poem raise a question? How does an op-ed set up and disrupt common ground?
The lesson sequence begins with a question about students’ prior knowledge, includes questions about how and why they see a question or claim as interesting or significant, and ends with a reflection question about how they will apply feedback and new knowledge as they revise.
PART I: CHECK FOR PRIOR KNOWLEDGE
- Ask students what they know or have been told about introductions for academic papers previously.
- Discuss their responses: They might mention pyramids, funnels, hooks, etc., and of course a thesis, but they seldom mention a motivating problem or question.
PART II: EXPLORE MODELS
- Present one or more examples of an academic introduction. You may want to look together at an exemplary essay by a former Writing Program student; samples can be found in the WR journal. This handout includes the introductions from two sample WR essays and some prompts for students to analyze them.
- Elicit specific student observations about the introduction. Ask, in particular, how and where it engages their interest or makes them want to read on. Look at the bit in the middle (where the problem statement or question usually is) and ask questions to help students move inductively toward identifying what it is and why it’s important.
PART III: INTRODUCE THE RHETORICAL MOVES
- Introduce the terms for the three major rhetorical moves in introductions.
- Explore how a sense of significance comes in–often linked to problem, sometimes to claim. For example, in this handout on Psychology and Rhetoric of Introductions, Joe Bizup offers one way of conceptualizing the moves of introduction that may be useful to students.
PART IV: MAKE CONNECTIONS
- Ask students (alone, in groups, in class, or at home) to choose an introduction (from all of WR, a specific issue of WR, or a course reading) and analyze it rhetorically.
- Discuss (likely in small groups) students’ analyses, focusing on
- identifying the current situation or common ground,
- identifying the question or problem statement,
- identifying the thesis or claim,
- and explaining the argument’s significance.
PART V: PRACTICE, EXCHANGE FEEDBACK, AND REFLECT
- Ask students to repeat this exercise in pairs, exchanging draft introductions of their own with a peer.
- Prompt students to reflect on this exercise and set specific revision goals for themselves.
Variations and Follow-Ups
Alternative lesson ideas
- Choose an essay in the WR journal to use as a sample introduction; copy the introduction into a new document and scramble the sentences (i.e., sort alphabetically or otherwise randomize). Ask students to work in pairs to suggest an effective ordering of the scrambled sentences, being ready to defend their choices, point to specific clues in the text, and identify the rhetorical moves of an introduction along the way.
- Revisit introductions when teaching the non-academic genre assignment later in the semester. Focusing on the introductions of other genres (i.e., public intellectual essays, Op-Eds, TED Talks, podcasts, etc.) helps students to make connections between the introductions of academic essays and those of public genres. Before completing this exercise, students should have reviewed several genre models and settled on one or two that they plan to use as inspiration for their own assignment.
- Revisit this lesson in WR 15x, highlighting disciplinary differences and with reference to conceptual/practical problems where applicable.
Suggested flipped learning modules
- Turabian, Kate L. Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers. 5th ed., University of Chicago Press, 2019.
These chapters elaborate on the framework described above. We recommend assigning one or both.
- Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th ed., W.W. Norton, 2018.
This section is also relevant to the entire idea of argument as conversation, particularly students’ formulations of claims and establishment of common ground. Instructors who use this text may want to assign these pages before or after this lesson, and instructors who don’t use this text may want to briefly mention it in class to help activate background knowledge for any students who have used it in WR 112.
- Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. 5th ed., Pearson, 2014.
Lesson 6 of Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace focuses on how problems and questions motivate readers.
- Arrington, Phillip, and Shirley K. Rose. “Prologues to What Is Possible: Introductions as Metadiscourse.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 38, no. 3, 1987, pp. 306–318.
This classic article offers a theoretical framework for understanding why introductions are so hard to write. It identifies the need to focus simultaneously on the “subject, the intended readers, the situation invoked, and the writer’s own personae” as one composes an introduction as a source of great difficulty for novice academic writers. It draws on Aristotle to unpack the complex rhetorical demands of introduction with attention to genre and the social and institutional dynamics of authority in classroom writing.
- Brown, Gavin T.L., and Jennifer C. Marshall. “The impact of training students how to write introductions for academic essays: an exploratory, longitudinal study.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 37, no. 6, 2012, pp. 653–670.
This longitudinal research study offers evidence that teaching the moves of introduction is effective. It shows that direct instruction in the rhetorical moves of introduction leads to significantly better student learning.
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