User:Thaddeus Niles

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ETAP 623 - SP15

About me


I am still a newer teacher, so I remain very interested in what learning is and how to foster learning in my students. As an ESL writing specialist, I am most concerned with issues in composition, but I also explore critical and creative thinking, liberatory education and training others to work with non-native writers.

In my personal life, I enjoy crafts, science fiction and non-fiction, and watching my hometown Cleveland sports teams.

My Topic/Purpose

This unit will address the problem of the "placeholder" introduction to academic essays--that empty paragraph at the beginning of an essay that does nothing but take up space, or perhaps effectively addresses concerns that don't actually apply to academic writing in college or postgraduate settings. My course content is drawn from the "Little Red Schoolhouse" writing program developed at the University of Chicago:

In the field of English as a Second Language, the same patterns set forth in "Little Red Schoolhouse" were later found to be "descriptive" patterns of use by linguists like John Swales (i.e., what LRS said we ought to do, Swales found is what we actually tend to do). After this course, instructors interested in pushing beyond introductions can find out more by exploring "genre analysis" or "rhetorical moves." Here's what Swales offers graduate students interested in writing better research introductions:

Some of the questions we will address:

I use introductions all the time, but it's sometimes hard to define their purpose. What exactly is an introduction paragraph and what does it do?

How can there be a "good" or "bad" introduction? Isn't writing an artistic exercise with few rules and limitations on the author?

What are some specific features of effective and ineffective introductions?

How can I communicate the expectations of introductions to my students?

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this mini-course, learners should notice changes that imply learning at the levels of knowledge, behavior, and attitude. You will find the specific behavioral outcomes under the learning objectives section below.

- Knowledge: teachers should know 1) what constitutes an effective introduction, 2) why the introduction matters as part of the writing process, and 3) how to evaluate an introduction in a more objective way.

- Attitude or Feelings: teachers should 1) feel more familiar and confident when explaining the form and function of the introduction paragraph, but also 2) view introductions and other parts of an essay as important functional moments that address real needs of the reader. This attitude will hopefully continue beyond this course and 3) set the stage for more inquiry about what is it we do, exactly, when we read and write academic essays.

Needs Assessment

The Ideal:

College writing is generally transactional in nature, being undertaken to answer a specific question and read in order to find specific answers. This makes traditional "literary" introductions (such as "hooks") superfluous to the task--academic readers do not choose what to read based on literary or aesthetic interest. The ideal is a very efficient and focused introduction that addresses the real concerns of academic readers. I will make frequent reference to the ideal as a "context-problem-solution" introduction structure.

Regarding the learners in this course, the ideal is an instructor who can clearly communicate the requirements of academic introductions and assess them fairly and objectively. Instead of relying on aesthetic or linguistic cue when responding to introductions (elegant sentences, beautiful word choices, or grammatical accuracy), instructors should be able to identify and respond to the functions of each section--what each section should do, actually does, or fails to do.

The Reality:

Common Core standards do ask that students "orient readers to the topic" and use a "sophisticated thesis statement," so we can assume that students entering college settings are aware of certain general requirements of academic introductions. But without a more specific explanation of the steps involved, these guidelines may in fact be too general. My classroom experience has shown that most (nearly all) of my students write introductions that are either inefficient or stylistically out of place for expository writing. A quick search for high school or even some college level introduction guidelines reveal two troubling trends that I would argue contribute to the general lack of preparedness among new college writers when it comes to crafting academic introductions.

Common instructor materials, as I will show, are either too vague to be helpful or fail to differentiate academic writing from other genres. In the first case, with no objective standards to measure against, instructors risk making assessments that favor clever native speakers or eloquent writers who don't say much in the end. What's worse, students entering academic settings may not ultimately understand how their work is being graded or how they can improve. In the second case, writers are being trained to entertain readers or scream out for attention with "hooks" and other parlor tricks that I will argue are out of place and threaten to degrade the quality of their academic texts. These lessons need to be unlearned, starting with a clear description of how real academic writing differs from other genres in its purpose and form. Ultimately, my goal is to help instructors provide clear, reasoned answers to student questions about introductions.

Analysis of the Learner and Context

This online course is designed support teachers who instruct college composition students, especially those in introductory courses. Instructors will have some experience teaching introductions, but may not be able to clearly and succinctly articulate their essential characteristics, or grade them objectively beyond the thesis statement.

This course will be entirely self-contained to this Wiki, but there will be optional activities that invite you to interact with learners or apply what you're learning to your classes.

Performance Objectives

Course-level objectives

By the end of the course, learners should be able to:

  1. understand the difference between academic and artistic introductions
  2. identify the parts of an introduction in a college-level academic essay
  3. explain the differences between effective and ineffective introductions by linking introduction content with the concerns of academic readers
  4. use strategies based on natural conversation/thinking patterns to generate relevant and appropriate content for introductions
  5. create a guide to help make more principled evaluations of introductions

Learners will also create three artifacts of their learning that they can use in their own classrooms:

  1. a model introduction that is specific to their area of instruction
  2. a guide to introductions that they can offer their students
  3. a grading rubric that helps teachers grade introductions in a more principled manner

Curriculum Map

Click here for a general view of the course's curriculum map.

Task Analysis

Click to view a more detailed task analysis.

Begin the Course

You can use the links below to jump to a specific section, or click the big green button to start from the Welcome Page!


Lesson 1--What is academic writing, exactly, and what do introductions "do"?

Lesson 2--The parts of real academic introductions and how to generate content

Lesson 3--Let's create something: model introductions and teaching tools

References and Resources

Swales, John (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge UP: Cambridge.

Warren, Craig. "Little Red Schoolhouse." Penn State Erie Behrend College. Web. Available online: