Writing Outstanding First Sentences on Essays (Applying Critical Think Techniques)

critical thinking

Critical Thinking

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

“I change my nickname each time I start a new term.”

“They live in the second poorest country in the world and have one of the shortest life-expectancy, but they rarely suffer from depression.”

“One night, while reading a book on his couch in the living room, James felt a sudden chill running through his bones.”

Needless to say, a unique first sentence in an essay like those above (which were written by my students) will not only make readers feel intrigued and interested in continuing to read, but it also can affect the impression that the readers will have about the writer’s skills.

Writing interesting first sentences is a technique that most writing teachers present to their students.  However, there are effective and ineffect approaches to doing this.

First, here is a common, ineffective approach.  In some writing books, students are shown several examples of remarkable first sentences.  Often these are at a level that is beyond most ESL students; sometimes they even come from professional writers.  Then they are told to try to write an interesting first sentence on their next essay.  Or, the more “enlightened” books include an exercise in which students are given some topics and directed to write interesting first sentences for practice.

There are some reasons why those are ineffective, especially with lower-level students.  First, students seem unable to apply the examples to their own writing.  And second, when they write a rather dry or uninteresting first sentence on an essay, they don’t realize it.

There is a proven, effective approach to helping students learn the technique of writing exceptional first sentences.  (Included is a handout that you can try out with your students, even lower-level ones.)

After students have gone through the steps in this effective approach, almost all students have been able to apply it in very clever ways.

Three Steps in the Effective Approach

Step 1: For awareness, students read samples of boring first sentences.  These are very typical of the types of sentences that students have written:
(Families) Everyone has a family, and I do too.
(Food) All people need food.

These are juxtaposed with samples of interesting first sentences:
(Families) Most people feel some positive and negative emotions about their families.
(Food) The type of food we eat can affect the quality of our day.

Step 2: Again, for awareness, students are given topics with pairs of sentences.  They identify which of the pair is boring and which is interesting.  This exercise serves as a model for the exercise in Step 3.

                            Social Media   Using social media like Facebook is popular.

                            Social Media   Using social media like Facebook can make users feel sad.

Step 3: This is a step that involve critical thinking.  It has proven to be very effective in helping students internalize the difference between boring and interesting first sentences.  Given an option of “just getting through” a homework assignment with the least amount of brain work, or putting effort into being creative, many student will choose the former.  But in this step, they are not given the option.  They first do the “little brain work” part, but then they are required to be creative and think about how can they write more interestingly.  After doing this, most students see that writing can be a pleasurable and rewarding experiences.

For this step, they are given some topics and told to choose some of the topics and (1) write a boring first sentence and (2) write an interesting one.

                                            Sentence Topics
            · scary movies           · painting           · friends               · insects           · garbage

  1. Topic: ____________________________________________________

Boring: __________________________________________________

Interesting: _______________________________________________

Handout attachment for your students

Attached here is an handout activity that includes the three steps that you are welcome to try out.  Writing Interesting 1st Sentences Exercises  This comes from my intermediate book Write After Input  

I have found these exercises not only a lot of fun for students to write, but also entertaining for their classmates and  teachers to read.  And best of all, students are able to apply the technique to their future essays.

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you and hearing your perspectives and experiences.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and we can continue this.

David Kehe

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