Articles for Teachers: Introductions

TESOL Programs  -
ATC - Advanced College of Languages and Training Canada
© Alex Shenassa. Permission is granted to individual teachers to make copies of the article below for classroom teaching.

How can you make engaging introductions for your ESL lessons?
By Alex Shenassa
Movie directors know well the importance of opening scenes that “hook” viewers and propel them with proper momentum through the cinematic journey so carefully crafted in advance. Seasoned teachers know the importance of effective introductions too. In the same way that the quality of the first few minutes of a movie is an essential factor in the way the audience will engage with the rest of that movie, in the classroom a good introduction can sustain interest throughout your lesson while a poor one will undermine the rest of your efforts. Even if you've chosen a suitable topic and planned interesting activities, your lesson may never take off if the introduction is flat. But how do you create a successful introduction? Here are 7 tips:

1. The most important factor is your own enthusiasm.

Delivering engaging lessons, day in and day out, is no stroll in the park. When under the spotlight, teachers have in common with actors, newscasters, and other performers, the challenging duty to switch “on” at a moment’s notice. And after switching on, ideally, the teacher should continue to shine brightly. This is particularly important during the introduction when the teacher sets the tone for the entire lesson.

Think of yourself as a light bulb. If you exude energy, your students will become energized. If you seem bored or aren't truly present, you become a hollow shell that deflates your students' excitement and natural curiosity. Think of your brain as the control panel of a computer. Go into your control panel and turn the knob of energy all the way up. You'd be surprised at how much reserve energy you have if you decide to use it. And the reward for your professional conduct is that after a lesson where you did your best to energize your students, the energy you summoned stays with you.

2. Give each student the opportunity to participate from the beginning of your lesson.

Brainstorming about the topic on the board is a great way to elicit information from students and ensure they're invested in the lesson. Start by asking the group as a whole to contribute ideas, but make sure you also call on individual students so everyone's had the chance to take part in the process.

Don’t let the shy students sink into the quicksand of silence. There is a psychological phenomenon whereby an anxious student, reluctant to speak, and having been silent for some time, comes to dread speaking, and with every ticking second, muteness, like a dark heavy shroud, increasingly isolates that student from the rest of the group. Give the anxious students a hand. Gently pitch them simple questions they can handle. Offer them the chance to break the ice of silence early on in the lesson by guiding them to take a small step: a word or two uttered courageously in front of classmates with the support of a warmhearted teacher.

3. Use visuals.

Images are powerful stimuli. They have a strong impact on the human brain. Pictures, postcards, board drawings, video clips, and other visuals connected to your topic are all effective ways to create a stimulating introduction that will color the rest of your lesson. And don't forget the pictures in the ESL textbooks you're using. Designers of high quality ESL books, knowing the appeal of visuals, usually insert colorful pictures at the beginning of each lesson. Draw your students' attention to these pictures by asking questions or throwing in comments. Delve deep into these pictures with your students like a team of divers seeking pearls below the surface, exploring each shiny image for its yield of words and ideas imbued with enticing reflections of the upcoming activities.

4. Personalize the topic.

Show your students how the topic of your lesson is relevant to their lives. Motivate your students by connecting your topic to their dreams, fears, careers, hobbies, personal views. If you're teaching a reading lesson on "Ghosts", for instance, one way to personalize the topic would be to ask your students: "Do you believe in ghosts?" or "Has anyone in this classroom ever seen a ghost?" I've had some very interesting responses and discussions following these questions.

5. Tell your students a personal anecdote.

Another way to generate interest is to tell the class a personal story connected to your topic. For example, for a speaking lesson about favorite travel destinations, you could tell your students about your own travels and which of them excited you the most. But be careful not to get carried away by your own story. Keep it short. Remember that your students will learn much more by having the opportunity to use language than by watching you use language.

6. Ask your students to predict the topic.

This is a trick you can use to create a sense of curiosity and excitement before your lesson. Students naturally want to see if they're right in their prediction about the topic and focus on what's coming next. For example, before a reading lesson using poetry you could write some vocabulary from the poem on the board and ask students if they can guess what the title of the poem is.

7. Give your students the tools they need to do the task.

Make sure that your introduction has the "protein" your students crave. In the final stage of your introduction, use the momentum and excitement you've created in the earlier stages to lead your students to focus on the objective of your lesson. Use the board if appropriate to elicit information and review what they already know and build on that by introducing any new vocabulary and grammatical structures needed for the tasks of your activities.

Keep in mind that you don't have to follow all of the above suggestions in each lesson. That would make your introduction too long. Your introduction should be short and energizing, preparing you and your students for the main part of your lesson - the activities where students get the opportunity to use language and learn by doing. Feel free to experiment and come up with your own strategies to add to the above list. Soon you'll start looking forward to the beginning of your lessons and to generating that surge of excitement that can sustain your students' enthusiasm through your activities all the way to the wrap up, which is yet another story...


Alex Shenassa is a writer, teacher trainer, and the director of ATC Advanced College of Languages and Training Canada.