Setting the Hook

If I ask my students what makes a good introduction, they can quickly rattle off a list of “hooks” —a question! a definition! a surprising fact! I bet if you asked your students, they could do the same. Have you read your fair share of essays with these types of hooks? 

Merriam Webster describes a hook as “a device especially in music or writing that catches the attention.” 


Have you ever been ‘hooked’ by a new idea?There’s nothing quite like a vague, random question to suck you right in. 


131,452 hooks are produced in the United States annually, according to the Hook Research Institute. *totally made up, fyi*

Though I usually grimace when I read intros that begin this way, I don’t blame them one bit–beginning is HARD. Instructing how to do it better proved to be even harder for me. After a few years of leaving it to the last minute and hoping for the best (not a good strategy) and then a few more years of various attempts to wrestle them away from the lists of acceptable hooks, I finally figured out the approach they needed: context. 

Why Context?

I had my ah-ha moment a number of years ago when I was trying to make sense of the new AP Seminar rubric for my students. One of the rows was named “Understand and Analyze Context” and the descriptor of the highest level was this:

“The response explains the significance or importance of the research question by situating it within a larger context.”

My students were mystified by that descriptor and needed it translated. The best I could do was: 

Why does this matter? Why should your reader care? 

The rubric also suggested that evidence of this is usually found in the first few paragraphs of the essay and that was when it clicked for me. OF COURSE. That’s what an intro does. 

A high quality intro:

  • Provides some context for the argument
  • Gives the reader a reason to care about it

A writer should ask:

  • How can I connect to something my reader already knows?  
  • How can I activate a part of my reader’s brain that will be receptive to my argument? 
  • How does my argument fit into the broader conversation of the world around me? 

Unfortunately, this is a big leap for many kids. They don’t always know how their argument fits into the broader conversation of the world around them because they aren’t paying attention to it. For example, two weeks ago some of my students were finishing up a research based argument on gender equity in sports. On Tuesday of that week, I heard the *perfect* little piece of context for them driving into work:  the U.S. women’s soccer team had won their equal pay settlement. When I mentioned it at the beginning of class, though, no one knew what I was talking about (even the soccer players!!).  

So how do we help them close that gap? 

Getting students to engage with the world around them, helping them see the relevance in what they’re learning in history, motivating them to wonder about things outside of their immediate realms of interest—none of those things happen overnight. Certainly, some of our students do this naturally (and that’s wonderful!) but big swaths of them do not.

Teaching our students to write context-rich introductions is one way to get them started. My AP Seminar students and I are currently working with the openings of these three articles as mentor texts. Each one pulls context from a different realm: history, pop culture, politics. That was intentional because students need to know that when we say context, we mean all kinds of things from a huge range. 

We started by examining the intros and asking these questions:

  • What does the writer assume I know?
  • What do I do if I don’t know what the writer is referencing?
  • Once I ‘get’ the context, how does it set me up to understand the argument?

Each one comes at the intro a little differently, but our study of them helped students see how easily a little bit of context could effectively frame an argument and rethink the idea of a hook. 

For example, the first one references Florence Nightingale and is about how we need more exposure to daylight in our daily lives. Most of my students didn’t know who she was so they had to do a little digging. They discovered she was famous for being a nurse and that her name is synonymous with good nursing and quality care. 

Why might the writer want to activate “good nursing and quality care” thoughts in his audience? How does that impact how his audience approaches the argument? 

The second and third examples used context more widely known to the students (Lizzo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and we talked about how that changed their initial understanding of the text. How did it help them predict where the writer was going? How did it ready them for the argument coming? 

But I Don’t KNOW Anything

After examining these mentor texts and talking about how a context-rich intro is so much better than a dictionary definition, many students are quick to lament that this is impossible because they don’t know anything.

And that, my friends, is when your hook is truly set. Seeing the value of a rich contextual pool is key to getting them ready to deepen it, and when their contextual pools get deeper, their intros (and writing in general, and thinking!) get better.  Centering contextual pools is a mindset shift for students and teachers.  It’s a slow but important process, but the payoffs are enormous. My teaching buddy and fellow Moving Writers blogger Mike (@ZigThinks) and I have been working on this idea of deepening contextual pools for a while now. He wrote about how language and vocabulary fit into the conversation last week and I’ll add another technique in my next blog post. Want even more?  April 13 we will be doing a Moving Writers webinar sharing a bunch of different ways we do this contextual pool work with our students. Registration details coming soon!


What do you do to help your students develop effective introductions? Share below, on the Moving Writers Facebook page, or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie. 

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