Introduction

A close-up image of a border collie’s face. The dog’s eyes are peaceful and thoughtful, almost lost in the dark fur around her eyes and ears.

Building Context in the Introduction—What Are We Talking About?

Let’s say that you are sitting in the school cafeteria waiting for your first class to start and a friend walks over and says, “Border collies are the smartest breed of dogs” and then walks away. What would you think? Maybe you’d think your friend wasn’t awake yet and was talking in a dreamy fog. Maybe you’d think that your friend was getting ditsy. Maybe you would catch up with him and say, “Dude, what are you talking about? Why did you say that to me?”

People don’t just walk up to other people and make informative statements without a context. To avoid confusing, puzzling, or annoying us, they have to tell us not only the information but also the reason for sharing it.

In a piece of writing like an expository essay, the introduction establishes the context for the information that will form the body of the essay. You might have been more willing to listen to your friend’s comment about border collies if he had given you an introduction that established the context.

Read some possible introductions that your friend could have provided. Which introductions establish a context for the information about border collies? Which introductions leave you puzzled, confused, or (possibly) annoyed? Respond by selecting the correct box after you are finished reading, and then clicking the “Check” button to view an explanation. You might want to select both boxes to make sure you understand.

When you write an expository essay, you don’t want your readers to feel puzzled as soon as they start reading. You need to give them a context for the information you are presenting to them. Of course, there are many ways to create context in your introduction. We are going to practice two of the most common context builders: questions and anecdotes.

Using questions to build a context

Start your introduction with several (usually three or four) questions that will get a reader interested in the topic you are writing about.

Here’s an example of using questions as context builders. This example starts with the most general questions (about animals) and ends with more specific questions (about breeds of dogs).

Did you know that some animals are a lot smarter than other animals? Did you know that some breeds of dogs are smarter than other breeds of dogs? Can you guess what the smartest dog breed is? It’s not a Labrador (seventh smartest) or a Doberman (fifth smartest) or even a poodle (second smartest). The number one smartest breed is the border collie.

Here’s another example of using questions as context builders. This example starts with questions about a reader’s experience (“your dog”) and ends with the topic of the essay.

Border collie on an agility course, ready to jump over a brightly-colored rail.

How many times do you have to repeat a command before your dog understands it? After your dog learns a command, how much of the time will she obey it? How many tricks can you teach your dog? How good is your dog at solving problems like getting to a reward behind a fence or finding something you’ve hidden? You may think your dog is really smart and is one of the best dogs around at learning tricks, obeying commands, and solving problems. Maybe you’re right if your dog is a border collie. The border collie is the breed that most trainers agree is the smartest.

If you’re in a testing situation where you must write an essay with time and page limitations, you can still begin your introduction with questions. However, make your introduction shorter like the example below:

Did you know that some breeds of dogs are smarter than other breeds of dogs? Can you guess what the smartest dog breed is? The number one smartest breed is the border collie.

Questions are a good way to build context in an introduction because they involve readers in the topic. Another way to draw a reader in is to build context by telling a story about something that has happened to you or someone you know—not a “once upon a time” story, but a true story. We call these stories anecdotes.

Using an anecdote to build context

Think of something that has happened to you that “brings up” the topic of your essay. An anecdote might be a story about something you experienced, something you heard from a friend, read about, or saw on television. The idea behind using an anecdote in an introduction is to connect the topic to everyday life. A story of the experience can introduce the topic to the mind of a reader. Here’s an example that uses an anecdote as a context builder:

A brown and black dog looks through the mesh of a chain link fence.

When I was in seventh grade, my parents decided that we should get a dog. The people down the street had border collie puppies for sale, and my parents decided to get one to be our pet. It wasn’t long before we realized that our pet was going to be a major challenge. Soon our puppy grew into an adolescent dog, and soon our adolescent dog was escaping from our backyard by climbing the chain-link fence. Who ever heard of a dog climbing a chain-link fence? Well, our dog did. That dog was too smart for us. Recently I have figured out why he was so smart. I have found out in reading about dog breeds that the smartest dog breed, according to most dog experts, is the border collie.

Here’s another example of using an anecdote as a context builder:

Last week I was riding the bus to school, and two girls behind me were having an argument about which one of them had the smartest dog. One girl was saying that her dog could open the screen door with its paw. The other girl said that her dog could go out by himself in the morning and get the newspaper and bring it back to the house. I started thinking about my dog; he just sleeps most of the day. When I try to get my dog to chase sticks, he just watches me and wags his tail. He is a wonderful dog, and I love him, but he isn’t ever going to open doors or fetch newspapers. I started wondering if it is because he is a cocker spaniel. So I looked up a list of dog breeds rated for intelligence. I found out that my cocker spaniel is not anywhere near the top of this list. The breed that will open doors and fetch newspapers and in every other way surpass all other dogs in intelligence is the border collie.

In a testing situation, you can still use an anecdote in your introduction. However, make your story a bit shorter like the example below:

When I try to get my dog to chase sticks, he just wags his tail. He won’t open doors or fetch newspapers either. I discovered my cocker spaniel is not close to the top of the dog intelligence list. The breed that surpasses all other dogs in intelligence is the border collie.


Images used in this section:

Source: “Border collie face,” zoomyboy.com, Flickr

Source: Agility Turnier Rheine, Robert Happek, Flickr

Source: Corgi looking through fence, Daniel Oines, Flickr

Developing Thesis Statements in the Introduction

A border collie under a Christmas tree. He is pawing through a set of Christmas lights, and is looking curiously upward, listening to his owner.

What Are We Really Talking About?

Look at these final sentences in the four introductions that you’ve read so far:

  • The number one smartest breed is the border collie.
  • The border collie is the breed that most trainers agree is the smartest.
  • I have found out in reading about dog breeds that the smartest dog breed, according to most dog experts, is the border collie.
  • The breed that will open doors and fetch newspapers and in every other way surpass all other dogs in intelligence is the border collie.

These sentences are not there to establish a context. What do you think the purpose of these sentences is? Check the box that best describes the purpose of each sentence.

A close-up image of a hand testing a smoke detector. The lighting is strangely dark and mysterious for a common thing like a smoke detector.

As you found out in the exercise, the four sentences state the main idea of the essay. These statements are similar to the one your strange friend blurted out in the cafeteria. Now that the context has been established, however, these sentences are there to announce the essay’s main focus. These are called thesis sentences.

A thesis sentence is like a contract with your readers; it tells them what they can expect to read about in the rest of the essay. It’s like a promise. If your thesis states that border collies are the smartest breed of dog and then you write about how lovable a Chihuahua can be, you are breaking your promise to your readers.

Let’s write a complete introduction starting with either an anecdote or questions and include a thesis statement. Imagine that you are getting ready to write an essay about smoke detectors. You may not care much about smoke detectors, but play along for the sake of practice.

take notes iconUse your notes to write an introduction using either questions or an anecdote to introduce an expository essay that discusses this topic: “The importance of having a working smoke detector in your house.” After you finish writing your introduction, check your understanding to see what someone else wrote.

Writing Tip: Don’t limit your introduction to JUST questions or JUST an anecdote. You should end your introduction with a statement of your main point—your thesis.


Images used in this section:

Source: “Whaddya mean I’m in trouble?” VickyTH, Flickr

Source: “It detects dead people too!” Cayusa, Flickr

Connecting the Conclusion and the Introduction

What Just Happened?

An introduction should provide a context for understanding the information in your essay, and it should announce your thesis. A conclusion should connect things, remind your readers what they have read, and extend your ideas into the larger context of daily life. When you are writing a conclusion, it’s good to keep these three key words in mind: connect, remind, and extend.

Connecting your conclusion

Being able to connect your conclusion to your introduction is impressive. For example, if an essay begins with questions, pick up some of those questions again. If it begins with an anecdote, mention the anecdote as you begin your conclusion. This is easy to do, but it can add a great deal of polish to your essay. Let’s see how this works.

This introduction, which you read earlier, uses questions as context builders:

A cheerful border collie holding a ball of string runs toward the camera.

Did you know that some animals are a lot smarter than other animals? Did you know that some breeds of dogs are smarter than other breeds of dogs? Can you guess what the smartest dog breed is? It’s not a Lab (seventh smartest) or a Doberman (fifth smartest) or a poodle (second smartest). The number one smartest breed is the border collie.

Imagine that this is the introduction of an essay you have written. After writing the body paragraphs for your essay and discussing the ways border collies are intelligent and the ways trainers use their intelligence, you could return to the questions you posed in the introduction. You might start your conclusion like this:

A cheerful dog sitting on a bicycle seat with paws on the handlebars as if it were riding the bicycle.

Not all animals are created equal as far as intelligence goes. Not all breeds of dogs are created equal either. Labs, Dobermans, and poodles are smart, but the border collie has them all beat.

Do you see how this works? The conclusion doesn’t repeat anything word for word, but it refers to the specific breeds of dogs mentioned in the introduction. It could just as well have referred to three other dog breeds that are also smart but not as smart as a border collie. If it did that, however, it wouldn’t have the satisfying almost musical feeling of connecting back to the beginning.

This introduction, which you read earlier, uses an anecdote as a context builder. As you reread this introduction, be thinking of what parts you could refer back to if you were writing a conclusion.

A cocker spaniel resting and looking at the camera

Last week I was riding the bus to school, and two girls behind me were having an argument about which one of them had the smartest dog. One girl was saying that her dog could open the screen door with its paw. The other girl said that her dog could go out by itself in the morning and get the newspaper and bring it back to the house. I started thinking about my dog; he just sleeps most of the day. When I try to get him to chase sticks, he just watches me and wags his tail. He is a wonderful dog, and I love him but he just isn’t ever going to open doors or fetch newspapers. I started wondering if it is because he is a cocker spaniel. So I looked up a list of dog breeds rated for intelligence. I found out that my cocker spaniel is not anywhere near the top of this list. The breed that will open doors and fetch newspapers and in every other way surpass all other dogs in intelligence is the border collie.

Drawing of a black Cocker Spaniel; caption reads “Cocker Spaniel Dog Champion ‘Obo II,’ the Property of Mr. J.P. Wiley.“

Imagine that this third example is your introduction, and imagine that you have written the body of your essay. Choose the conclusions below that connect back to some part of the introduction. Remember that the sentences below are only the first sentences of the conclusion—the connection part. We will add the “reminder” part and the “extension” part in a bit.

There are many ways to start your conclusion, but you will usually make a good impression if you can tie it back to the introduction.


Images used in this section:

Source: “In a Rush!!!!” Stuart Dootson, Flickr

Source: Dog on a bike / chien sur velo - Bangkok, Thailand, Ronn aka “Blue” Aldaman, Flickr

Source: “What are you looking at?” Will Marlow, Flickr

Source: Cocker Spaniel Dog Champion, Wikimedia Commons

Reminding and Extending in the Conclusion

There’s More?

A border collie with a confused and surprised expression looks into the camera. He is wearing a donut box upside down on his head.

Learning anything requires repetition. When you write an expository essay, you are hoping that your readers are going to learn something. So it’s important to remind them of what they have learned in the conclusion.

Reminding in the conclusion

Let’s say that in the essay on border collies, the author discusses border collies’ ability to learn quickly, to learn a great number of commands, and to use inference in obeying the commands. If these are the three main points in the essay, then these three points, along with the thesis, should be part of your conclusion.

Although your conclusion should remind your readers what they have learned, you shouldn’t just copy and paste the information from the body of the essay. You should phrase it in a new way, being careful not to change the point(s) you used in the essay. For example, suppose you made this statement in the body:

A cheerful border collie holding a ball of string runs toward the camera.

A border collie can use inference in following a command. For instance, if the dog has learned the names of several toys and is told to fetch a toy with an unfamiliar name, the dog can figure out that the unfamiliar name must match up with the unfamiliar toy.

In the conclusion you might restate this information in a more concise and slightly different way:

Border collies can infer how to respond to a command.

Suppose that in the body of the essay, the author also made the following statement about border collies’ ability to learn a great number of commands.

A border collie is able to learn and recall a great number of verbal commands. One collie named Chaser can recognize over one thousand different commands including verbal combinations such as “find” plus an object’s name or “paw” plus an object’s name. Chaser can figure out that “find” “flower” is different from “paw” “flower.”

take notes iconIn your notes, write a restatement of this information that could be used in the conclusion. When you’re finished, check your understanding to see a possible response.

Note: It is not important to have the same rewording as the suggested response. Your response need only include the basic information and be more concise than the explanation in the body.

Extending in the conclusion

The conclusion often does more than connecting and reminding. Although it is not necessary for every conclusion to include an extension, many conclusions do extend the ideas of the essay into the everyday lives of readers.

One conclusion that you read in this lesson includes an extension. Can you figure out which sentence from the passage extends the idea of the essay into the day-to-day lives of the readers? Select the button next to the correct sentence in the interactive below.

Putting it all together

See if you can identify the parts of this conclusion that are connections, reminders, and extensions. Read the conclusion and then identify the purpose of each sentence by choosing connection, reminder, or extension from the choices below.

The photograph captures a border collie jumping at bubbles floating in the air. The dog hovers in the air as if she is flying through space to chase the bubbles.

(1) Border collies are extremely intelligent dogs. (2) They can learn very quickly and can be taught a great number of verbal commands and even two-word combinations. (3) They can also infer how to respond to commands. (4) I could tell that those girls on the bus really wanted to prove how smart their dogs were. (5) They really wanted to have dogs that would be considered intelligent beyond just being able to fetch newspapers and open doors. (6) The fact is, if people want to claim they have the smartest dog, they should be sure to choose a border collie when they get a dog. (7) Border collies deserve their reputation as the smartest of all breeds of dogs.

In a testing situation where you're limited on time and space, you may not be able to write a conclusion as extensive as this one:

(1) Border collies are extremely intelligent dogs. (2) They can learn very quickly and can be taught a great number of verbal commands and even two-word combinations. (3) They can also infer how to respond to commands. (4) I could tell that those girls on the bus really wanted to prove how smart their dogs were. (5) They really wanted to have dogs that would be considered intelligent beyond just being able to fetch newspapers and open doors. (6) The fact is, if people want to claim they have the smartest dog, they should be sure to choose a border collie when they get a dog. (7) Border collies deserve their reputation as the smartest of all breeds of dogs.

take notes iconUsing your notes, shorten this conclusion to just a couple of lines. Remember to connect back to your introduction!


Images used in this section:

Source: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Sarah, Flickr

Source: “In a Rush!!!!” Stuart Dootson, Flickr

Source: “Grace in flight,” sailorbill, Flickr

Varying Your Sentence Structure

Thrill Me!

A collage of dozens of sentences. Most of them begin with the words “this sentence,” including “this sentence have a problems with plurals” and “this sentence is unoriginal.”

Once you have written your essay (the introduction and conclusion plus the body of the essay), you need to check it for sentence variety. The best way to do this is to read it out loud. This means really reading it out loud so that you can hear it and feel it in your ears and throat. It’s easiest to do this with another human being listening to you. An animal will also do (especially if it's a border collie). In a pinch, you can use a chair.

The crucial thing is that you actually make noise as well as make sense. (You can, of course, read “aloud” silently. You can read about this in the “Caution” paragraph at the end of this section. Actually reading out loud is better, though.) By reading what you have written out loud several times (at least twice), you will be able to sense when there are sentences that make a boring series of same sounding statements.

Sentences that have a boring “same-sound” are usually either sentences that are the same length over and over or sentences that start the same way over and over. If several sentences in a row start with the same or similar words, consider altering these sentences so that the beginnings are different. If several sentences are short, combine a few sentences so that some are longer. Read the following two sentences:

Border collies are the most intelligent breed of dog according to most dog experts.
Border collies can learn easily and remember accurately.

How can we alter these sentences so that they don’t start with exactly the same words? We can start the first sentence with “According to most dog experts” and use a pronoun to begin the second sentence. The two sentences will read more easily and not sound so choppy.

According to most dog experts, border collies are the most intelligent breed of dog. They can learn easily and remember accurately.

Read the unrevised version and the revised version of these two sentences out loud. Do you agree that the second version sounds better? If you agree, you have a well-developed “ear and mouth” sense of good writing.

take notes iconTry changing sentence beginnings in the short passages below. Write your revisions using your notes. When you’re finished, check your understanding to compare your response to the suggested revisions. There are usually several good ways to make such revisions. If your revision is different from the one suggested but passes your “ear and mouth” test, it’s probably a good way to improve the passage. The “ear and mouth” test is often the best guide to making revision choices.

  1. My dog is not as smart as a border collie. My dog makes me embarrassed when I take her for a walk. My dog pulls on the leash. My dog won’t sit when I tell her.
  2. Cats are smart in their own way. Cats do what they want. Cats get what they want. Cats lead a good life by doing what they want and not worrying about what their owners want.

Now try altering the length of sentences. Look at these three sentences:

The dog named Chaser is super smart. Chaser is smarter than most border collies. His trainer is really proud of him.

Let’s combine two of these sentences using the subordinating conjunction “because.”

The dog named Chaser is super smart. Because he is smarter than most border collies, Chaser’s trainer is really proud of him.

take notes iconOther subordinating conjunctions that you can use include “if,” “when,” and “although.” Try this technique out on the short passages below. Write your revisions using your notes. When you’re finished, check your understanding to compare your response to the suggested revisions. There are usually several good ways to make such revisions. Again, if your revision is different from the suggested answer but passes your “ear and mouth” test, it’s probably a good way to improve the passage.


  1. Cats are very smart. They don’t learn tricks very easily.
  2. My cat curls up in my lap and purrs. I think he is the best pet in the world.

Caution: Don’t do anything without checking your work by reading it aloud. Rely on your ears and your mouth to guide you whenever possible. Use the warning signs of similar beginnings and similar lengths. Read your sentences out loud before you make changes. When you make a revision, read that out loud as well to be sure that the changes are improvements.


Images used in this section:

Source: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Sarah, Flickr

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