October 29, 2016

5 Engaging Ways to Introduce New Content

Guest Blog Post by Rachael Parlett

Imagine that you are sitting in the movie theater waiting for the latest popular movie to begin. With the popcorn bucket on your lap and drink in hand, you are ready.

The lights dim, and the movie commences.  You begin to watch the opening scene and here’s what you hear: “Welcome to this movie. In this movie, you’ll meet a boy and girl. They are going to fall in love and live happily ever after.”

Um…what?  Talk about boring (not to mention a spoiler-alert)! Your interest as the viewer has flown right out the window and you’re beginning to wonder if it’s worth staying till the end. Chances are, it’s not.

Luckily, movies DON’T start that way. In fact, there’s usually a pretty epic scene to start out the movie in order to grab the viewer’s attention. Movie makers know that the first few minutes can make or break the movie. If they fail to peak the viewer’s interest in their opener, the viewer checks out.

Consider this: Your introduction to new content is like the start of an epic movie. And how you choose to introduce that new information can make it or break it.

Our students can be some of the toughest viewers and critics. If we present new information to our students like the above scenario, stating “today we are going to learn about…”, their attention vanishes and their minds begin to wonder if we are worth listening to.

While teachers aren’t trained movie producers, we can still use some tricks and strategies to grab our students’ attention and get them excited about the new information they are about to learn. Here are just a few of the ways that you can hook your learners right from the start.

1. Introduce with Audio or Video

In a heavily audio and video-based world, our students are used to flashy things to get their attention. Here’s how we can use it to our advantage:

Starting a new novel unit? Try letting your students listen to the first chapter or first few pages without looking at the text. This strategy works similar to that of a movie trailer. Stop the recording just before something big or exciting happens in the plot to create a bit of a cliff-hanger for your students. Audio books are easily found at local libraries, or better yet, make your own custom audio recording (it’s easier than it sounds!). By doing this, you can hook readers with the use of great reading expression, different voices for different characters, and even background sound effects.

Audio also works great when introducing lessons in the content areas. For example, if you are teaching a specific time period in history, consider having students listen to a musical song or instrumental piece that is representative of that era. Think marching drum and fifes sounds of the Civil War, or perhaps the banjo and guitar sounds associated with the western expansion movement. Have students discuss the feelings and mood that the music provokes. Likewise, when beginning a science unit on animals, have students to listen to the sounds of different animals and have them guess which animal is making the sound.

Like audio, video can also be a great “hook.”  There’s no denying that video is an important influencer in students today.  Try one of these ideas for using video:
  1. Introduce a new novel study by watching a video interview with the author.  This helps students to see the author as a real person, helping them to connect to that author. Reading Rockets has a very nice selection of author interviews. 
  2. Use resources like YouTube, BrainPOP, BrainPOP Jr. (both free and paid versions available) and Scholastic Study Jams (great for math and science and completely free!) to find quick video intros for presenting new content.
  3. Watch reenactment videos when learning about historical war battles.  Again, YouTube is a fabulous resource for these types of videos.
  4. Use content-specific music videos and have students sing along by providing them with the lyrics. I love this video from 6th grade teacher Mr. Parr for teaching about the phases of the moon. Click on "Show More" under the video on YouTube to see all the lyrics. 

2. Introduce with Pictures, Illustrations, and Artifacts

A great way to engage students in new content is to give them a visual, such as an illustration, photograph, or artifact to get their minds ready for what they are about to learn. This can be especially powerful in science and social studies.

One of my favorite ways to use these visuals as an introductory method is to have students participate in a Gallery Walk. A Gallery Walk is when students walk freely around the room to different stations observing photos, posters, artifacts, and/or illustrations. These visual can be hung up on the walls, or even displayed on tables throughout the room. Near each visual, I like to keep a piece of blank poster paper for students to jot down things they notice about the visuals or to write comments and thoughts that they have related to the visual. These photos are from a Gallery Walk I created about animal groups.

An alternative to a gallery walk might be a slideshow of visuals using a PowerPoint or Smartboard/whiteboard presentation. This activity leads into a great opening discussion about the new topic.

3. Introduce with Poetry

Introducing new content through poetry is a unique way to integrate literacy into any content area. There are poems written about almost anything, and if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, try your own hand at poetry and create your own, customized for your needs.

I love how poems provide imagery for students as they learn about a new topic. Take this excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride:” 

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”

What a fun way to introduce a lesson on the American Revolution, don’t you think? Ask questions like “What do you think ‘up and to arm’ means?” or “What is the mood of these lines?” or “Is the narrator a patriot or a loyalist?” to help students to understand the excerpt. Since some of the language of the poem is old English, you might need to break the poem up, line by line, and help students to really dive deep into its meaning. Try reading it to the students first, using a suspenseful tone to help convey the meaning, and then engage students in a discussion. You can even have students create illustrations to go with the lines of the poem to help them visualize and understand.

When using poems, take it a step further and pair or group students, giving each group a different poem on the same topic. This is relatively easy to do when you find a book of poems on the same topic by a specific author. Then, compare information from each poem. It’s also an easy way to sneak in some extra fluency practice.

4. Introduce with Reader’s Theater

Need an exciting, more engaging alternative to your textbook when starting a new unit or topic?  Reader’s theater just might be the ticket! I’ve always enjoyed creating reader’s theater scripts for my students to introduce something new - and my students eat it up! Simply take a topic and turn it into a story for your students to act out. I did just that when I wanted to introduce the pollination process to my students. I turned pollinating bees into humorous story characters and instantly had my students’ attention! Using these scripts in place of the textbook allows students to take a more interactive role in their learning and make stronger, more lasting connections. If you like this idea, you can get started with the free reader’s theater script featured below!

5. Introduce with a Challenge

Before you TELL the students how to do something, let them first try it themselves. This gets those creative juices flowing and encourages them to think critically. For instance, when I began my lesson on animal classification, I divided students into small groups. I provided each group with a set of animal picture cards and, without much instruction, challenged them to group the animals in ways that they thought made sense, based on similarities. The students came up with some pretty interesting ways to group their animal cards and led to an interesting discussion on the concept of classifying.

Other challenges might include:
  1. Solving a math riddle
  2. Giving students a list of content-related words or pictures and having them guess what your lesson is going to be about
  3. Presenting an unfamiliar object or artifact related to your topic and have students guess its purpose or function
  4. Completing a word sort where students are given a list of new words and several categories to try to guess which words belong in which category. As an extension, at the end of your lesson, give students those same words and categories and make any corrections from their previous organization.

Don’t let your students zone out within minutes of the beginning of your lesson! Keep them engaged and help them make meaningful connections to the new content. Test out one of these strategies and hook your students from the start!

Rachael Parlett is an educator, curriculum developer, and the blog author of The Classroom Nook. She specializes in designing curriculum that incorporates the use of technology, student-centered activities, and user-friendly teacher guides to make implementation easy! Making learning fun, meaningful, and engaging is the motivation behind each resource you find at The Classroom Nook.


  1. Great ideas! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. I love trying to grab their attention in different ways! I did a frog & toad lesson in the library (which turned into a fiction/nonfiction lesson). On the Smart Board, we had a poem for guessing the animal, pictures that faded in and out, frog riddles (what kind of soda does a frog drink....croak-a-cola!). Fun stuff.

  3. I appreciate the instructions for making your own audio books. My grandson is dyslexic and LOVES to listen...but not all older literature is available as audio books. I will be putting your great technique to work. Being able to SIMPLY do my own opens up huge possibilities. What a life-changer this will be for him.


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