I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about literary essays lately. The topic first came up in early May when I was consulting with a third grade teacher who I had worked with earlier in the school year. I asked her how her year had been going and she lamented about having so many units to teach, but not enough time to teach them all. Regretfully, she wasn’t going to be able to teach poetry this year since she couldn’t find the time. She wanted to teach poetry next year, but was unsure of what to cut. I suggested eradicating the literary essay unit of study. She seemed shocked since it’s in the Units of Study Books and she is, after all, a third grade teacher. However, after talking through the fact that this important work would be done in fourth and fifth grades, she realized that this was a unit she might be able to give up after all.
I’ve come to believe that literary essays are one of the most important genres we teach in Writing Workshop. It’s a genre our students will be faced with again and again as they progress to middle and high school (and beyond). The ability to read critically, analyze texts, and express thoughts about the significance and meaning behind a piece of writing is a skill students must possess. However, as someone who saw markedly better literary essays from slightly older elementary school students, I’ve started to think that literary essay might not be a necessity for all third grade classrooms.
A couple of days after chatting with the above-mentioned third grade teacher, I received an e-mail from a former colleague. She is a dynamic, experienced educator who teaches a precocious group of second graders. She wanted to get them ready for third grade by starting a literary essay unit during the final weeks of the school year. She was writing to me asking for suggestions about texts the students could analyze for their essays. While I don’t know her students, I do know that many of the literary essays I’ve seen written by third and some fourth graders have often lacked depth. I suggested having her students spend the last month of the year doing some persuasive writing and perhaps going a little deeper than the typical reading response journal writing they’d been doing. She got back to me a day later and said she reconsidered and decided that she wasn’t going to attempt this; she didn’t think second graders should be writing literary essays.
The introduction to Lucy Calkins and Madea McEvoy’s Book, Literary Essays: Writing About Reading, is worth noting:
In personal essays, many children will have written about lessons they learned from people they know and interact with. But writing also helps us learn from the characters in the books we read. Just as writing allows us to pause in our hurried lives and really notice and experience and reflect on things that have happened to us, so, too, writing allows us to pause in our hurried reading and really pay attention to the characters in our books.
In order for children to write about reading in this way, they need to be reading! Children who are learning to write literary essays while they are still very young — in grades three, four, and five — will profit from writing these essays about short texts they’ve read, reread, and discussed (2006, VI).
Children do need to think deeply about books. Not only should children be discussing books with partners, small groups, with their teacher, and with their entire class, but they should also be writing about their thoughts and reactions to literature. However, I find myself continuing to question whether or not this work is best suited for third grade when it’s hard to fit genres like poetry, which I feel are a true necessity for all elementary school students, into the school year. I’d welcome your thoughts about when you feel it’s the right time for kids to begin writing literary essays. Please take the poll above and/or share a comment.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.