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When’s the right time to start writing literary essays?

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.

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literary essay

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

6 thoughts on “When’s the right time to start writing literary essays? Leave a comment

  1. What a great post, Stacey. Thanks! In our third grade, our deep work is done through conversation. I often incorporate a book and conversation into morning meeting and follow it with the games/routines I have developed over the years to get everybody talking. Immersion in fairy tales, biography, trickster tales, etc. is really important for constructing the idea of theme and character transformation. We have response journals to get us used to writing about books (love Aimee Buckner’s work on this). And, most recently, we have learned to write magazine book blurbs in our Feature Writing Unit. This begins with a stack of real world examples (thank you Katie Wood Ray). These are the bite-size ways I build their readiness for the literary essay they will learn to write later.

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  2. As my school has implemented the Units of Study, the question of what grade levels doing each unit has been a major point of debate. I was very excited when I went to The Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute and they told us that literary essays were too sophisticated a genre for third grade and should not happen until fifth or sixth grade. They emphasized having each grade complete different genres so that students have experienced all of the different types of writing by the end of their elementary school experience.

    I would love to hear how schools have determined when to teach each unit of study.

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  3. Deciding to teach literary essays in third grade is a question we are working through at my school too. Our emphasis has been on building a spiral and introducing the literary essay format in third grade is important to start that work. If we wait until students are in 4th grade to even introduce the unit, we don’t provide a foundation. That said, I think the most important job of 3rd grade teachers (and my role as the coach) is to respond to the learners in those rooms making sure our minilessons and texts scaffold the work students will be doing. With the correct emphasis, expectations, and texts, I believe third graders can successfully begin thinking more deeply about writing about reading.

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  4. Hi–

    First, I agree with you, Ruth.

    I definitely believe that children should be analyzing literature both through discussion and in writing as early as kindergarten/first grade, but I don’t think that the term “essay” should be applied to their writing until later. I think that students should be encouraged to think deeply and to write deeply before learning about the structure of paragraphs, transition sentences, introductions and conclusions. They should start writing without any constraints. Some ideas on how to do this:

    1.) Pick one character and have the kids, in partners, discuss the character’s personality, decisions he/she made, values, etc. Come together as a class and make a chart. Then, have the kids write a journal entry based on that character. When they are done, they can write a letter to the character.
    2.) Talk about themes in the book. Is the book about friendship? How do we know that the book is about friendship? Where do we “see” friendship? What else is the book about? After discussion, write a journal entry about whether you have ever had a friendship like the one in the book. Would you like a friendship like that one? Why or why not?

    Discussion is just as important as writing! Discussion helps us to fully formulate our ideas, as well as helps us to organize our thoughts.

    I know that Lucy Calkins is extremely against any sort of prompted writing, but I think that these discussions and questions help to guide children towards deeper thinking. Also, these sorts of mini-lessons and discussions can be done throughout the year; they do not require their own unit.

    Starting in fifth grade, students can begin to learn more about “literary essays.” It’s really important to infuse skills into the lessons—what makes a paragraph? What makes a strong lead? Strong conclusion? What is a transition sentence? While at the same time, encouraging deep thinking about literature. Kids should be reading and analyzing published literary essays as well! This is so important!!

    A big problem in the teaching of essay writing, in my opinion, is that teachers often turn the essay into a boring and formulaic exercise. Essays can, and should, be creative. Essays can, and should, encourage kids to think about things in a new way. Kids should read tons of published essays so that they can see that essays have a real purpose in our society.

    Just some thoughts early on a Saturday morning…

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  5. This is something I have struggled with. I teach 5th grade and have been doing the units of study now for 3 years, but have yet to find a way to complete the literary essays in my writing units of study. I do however have my students complete reading responses in the reading workshop. They however lack the same thing…depth. I would love to read and discuss more on this topic.

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  6. I appreciate the way you question and make me think deeply about the reasons for leading a unit of study in Writing Workshop. I think this issue goes beyond literary essay and should be something we are thinking about for every unit of study at every grade level. Just because a unit of study is in a curriculum guide or we think we need to “prepare kids for the next grade” are not the best reasons for a unit of study.

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