The word essay comes from the latin exigere, meaning “to ascertain,” or “to weigh.” It was used in the late 15th century as a verb, meaning “to test the quality of.” Writing in essay form certainly leads to these things: weighing of evidence, testing the quality of reasons, ascertaining the strength of an argument.
When we teach students to write heartfelt essays, we are teaching them that their opinions matter.
When we teach students to write clear essays, we are teaching them that the way they share their opinions matters.
There are common problems that students who are learning to write essays well encounter. Such as:
- Naming one clear idea as a thesis.
- Beginning with an introduction that sets up the structure of the essay.
- Gathering a variety of rich evidence.
- Organizing the evidence into like categories and in a way that best supports the essay’s argument.
- Differentiating between reasons and evidence.
It is this last issue that has become a theme in my instruction lately. I have noticed many students who name a clear thesis, but then somewhere in their first body paragraph they make a statement that goes something like this:
One reason that we should have homework is because I am too tired from a long day at school to have the energy to do my homework when I get home.
What this student has done is named an example rather than a reason. This common issue muddles the organization of the piece and weakens the argument. It can be difficult to recognize because there is so much that is great about what this student has done – he begins with a phrase to offset the reason, and he discusses what he feels is a reason his thesis is true.
Fortunately, this issue is often a quick fix with some targeted instruction. Here are ideas for instruction intended to help your students to strengthen and clarify their reasons and keep examples in their rightful place. This would work well as a minilesson, a small group, or a conference.
To prepare for this teaching, you need your own essay as an example. In my essay, the thesis is: Fish are the best pets. List three reasons why your thesis is true. Then, list examples to go with each reason. Enlarge all of these statements and cut them up separately. Place each reason and its accompanying examples in an envelope. Duplicate these if you are doing this lesson with more than three partnerships.
Below are the statements I used, both enlarged to be cut up for the lesson, and organized into my final version.
Begin by asking students to talk with partners to brainstorm the parts of an essay. As they do this, listen in and record what they say on a chart. Doing this allows you not only to engage students, but also allows you to assess what they know about essay structure.
Create a very simple chart that looks something like this:
- NAME THESIS
- REASON ONE
- REASON TWO
- REASON THREE
Congratulate students on their knowledge of essay structure. Tell them that because they understand basic essay structure, they are ready for some fine-tuning.
NAME THE TEACHING POINT
Tell students that today, you want to teach them that essay writers make sure they have given clear reasons and examples.
TEACHING AND ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT
Tell students you are working on an essay and that you would like some help organizing it. Then, set them up to work with a partner. Give each partnership an envelope containing the reasons and examples for one of your body paragraphs. Then, ask them to sort the statements by choosing one statement to be the reason, and the others to be pieces of evidence.
Coach students as they sort, and when they are finished, share with them the final organization (see document two, above). Remind them the purposes and characteristics of reasons (explain why the thesis is true, concise, universal), and the purposes and characteristics of evidence (explains the reason, often personal, often stories, often detailed).
Next, guide students to try this in their own writing. Ask them to first find a place where they may have named an example rather than a reason. Then, guide them to rework their writing according to what they have learned. Coach them as they work. Make sure your essay is available for them to use as an example.
Ask students to show their partner a place where they revised their writing based on what you talked about today. Remind them to check their reasons and evidence each time they write an essay.
Note: I dedicate this post, as I dedicate so much of my teaching practice, to Kathleen Tolan. Kathleen was a mentor, a leader, a friend. She was the best of the best in this field. Her loss is staggering, and will be felt far and wide and for a long time to come. Our thoughts at Two Writing Teachers are with Kathleen’s family and her colleagues at The Reading and Writing Project.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).