Think More, Say More, Write More: Elaborating with Personal Essay

Standing on the edge of paragraph writing, I see a deep gap before the solid ground of personal essay. It’s November, and third graders in my class have spent the last several weeks learning how sentences come together to make paragraphs. Students learned about topic sentences, details and a closing sentence. My next unit of study is personal essay and the challenge is to show them what a personal essay is, how it can be structured, and how personal essay writers  develop their ideas.  Elaboration and structure need to be taught in order for students to cross the bridge from single paragraph writing to crafting a multi paragraph personal essay.

To start this unit. I located samples of personal essays from past students and mentor texts I created in years past. I hung up 6 different personal essays and asked students to work in groups, reading the essays and writing down what they noticed and wondered about the personal essays. Students rotated around the room, reading 6 different essays by the activity’s end. Many students were focused on the content of the essay, but I wanted them to think about how the essay was written- the length, the structure, transitional sentences they noticed all the essays shared (“One reason”, “Another reason”, My final reason”, etc.) At the end of the activity, I asked students to think of what they learned about personal essays. (If I were to do this activity again, I would change my “notice and wonder” chart to “What I notice/wonder as a reader” and “What I notice/wonder as a writer”. I would model for students by thinking aloud as I read the essay and first made observations of the content, then focused on what I noticed about the writing. Third graders needed much more explicit teaching on how to read like a writer than I gave in this activity.)

One noticing I pushed students to say was the idea that personal essays are longer than just one paragraph. I talked about introductions, conclusions and paragraphs that detail the reasons that support your big idea. Our next step was brainstorming ideas for personal essays. I provided some prompts and topic ideas for students who needed help generating ideas. Some of the choices I gave were:

  • _____ is the best
  • ______ is the worst
  • ______ is a special person
  • _______ is a special place
  • __________ is  a book kids should read

Several third graders initially wrote their big idea as one word- soccer, birthday, or Christmas. One of my teaching points was the big idea is a sentence. Your personal essay wouldn’t be about “birthdays”- it would be “Birthdays are the best.” The other thing I noticed, as students began drafting, was many students were writing their essay as one paragraph and not elaborating. The video below shows how I modeled a personal essay for students by showing them how I wrote more about each reason, supporting my big idea.


After sharing this lesson with students, I invited them to look at their big idea and list of reasons again. I asked them to meet with their partners and talk to each other about their reasons and say more about each one. I challenged them to think more about their idea, then say more to their partner, then go back and write more in their essay. We will see if this lesson helps students to understand they need to develop their reasons and elaborate, as well as use a structure to make their essay organized and longer than one paragraph.

How do you help writers bridge the gap from paragraph writing to essay writing? What are your favorite strategies for elaboration?