In elementary school, children need to compose four kinds of passages:
- Short responses to questions (one or two sentences),
- Long responses to questions (about five sentences or one paragraph),
- Narratives (stories of varying lengths), and
- Essays (single paragraphs to five paragraphs).
The other night I received a call from a father whose second-grade son needed to write an essay on his favorite animal. The child didn’t know what to do. I asked the boy on the phone what his favorite animal is. “Dogs,” he said, not a surprising answer since the boy has grown up with pet dogs. I asked him why, and he identified several reasons. I told him he needed to explain his reasons. He told me that without problem.
I told him that to write the essay he needed to
- First, write a sentence saying that dogs are his favorite animal.
- Second, tell why dogs are his favorite animal, one sentence for each reason. Then he needed to add other sentences explaining why. The best detail is one that begins with “for example,” I told him.
- Last, end the essay by repeating that dogs are his favorite animal and name the reasons without the details.
Do you understand? I asked. The boy grumbled in the background, but his father told me that he understood. We ended the phone conversation.
The next morning, the father texted me the essay below.
I don’t know how much direction the classroom teacher gave this boy. It seemed like this was one of the first times the student was required to write an essay. Did the teacher take the students through the organizational process? Did she show organizational boxes for the student to fill in? Did she model writing an essay or two or three in class? Did she explain what information belonged in the first sentence or in the middle sentences or in the conclusion? I suspect she didn’t since the boy—an A+ student—had no idea when I talked to him. Yet after a five-minute phone call, he wrote a classic essay (for a second grader).
To be fair, I don’t know the circumstances surrounding this assignment. Was the teacher a substitute? Was there a fire drill taking up the time that the teacher wanted to use to preview this assignment? Was the boy pulled out of class when the teacher explained the assignment to the class?
I am left to wonder what training this boy’s teacher received to teach writing. Perhaps, like all too many teachers, not enough.