Category Archives: essay introduction

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.

Show writers how important first sentences are

The first sentence of a story can lure readers in, like a wiggly worm on a fishing hook.  Or the first sentence can cause readers to pound the snooze button.

How can you show students how important first sentences are?

Here’s one way:

  • Show students a single drawing or photo in which some kind of human or animal action is going on. It could be the first page of a picture book (if so, cover up the words), a sports photo from a magazine, or something you’ve downloaded.  Try to find a picture which is clearly focused on one or two characters and without a lot of distracting background.Some creative sentence options.
  • Ask the students to write the first sentence of a story about the events in the picture. (No, you are not going to write the whole story.  No, I can’t offer any help.)  Let students muddle through how to approach the writing.  If they make a tentative suggestion, wanting your approval, affirm their suggestion, however good or bad you think it is.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, but this time they are to start the sentence with a direct quote. It could be someone speaking aloud or someone musing.
  • Next, tell them to write another first sentence for the same picture, this time focusing on descriptive detail. The weather, clothing, posture, the look on someone’s face—any details which seem noteworthy are okay to write about.
  • Now tell them to write still another first sentence, focusing on the emotions of a person or animal in the picture.
  • Now write a sentence focusing on using specific vocabulary, especially specific verbs.

That gives you and the students several sentences to evaluate.

  • Ask the students to read aloud each of their sentences.
  • Ask which one seems the weakest or least alluring. If there are two somewhat bad sentences, that is fine.  Ask the students to identify why those sentences seem not as good as the others.
  • Ask which sentence seems the best. If the students think one, two or three are superior, ask why.
  • Go slowly, offering the students plenty of time to consider and reconsider their choices and reasons. Evaluating takes time.  Accept all responses.
  • Now, ask the students to take the best elements of the good sentences and combine them into one final sentence.
  • Ask them to read that sentence aloud, and to explain why they chose particular elements to include.

Lastly, ask the students what they have learned about writing from this exercise.

What kind of writing should kindergarteners and first graders be able to do?

The ability to write well comes gradually and in stages.  This skill is a synthesis of many writing skills, each building on one another.  Here is what I see in practice and what the Common Core State Standards recommends for kindergarten and first graders.

  • In kindergarten children learn to write letters and words, and some advanced students may write sentences.  They might write with phonetic or invented spelling, backward letters, missing punctuation and haphazard  capitalization.  They use a combination of upper case and lower case letters.  They like to draw a picture of what they are describing.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) ask kindergarteners to “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book; use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic; and use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.”
  • In first grade children’s writing ability varies widely, but teachers expect students to write in sentences by the end of the year. They might draw a picture at the top of a paper and then write one or more sentences under the picture telling what the picture means, and using many of the errors which kindergarteners use.  Many of the rules of writing and spelling are fluid for a first grader, but they are becoming formal than for kindergarteners.
  • The Common Core State Standards recommend that first graders “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure; write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure; and write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

As you can see, a wide gap exists between what many children can do and what the CCSS expect them to do.  For more on the Common Core State Standards, go to

Use a diagram to “see” the structure of the new SAT essay

When working with students learning how to write an essay for the new SAT exam, I draw diagrams of an essay pattern they can follow. The diagram acts as a prewriting organizer.  It shows students an overall perspective of what they must write.  Here is a diagram that is easy to follow yet leads to an effective SAT essay.

diagram-of-sat-essayThis diagram separates the persuasive techniques from the summary.  In the SAT workbooks, the best essay samples entwine the summary and the persuasive techniques, a more sophisticated pattern to follow.

What is important is to cover all three of the criteria which will be judged:  1) clearly showing that you understand what the essay prompt is all about (the summary), 2) recognizing and analyzing persuasive techniques, and 3) doing all this using excellent English (perfect  grammar, a variety of sentence patterns, advanced vocabulary and–most difficult of all–your own voice).

Find a topic for a student to write about by using picture books

Many children hem and haw about choosing a writing topic.  I ask for their suggestions and they shrug.  I give them options.  They object.  It’s possible to waste so much time during a writing lesson settling on a topic.

EPSON MFP imageI’ve figured out a way to end students’ angst and to start the writing lesson quickly.  I bring a children’s picture book to the lesson.  The student reads the book aloud.  Then I tell the student he is going to write a book patterned after the book he has just read.

“You can redo the same story, or you can use that story as a starting point for a different story,” I say.  This way the student has choices.

Let me show you two results.

One second grade girl read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst as her prompt.  It concerns a boy for whom everything goes wrong one day.  Here is my student’s result.

Terrible Very Bad Day

Nick woke up in the morning and he fell out of his bed.  At breakfast his brothers ate all the cereal.  I think I’ll move to Washington, D.C.  In the bus he had to sit next to girls that he liked and everybody laughed at him even the girls.  In class Jackson said he was not his best friend.  At lunch everybody had desserts like cupcakes except him.  After school his mother took him to get shoes but he did not get what he wanted which was blue with red stripes.  At dinner his mom had spinach and he does not like spinach.  When his brothers got to watch TV he had to sleep.  Tomorrow is going to be a good day, he said.

That same second grader read Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi as her prompt.  It is about a boy who fears playing his trumpet in a school concert.  Here is what she wrote this time (with names changed).

Sue loved making friends.  For weeks she had been looking forward to meeting the new girl in her school.  On the day she was meeting the new kid, she had a worry and it became bigger and bigger.  She was worried that the girl wouldn’t like her or that she would say something mean to her.  When it was time to go to school, she did not want to go.  Her mother said, “Is something wrong?”  She said, “Yes.  I am worried that the new girl will not like me.”  Mother said, “She will like you even if you make a mistake and I will love you.”  Sue’s worry was gone.  When she was at school, she met the new kid, Annie, and they became best friends.  Sue learned worrying is silly.

Some tips for using this technique:

  • Choose a book that the student can read in five to ten minutes so that most of the lesson is devoted to writing.
  • Beginnings are hard. Let the student see how the author started the novel.  Then suggest alternatives.
  • You might show the student the illustrations as she writes, but cover the words. Encourage her to write her own words.
  • Endings are hard. Suggest she write a moral if that makes sense.  Or suggest she reread her first two or three sentences and see if the character she is writing about has solved the problem presented.  Let the ending be a comment on the solution.  Or let the ending look to the future in light of what the student has written about.
  • Incorporate some particular aspect of writing into the lesson. In the first example I asked the student to keep going because I know she wants to finish quickly.  In the second example, I asked her to use direct quotes, and we talked about how to punctuate them.

I want my kids to write more this summer. Any ideas?

Yes.  First, I would let the children know that they will be writing every day this summer.  Give them time to get used to this idea.  And tell them you will be writing too.  Every assignment they do, you will do too.  Your commitment shows them how important you think writing is.


Set up a schedule for writing time and stick to it.  Some kids think summer should be a completely unscheduled time.  Dispel this myth.  Let them know that at a certain hour every day they and you will write.

If the children have a computer or tablet available, let them use it.  This will make the idea of writing daily more palatable.  (But check to be sure they are writing and not surfing or gaming.)  Research shows writers write better when they use electronic equipment, perhaps because of the ease of erasing, moving around phrases and looking up synonyms and spelling.  If you have only one such device, stagger the writing times.

Since finding a topic to write about day after day will be a problem for your children, you decide on topics ahead of time.  You know your children’s interests and experiences.  You know what they have studied in school, what hobbies they enjoy, what trips they have taken.  These are excellent topics for writing.

Insist the children create some kind of prewriting organizer for each writing assignment.  Insist too that it be detailed.  Let the children know you want to see the organizers before they begin their first drafts, and that you will show them yours.  Monday’s writing assignment could be to develop such an organizer.  Together discuss the problems and benefits of creating an organizer.

Tuesday’s assignment could be writing the first draft.  Since knowing how to begin is often a problem, help your children.  Make suggestions to one another.  Let them help you too.  Let them see you as a learner in the writing process.  Prod the child to begin, even if the beginning isn’t great.  It can be improved later.  Allow errors and mediocrity at this point.  It’s better for the writer to get into a “flow” state of mind and to continue than to stop and start to fix errors.

Wednesday’s assignment could be to write a conclusion and to begin to revise.  If the child has trouble writing a conclusion, suggest possibilities.  Then, read aloud your draft and self-correct as you go along letting the child hear how it is done.  Ask each child to read aloud his or her draft, and let him fix the errors he hears.  Suggest places that are skimpy or confusing.  Insist that the children add more details, such as proper nouns, numbers, dates, sensory information, and for examples.

Thursday’s assignment could be to continue revising.  Identify verbs and strengthen them.  Identify sentence beginnings and vary them.  Identify lengths of sentences and vary them.  Older children could identify types of sentences used and vary them.   Final drafts should be completed and printed by the end of Thursday’s writing time, or if revision takes a long time, have the children prepare their final drafts at the beginning of Friday’s writing time.

Friday’s assignment could be to evaluate each piece of writing.  Use two columns marked “Did well” and “Needs improvement.”  Start with the “Did well” column, listing things the child did well, like sticking to one idea, organizing, adding humor, writing dialog, writing clearly, using capital letters—anything which will give the child confidence.  In the “Needs improvement” column, ask the child what he or she thinks needs improvement.  Maybe limit comments to the two areas the child thinks he needs to improve the most, such as run-on sentences, using direct quotes, spelling it’s and its or remembering to use periods.

On Friday also you could agree on Monday’s topic.  If the kids need to think about it or do research, they can do that over the weekend.  Let the children suggest topics.  The more they control the process, the more willing they will be  to participate.

Lastly, hang up the finished final printed drafts on the refrigerator or someplace where they can be admired.

(If you need information on any of these parts of the process, scroll back through these blogs.  Any blog might make a good mini-lesson.)

Writing a summary—How to tell what’s important to include and what’s not

My sixth grade student looked at the 17 paragraphs of a news article, bewildered. Where should she begin to find the main idea in order to write a summary? Was every name important? Did her summary need a hook? How about a conclusion?

Writing a summary is a new skill to many middle schoolers. Compressing 700 words into 150 or even into a single sentence without adding any opinion or outside information is daunting. Here’s how I walk a student through the process, over and over, until she gets it.

  • First, I make sure the student has read and understood the selection to be summarized. I might ask a few general questions to see if she understands the gist of it. Little things which adults spot quickly, like the source of the information, or the significance of it, might never occur to a student. So before writing, the student needs to be aware of the who-what-when-where-and why of a nonfiction selection and which of those five W’s apply. I ask the student to identify the five W’s, verbally, and to form one or two sentences combining that information. I help her refine those sentences, and they usually become the first sentences of her summary.
  • Next we look at the reading selection’s introduction and write on the original, separating the introduction with margin lines or even drawing a large rectangle around that section. For a student new to summarizing, drawing on the “document” can help her to “see” the organization.  If the document can’t be written on, I photocopy it so the student feels free to mark it.
  • I ask the student if the introduction is a hook or is a true introduction. “There’s a difference?” she might ask. I explain that many times the hook attracts readers to keep reading, but it is not the gist of the idea in the selection. The hook can be like the pretty woman selling a car in a TV commercial. Is the commercial really about the woman or the car? The student rereads the introduction and decides if it is hook or important information. If it is hook, I ask her to X it out and we move on to the next section of the reading selection which usually is the true introduction.
  • Sometimes there are subheadings which tie information together. If so, we look at how subheadings are used. Can you organize your summary the same way, I ask, writing a sentence or two about each of the subheaded information? “You mean I don’t have to summarize each paragraph?” No, you don’t. If the paragraphs are details about the same information, figure out what the main idea is in each subheaded section. A summary needn’t summarize each sentence or each paragraph but rather each important idea. At this point the student often rereads the selection, drawing lines around sections which can be summarized as a lump. Then she summarizes each section.
  • We go back to the five W’s. Who? I ask the student if she has said  who is the source of the information she has read? “Well, the newspaper is.” But who is the newspaper quoting or getting its information from. “Oh.” She identifies the “who” (the organization issuing the report, the government agency, the scientist), and if she has not noted this in her summary, she backtracks to put it near the beginning. “What” is usually the main idea, so that should already be on paper. “When?” A general date (last week, during the summer, in November) and setting should be noted. “Where” might be important but it might not.
  • “Why” might not be on the student’s radar, but it needs to be. Why is the information in the reading selection important? The student should be able to find out why somewhere in the reading selection. Stating it is often a good way to end a summary.
  • How about names? Sometimes a name is important, but many times it can be left out in a summary, and a description of the kind of work the person does can be used instead. “Scientists at the ABC organization,” or “angry mothers in Toronto,” or “people studying Shakespeare’s plays” might be a better way to identify who is involved than actual names. However, if the selection concerns a well-known person, that person’s name should be used.
  • How about organizing the summary? Should it go in the same order as the original reading selection? If the original is a news story, then yes, since information in a news story is written in order of importance. For other nonfiction selections, the original structure is probably a good guide, but it needn’t be strictly followed. On the other hand, why not follow it unless it is incoherent?

When my student finished her summary, she glowed, knowing she had left out so much while stating the main ideas in eight sentences. Seventeen paragraphs reduced to eight sentences! Yet I know we will need to do this many more times before she feels confident enough to compress on her own. Like so many writing skills, summarizing takes practice.