Category Archives: essay writing

How to keep students writing this summer

For me, as a writing tutor, one of the hardest aspects of enabling a student to write is finding a topic.  A few students with vivid imaginations could write fantasy narratives each week, but they balk at writing informational or persuasive essays.

Most boys have one inexhaustible writing topic—playing video games—which I nix.  Too many of my students have written such essays with poor, unintelligible results.  And boys don’t like my idea of writing about “why I like video games” or “what I learn from video games.”

The students I tutor—and I assume they are like most other students—know nothing about what is happening in the world.  (Last fall some didn’t know a Presidential election was underway.)  Writing about current events is out unless I spend a big part of the class bringing students up-to-date on world events.

Students don’t read books unless forced by their teachers. Writing about book themes, characters, or settings is possible, but because the number of books my students have read is minuscule, such writing opportunities are meager.  They balk at reading books during the summer.  “It’s vacation!” they wail.

What to do?  Here are my solutions.

For my high school students, I search for well-written newspaper articles.  Recently, for example, The New York Times had one on underinvestment in the computer chip industry, and The Wall Street Journal had one on a forgotten jazz composer.  I create SAT-like questions about each article, including identifying vocabulary meanings.  Then I create a specific narrative, informational or persuasive question about the article for the student to respond to in essay fashion.

Using news stories has many advantages.  It offers a broad range of subject matter for students to read and for me to ask questions about.  It offers up-to-date reading material—students can’t believe they are reading and writing about something in yesterday’s paper.  It requires intense reading but just for 350 to 500 words, far less effort than reading a book.  It allows me to assign an essay every other class or sometimes every class, using class time to discuss the answers to the questions I give a student and to critique the essay.  Homework often is to revise the essay in ways we discuss in class.

The drawback is that I must spend time finding good articles and then writing questions about them.  But this is my job.

For my middle school students and fifth graders, I assign the reading of stories with questions to answer. produces 40-plus stories of classic books like David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer, grouped by difficulty level.  Ten pages of reading are followed by ten pages of multiple choice questions.  I assign these, one a week or one every other week.  After a student has read a story, and we have gone over the questions to be sure the student comprehends them, I assign a narrative, informational or persuasive essay.

Using booklets like these has advantages.  They introduce students to great stories.  They force the student to read and to prove they understand what they have read.  They offer students and me a common topic about which to write.  I must come up with essay questions, one for each type essay middle grades students are expected to master.  We critique the essays and revise them based on the most serious errors or shortcomings.

Sometimes for fifth graders I assign books to read such as Judy Bloom’s Fudge series or the first Harry Potter book, and I create essay questions based on those books.  I choose books I have read and know well to cut down on my class preparation time.

These days I interact with students via Zoom.  I find the results are good.  Students share their essays with me via Google drive.

It is possible to keep students reading and writing about what they read during the summer.  Perhaps you have found some other ways?  If so, please share them with me at this blog.  Or if your student needs a tutor, contact me.

Use color to highlight essential parts of essays

When I teach students how to revise essays, I use color coding to show how the main idea must be repeated in the body paragraphs and in the conclusion.  On computer-shared documents, I swipe the main idea in one color, say pink, and supporting ideas in different colors throughout the writing. 

I ask students to look for the main idea in the introduction and in each body paragraph.  If it is there, we swipe it pink.  If it no pink appears in a given paragraph, that tells the student she needs to insert the main idea somewhere in that paragraph.  If a supporting idea is stated in a body paragraph, and it is swiped in blue, for example, we look for a blue swipe in the introduction.  If it is not there, we insert it.  We look for a pink swipe in the conclusion, and a rainbow of other colors corresponding to the supporting ideas used in the body.

Let me show you an example a sixth grade student wrote this week.

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

How to better use prewriting organizers

Organizing writing before the first sentence is written is a sure way for students to improve their writing.  Yet many students (most students?) don’t do it.  Why?  Some kids are in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to create an organizer.  Some kids don’t know how to create useful organizers.  Some kids think skipping an organizer won’t harm their writing.

What can teachers do to encourage students to create organizers and to use them?

Teachers could insist students use a prewriting organizer before writing a single sentence, and grade it or include it as part of the writing assignment grade.  For a given assignment, the teacher could reproduce several student prewriting organizers (and the teacher’s own prewriting organizer) for the class to analyze.  What ones are effective?  Why?  The teacher could ask students to compare those to their own organizers.  Then the teacher could ask students to improve their organizers before they write their essays.

Teachers could insist that students follow their organizers, and grade the essay, in part, on whether the organizer was followed.  Teachers could ask students to exchange organizers and essays before they are turned in for grades.  Classmates could alert students who have not followed the organizer.  Teachers could give those students more time to align their essays with their organizers.

Teachers could limit the kinds of organizers students use to

  • Either mindwebs or semiformal organizers for most informational and persuasive essays,
  • Either Venn diagrams or charts for comparison or contrasting information, or
  • Modified time lines for narratives.

Teachers could spend more time teaching how to use organizers without requiring the resulting essays.  Not every organizer needs to lead to an essay.

Teachers could provide exercises using poor organizers for students to analyze.  Students would need to identify why those organizers are poor and how they could be improved.

Where should a student start an essay?

If you are teaching children essay writing, at which point do you tell students to begin their writing?  With the hook?  With the introduction?  With the thesis?  Somewhere else?

Lately when my students start to write essays, I tell them to skip over the introduction completely for now except for its last sentence, the thesis.  That is where I tell them to begin.

Then I tell them to write the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.  After that, I tell them to fill in the body paragraphs with detailed sentences.  Then, after the student knows the contents of the body, I tell students to write their introductions at the top of one page and their conclusions at the bottom of that page, so the students can see them both together.

The first draft of an essay is put together something like this (after the student writes an organizer):

  • The thesis is written at the top of the notebook paper or computer document.
  • Under it is written the first body paragraph topic sentence. About 2/3 of the way down the notebook paper is written the second body paragraph topic sentence.  On the back top is written the third body paragraph topic sentence.  Half way down is written the fourth, if there is a fourth.  If the student is using a computer, these sentences can be written one beneath the other since inserting more material is easy.
  • At this point, I ask the students to check to see if each topic sentence supports the thesis. If not, this is the time to make it work.
  • Next, the students fill in the body paragraphs with details from their prewriting organizer, making sure that each detail supports the paragraph topic sentence.
  • Finally, on a separate notebook paper (or at the top of the essay), students compose the introduction with or without a hook.  Below it, the student composes the conclusion, trying as much as possible, to pick up some thread mentioned in the introduction.  If the student is using a computer, the student can move the conclusion to the end once he or she has compared it to the introduction.

At this point students can type a rough draft if they have worked on notebook paper, assembling the paragraphs in the correct order.  Once the essay is on computer, they can revise.

Students tell me that at school they are told to start writing essays with the hook.  I tell my students to skip right over that.  Why?  What I am looking for is not creativity but logic, the logic of topic sentences which support a thesis and paragraph details which support the topic sentences.  That is the meat of an essay, and that is what I see missing in students’ essays these days.  When that logic is established, the student can work on a creative (or not) introduction and a conclusion which dovetails with that introduction.