Category Archives: narrowing a topic

Using How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay to teach how to limit a topic

After babysitting my home-bound five-year-old and three-year-old grandsons for many months, I recently resumed tutoring writing, this time 100% online.  I’ve learned that using my book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay, has helped make the teaching more personal.  And so I am going to share how you, too, can use this writing instruction book to improve your child’s writing, online or off.

Writing is a process done in a sequence of steps.  The steps are always the same—deciding on a topic, limiting it, organizing details around one main point, writing a draft, and revising, revising, revising.

Children are not born knowing these steps any more than they are born knowing how to play a sonata or bunt a baseball.  The steps must be learned and practiced.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay explains these steps, using examples written by children from first to sixth grades.  Yet the process is the same no matter what grade or what age.

One of the most difficult steps is the first step, choosing and limiting a topic.

Narrowing an essay topic from general to specific information is shown in the diagram above.  For more information about my book from which this diagram is taken, click on this link ( or on the book cover in the left column.

Often a teacher assigns a topic such as the American Revolutionary War which is usually studied in fourth grade in the US.  But as I explain in pages 1 and 2 of the book, the Revolutionary War is too big a topic.  Your child can narrow the topic by writing about a battle—say the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Even that is too big a topic.  Your child can narrow it further by focusing on Paul Revere’s part in that battle.  But Revere’s actions on April 18 ad 19, 1775, include too much information for a five-paragraph fourth grade essay.

What to do?  Choose one of those ideas—say getting the signal–“one if by land, two if by sea.”  With this narrow topic, the student can research targeted reading and can discover fascinating details for an essay.

All this is covered in the book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay.

Take another topic not covered in the book:  the Pandemic of 2020.  Again, this is a huge topic, too big for a student of any grade to tackle.  How about narrowing it to how the pandemic is affecting my family.  Still too big.  How about the pandemic’s effect on me:  being homebound, needing covid testing, not playing with friends, fear of getting sick, attending school online.

How about taking the last idea—attending school online—and further subdividing that.  A noisy house, no privacy, a spotty internet connection, difficulty with Zoom, mom as teacher.

Suppose your student chooses difficulty with Zoom as her topic.  How did she learn Zoom?  Who taught her?  Did she watch You Tube videos?  What problems did she encounter?  How did she feel?  How did she learn?

But wait—this topic can still be subdivided.  What if she chooses as a topic watching You Tube videos to learn Zoom.  This is a much smaller topic than the Pandemic of 2000.  Maybe there was one video which was particularly useful or confusing.  The student could focus on that one video and explain what she learned from it, or what confused her and how she solved the problem–or didn’t.

Or she could choose getting tested for covid.  Maybe she needed to wait in the car for ten hours on a hot summer day while her mother snaked the car through a huge parking lot.  What did she do while she waited?  Did she bring food?  How was the test administered?  What was the tester wearing?  Did the test hurt?  Did she need to wait for the results?  How long?  What were the results?  How did she feel?

Students come to writing with the idea that they must choose big topics such as the solar system or the life of Abraham Lincoln.  They think if they limit their topic, they won’t have enough information to write five paragraphs.  As the teacher, your job is to help a student narrow his topic until it is manageable.

And once you have done that, it is your job to help the student organize his information.  We will talk about that soon.  Or you can go to How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay, pages 3 to 23, to find out more.

Students need to learn how to choose a good essay topic

Kids think they need to choose a big topic, like the American Revolution, in order to have enough information to write several paragraphs for an essay or a story.  Wrong.  Choosing a smaller topic, a narrower topic, is always better.  But they need help learning how to narrow down a topic.

For example, suppose they need to write about the American Revolution.  Ask them to break down the American Revolution into subtopics such as important people, battles, causes of the war, Tories, boycotts, the Declaration of Independence, smallpox, and Valley Forge.  Wow, the subtopics go on and on.  But even these subtopics are huge.

Now take one subtopic—say the Battles of Lexington and Concord—and help the students break that into subtopics, such as colors of British uniforms, the shot heard round the world, the Old North Church, guerilla warfare, why the British soldiers marched, how far from the boats were Lexington and Concord.  Wow again.  Those subtopics go on and on too.

Okay, now help them take one of those subtopics and break it into smaller subtopics.  Suppose we take Paul Revere’s ride.  Who gave the signal for Paul Revere to go, how was it decided on, where did Paul Revere get the horses he rode, did he ride alone, did he bring his dog, how did he get across the river near the British boats without them noticing him, and how did he escape when he was captured in the middle of the night?  Wow again.  Even the subtopics of the subtopics of the subtopic go on and on.

Encourage students by saying they are getting much closer to a topic for a good essay.  Suppose you have read to your students that famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  With them peeking over your shoulder, you go online and find out many artists have created books using the poem and illustrations.  You decide to see how different artists illustrated the poem.  You look at the covers and a few pages.  Wow!  The illustrations are so different.

Now tell the students they are really close to a good topic.  You suggest they take three of the illustrated books they like the most, and compare and contrast the illustrations of one idea such as how Paul Revere rowed across the river quietly so he wasn’t noticed by the British lookouts.  One book shows three men in a row boat under a full moon with a British sailing ship close enough so its shadow almost covers the rowboat.  Another shows the British boats at least a football field away with a tiny, sliver of a moon in the sky.  And a third shows what looks like white rags on the oars and a dog in the boat.

But wait!  In doing this online search for books illustrating the poem, you come upon a version of the famous story written by Paul Revere himself.  You ask the students to read what Revere wrote about how he crossed the river and see which artist nailed it.

Explain to the students how you went from a huge topic to a small but much more interesting topic.  They will be using one primary source (Paul Revere’s own account) and four secondary sources (the poem and three illustrations).

It takes time to find a good topic.  Without modeling, most kids don’t know how to do it.  Take the time to help them narrow their ideas.  A worthwhile assignment is to ask students to go through this process to develop a good topic whether they write the essay or not.

Writing is a process, and part of that process is narrowing down a topic.  Not every researched essay topic needs to be written.