Category Archives: persuasive essay

How to write literary criticism

Many high school students will start off the school year needing to write literary criticism of a book they read over the summer.  And many of those students don’t know what is expected of them.  Here is a quick explanation.

Literary criticism is a written analysis, evaluation or interpretation of a piece of literature.  Usually students focus on one small aspect of the book, play, poem or speech, such as the use of metaphor in a particular dialog or how repetition of phrases strengthens an argument.

Usually literary criticism is presented in persuasive essays.

What must the writer do?

  • Break the subject down into smaller elements.
  • Choose one element to analyze.
  • Focus on that single idea, and from it, develop a thesis.
  • Break that idea into several subtopics all of which support the thesis. Back up those subtopics with evidence.
  • Organize before writing sentences. Eliminate any subtopic or any evidence which does not support the thesis.
  • Explain to readers why your evidence—and therefore your thesis—is convincing.

Where do you begin?

  • Write your thesis first. Every other word in the essay depends on the thesis.  If you start with your introduction, you are wasting time.  It might have nothing to do with the thesis you decide on.
  • Find supporting evidence for your thesis in the literature you are analyzing. Explicitly explain why each bit of evidence supports your thesis.  Write subtopic sentences which group various examples of evidence.
  • Write the body of your essay. Make sure every subtopic sentence supports the thesis and every bit of evidence supports its subtopic sentence.  Make sure everything taken from the original source is cited, using one of the standard citation methods.
  • Now think of a hook or opening for your essay which leads to your thesis. The hook might be part of the introduction or it might precede it, but there must be a connection between the hook and the thesis topic.  Good hooks might include quotations, anecdotes, a riddle, questions requiring a thoughtful response, or humor.
  • If your hook is separate from your introduction, write your introduction next. If you have a separate hook, make sure you transition to your introduction.  Many introductions start with general information about a topic and then funnel toward the thesis.  Usually the thesis is the last sentence of the introductory paragraph.
  • Lastly, write a conclusion. You can repeat your thesis or not, but you must show that your essay is ending.  Good conclusions might look to the future of your topic or pick up an idea from the hook.  Humorous endings are good.  Make sure you do not introduce a new topic in your conclusion.

By the way, if this kind of essay sounds like the kind students need to write for the SAT, you are right.  And it’s a lot like the kind of essay students will need to write in college, too.

Connect back to the thesis in persuasive essays

Click on the chart for a larger version.

Suppose you need to write a persuasive or argumentative essay, as do many seventh graders whose states are following the Common Core curriculum.  Suppose you need to take a position on the following statement:  Santa Claus is real.

You decide to take the position that yes, Santa is real.  For your evidence, you use the following points:

  • The Weather Channel and many other news media track Santa’s whereabouts all over the world on Christmas Eve.
  • Santa’s image is used in advertising by Coca Cola and retailers during the Christmas season.
  •  Many movies have been made featuring Santa, including Miracle on 34th Street, The Polar Express, The Santa Claus I, II and III and A Christmas Story.

For your first body paragraph topic sentence, you write, “Many television and radio stations track Santa’s sleigh and reindeer around the world on Christmas Eve.”  If you add, “thus proving Santa is real,” you have a perfect topic sentence.  Then to back up your topic sentence, you list  TV and radio stations which do this.

So far so good.

You start your second body paragraph with, “Second, Coca Cola and other retailers use Santa’s image to sell items.”  The problem here is, “second” what?  You need to say something like, “A second reason to prove that Santa is real is that Coco Cola and other retailers. . .”

Every sentence in every body paragraph should support the topic sentence of that paragraph.  Just as importantly, every topic sentence should support the essay’s thesis.  Some students think, well of course, if I say “second,” the reader knows that what I mean is that this is the second reason why Santa is real.  Not so.  You need to say that.

You always need to state the connections between the evidence and your topic sentences, and between your topic sentences and your thesis.

In working with students writing persuasive essays, I see this lack of connections all the time.  To show the flow of connections, I draw arrows on students’ essays.  One group of arrows goes from the data in a body paragraph to the topic sentence of that body paragraph.  Another arrow goes from that topic sentence to the thesis or topic sentence of the whole essay found in the first paragraph.  If the connections is not stated, I draw the arrows with dashes rather than with solid lines to show that the connection is not explicit.

Make your connections obvious.

What writing skills are expected of fourth and fifth graders?

  • In fourth grade simple stories or essays are expected from most children. A topic sentence becomes the introduction, lots of facts become one or more body paragraphs, and a summing-it-all-up sentence becomes the conclusion.  Many students need help with the introductions, not knowing how to begin.  Almost all students need help with the conclusions.  They are expected to use transitions.  Students need to learn to plan their writing so that sequencing information isn’t a problem.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks fourth grade students to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information; introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose; provide reasons that are supported by facts and details; link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition);and provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.
  • The CCSS also asks fourth graders to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly;
    introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension;
     develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic; link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another, for example, also, because); use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic; and provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.”
  • As for narrative writing, the CCSS asks fourth graders to ” write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences;
    orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations; use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events; use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely; and provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
  • girl with pony tail on floor writingBy fifth grade, if the students have had enough practice, they should be able to write simple expository (informational) and persuasive essays and short narratives. They should write an introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.

 

What kind of writing should second and third graders do?

Here are what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) expect student writers  to achieve in second and third grade.

  • The CCSS expects second graders to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section; write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section; write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.
  • In my experience, by second grade, students learn the concept of paragraphing, or as the children understand it, collecting sentences about the same thing in a single paragraph. They learn to indent.  But most still write everything as one long paragraph and need to be reminded about paragraphing, punctuation, spelling, and upper and lower case use.
  • In my experience, by third grade students learn to write topic sentences for paragraphs, usually by asking a question (Do you want to know about my dog?) or by making a statement about the obvious (I’m going to tell you about my dog). They need help imagining other ways to start paragraphs.  Some students still need help separating a group of sentences into paragraphs although a few students might be writing longer and somewhat sophisticated passages.  They learn about different kinds of writing–informative, persuasive and narrative–and try their hands at each kind with varying success.”
  • For persuasive writing, the CCSS recommends that third graders should “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons;introduce the topic or text they are writing about, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure that lists reasons;provide reasons that support the opinion; use linking words and phrases (e.g., because, therefore, since, for example) to connect opinion and reasons; and provide a concluding statement or section.
  • For informative/explanatory writing, the CCSS recommends that third graders should write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly; introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension; develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details; and use linking words and phrases (e.g., also, another, and, more, but) to connect ideas within categories of information; provide a concluding statement or section.”
  • For narratives the CCSS recommends that third graders “develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences; establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations; use temporal words and phrases to signal event order; and provide a sense of closure.

In second and third grade, the CCSS also expects students  to begin to use electronic equipment.

For more information, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/3/.

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 http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/K/.

Should my child do reading and writing in the same lesson if the lesson is supposed to focus on writing?

EPSON MFP imageAs a tutor, this is an issue I have struggled with.  Most of the time, I combine reading and writing.  Here’s why:

  • A kindergartener or even a sixth grader has little personal experience to write about. They quickly exhaust “my dog” or “my family” as topics.  It makes sense for me to provide a topic to write about.  A quick and easy way to do that is to supply a picture book or a short essay.  But if I learn the student has taken an outing over the weekend, I switch gears and ask the student to write from his or her experience.  I might need to generate many questions about the outing to develop enough material to write about, but a personal experience trumps a reading experience, especially for young children.
  • Reading gives students a quick start. I might ask a young children to read part of a picture book (limiting the time spent reading to between five and ten minutes of an hour-long lesson).  For an older child, I might bring an essay or news story (again, limiting the time spent reading and discussing it.)  Our discussions focus on ideas related to writing, such as organization, characters, setting, suspense and conclusions.  Then we talk about the kind of writing I expect the student to write.
  • For students who don’t like to be told what to write, I might bring two reading selections, offering a choice. The child has a sense of control and I am happy with either choice.
  • Reading gives students various genres to analyze or to use as prompts. If the student is writing a persuasive essay, for example, reading one first offers ideas for organization and vocabulary.  I focus less on the content and more on the structure, details, figures of speech–the writing–during a writing lesson.
  • Reading offers excellent models for writing. If I am teaching how to write a formal essay with a thesis, obvious topic sentences and a good conclusion, reading such an essay first is a great way to begin the lesson.  We can talk about what makes the example good (or poor if it is poor) and how it could have been improved.

Everyone writes to be read, even if the reader is a later-day version of himself or herself.  We talk about this during our lessons, offering a solid reason to read before we begin and just as solid a reason to read the student’s work after it is complete.

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).