How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay published

Do you know elementary and middle school students who want to write better?  Do you know ELL or older students who want simple, how-to steps for writing essays?

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay brings together essay writing ideas from EnglishWritingTeacher.com into a single source.  This book shows kids how to organize their ideas, overcome their fear of a blank page, write a good hook, connect their introduction to their conclusion, use transitions and figurative language, vary sentence types, use good vocabulary and revise, revise, revise.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay starts where kids start, thinking up an idea, and takes kids through the whole writing process.  This book offers a baby-step by baby-step process which kids can follow to write any kind of essay.  Plus examples from my real students show how other kids have succeeded using these same approaches to writing.

In particular, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay takes kids through the revising process, crucial to good writing.  Revising is rewriting—moving ideas around, adding details, replacing weak verbs with powerful verbs, varying sentence openings and lengths, adding figurative language and leaving readers with a smile.  This book tells how.

For twenty years, I have been helping kids write.  How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay collects my practical tips gained from working with hundreds of students. It can be used as a home school text, teaching kids the writing process from beginning to end.  Or it can be used to look up writing problems, like how to replace the verb “to be” with strong, specific verbs.

Directed at elementary and middle grade readers, How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay  works for English Language Learners too because of its short sections (usually a page long) and numerous illustrations.   Parents and teachers will find the book a useful teaching tool.

How to Write a 5th Grade (or any other grade) Essay is available from Amazon for $12.99 as of February 15.

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.

When to capitalize

Read the first 22 words of the Declaration of Independence as it was written in 1776.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word“When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them. . .”

Do you notice that Thomas Jefferson used six capital letters?

Now read the first 22 words of the Gettysburg Address, written 87 years later.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to. . .”

Abraham Lincoln used  fewer capital letters than Jefferson,  one to start the sentence and one more for the word “Liberty.”

Now read the first 22 words of John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, written 98 years after Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end as well as a beginning—signifying. . .”

Kennedy used one capital to start the sentence.

Over the centuries, the use of capital letters has decreased.  At the time of Jefferson, capitals were used to indicate the importance of a word or a phrase.  At the time of Lincoln, that was still true, although the use of capitals had greatly declined.  By the mid-20th century, rules for capitalization had become standardized, and Kennedy followed those rules.

What are the rules?

  • Capitals start sentences.
  • Capitals start names—people, documents, buildings, streets—anything we today consider proper nouns (or proper adjectives). But when the full name is not used, the generic word referring to the full name is not capitalized (George Washington University, but later, the university).
  • Capitals start Mom and Dad when those words are used as the names of people, but not when used generically.
  • Capitals start titles when the title precedes a name but not after a name (Senator Joan Smith but not Joan Smith, a senator).
  • Capitals start the word President when Americans refer to the US President, with or without the President’s name.
  • Capitals start a quoted sentence within another sentence (Anant said, “I finished my homework, Mom.”)
  • Capitals start months, days of the week and holiday names, including the word “Day” in New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day. But capitals do not start seasons or directions.
  • Capitals start regional names (the Midwest) but not generic areas (the southern part of the country).
  • Capitals start important words in legal documents (the Plaintiff) but those same words are not capitalized when writing about the law for a lay audience.
  • Capitals start titles of books, films and works of art.
  • Important words (not articles or prepositions) within a title are  capitalized. In works of research, however, some style books call for only the first word and proper nouns to be capitalized.
  • Newspapers used to capitalize almost all words in headlines, but now most newspapers capitalize only the first word of a headline and proper nouns.
  • Capitals used to start all lines of verse, but now capitalization is up to the author.
  • Some 21st century words use a capital within a word (iPad).  These words are referred to as “camels” because of their “hump.”

 

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

Words of the year 2017

Several dictionaries announced their “word of the year” as 2017 closed.  Here are their choices, in no particular order.

Youthquake:  “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”  Oxford Dictionaries (British)

Complicit:  “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others.”  Dictionary.com

Feminism:  “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”  Merriam-Webster Dictionary (American)

Fake News:  “false, often sensational information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”  Collins Dictionary (British)

Another word to consider is “whatever,” not as a choice for word of the year but for the ninth consecutive year, as Americans choice for the most annoying word, according to the annual Marist Poll.  “Fake news” came in second.

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/