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.

 

Why are “how” questions harder than “why” questions?

A sixth grade student I was tutoring this past week commented that he would much rather answer questions that asked “why” than “how.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“Because you can start a ‘why’ answer with the word ‘because,” but I don’t know how to start a ‘how’ answer,” he said.

I looked through a 2016 New York State sixth grade exam to find out which kinds of questions comply with the Common Core State Standards, and here are some of the questions I found:

  • “Why are the results of the survey important?”
  • “How does Trina’s mood change?”
  • “Why does the relationship between Julianna and her father change?”
  • How does the father’s idea that Juliana needed to start looking at the whole landscape relate to his description of a painting?”

Then I thought of my students’ written answers to these questions, and sure enough, the “why” questions were responded to better than the “how” questions.

Both “why” and “how” questions require students to analyze a text, a harder task than recalling knowledge or proving understanding, according to Bloom’s taxonomy.  So in that sense, they begin at about the same difficulty level.

A “why” question usually requires one reason although two or three reasons might contribute to a more complete answer.  For example, the question, “Why was George W. Bush elected US President in 2000?” can be answered with one idea:  He gained enough electoral college votes to win.  More could be said about the popular vote and the Florida debacle, but it is not required.  The electoral college information suffices.

But the question, “How did George W. Bush win the election in 2000?” requires more information, especially about the Florida recount and the involvement of the US Supreme Court.

Usually “how” questions require a sequence of information—more than one idea—or a comparison of information.  A “why” question requires one idea only.

For example, in the “how” exam questions listed above, to describe how Trina’s mood changes, the student must describe three things:  her mood at the beginning, the event which changes that mood, and her mood at the end.

To describe how a father’s advice that Julianna must look at the whole picture relates to his painting, the student must first describe the fragmented way Julianna is talking about her boyfriend’s eyes, hair and cheek color, and then relate the fragmented way her father talks about painting a cow, a meadow or sunshine, and then relate both conversations to the father’s statement that putting it all together is when the magic happens.

My student’s insight taught me that I need to discuss with my students what kinds of information are required to answer “how” questions.  To prepare them better for their exams, together we need to respond to more “how” questions, first discussing the kinds of information needed to supply a complete answer.  In this case, it is the thinking through of the answer rather than the actual writing which is difficult for students.

 

What does teaching revising mean?

What could teachers do to help students revise?

When the essays are complete, teachers could reproduce a few sample student essays (with the students’ permission) and ask the class to analyze them. Teachers could ask:  Is there a thesis?  Do the topic sentences in the body support that thesis?  Is the thesis repeated in the topic sentences?  Is the thesis well supported in the body or is more information needed?  Does the information in each paragraph support the topic sentence of that paragraph?  If not, what should the writer do with that off-topic information?  Is the information presented logically?  Does the information in the introduction lead into the thesis?  Does the conclusion return to the ideas presented in the introduction?

Teachers could write and show their own response to the  prompt to offer an example of a well written response for the students to model.

Teachers could give students more time to improve their essays after they have analyzed other essays.

Teachers could have students read their essays to a partner for feedback before turning in their essays.

Before grading the essays, narratives, summaries, etc., teachers could return the writing marked with one idea for improvement.   Yes, the teacher would need to read each essay more than once.  But for the initial read, the teacher would need only to identify one glaring error which the student could then fix before receiving a grade.  Or if there is no glaring error, the teacher could suggest one idea for improvement (“How about turning this section into dialog?” Or “How about turning some compound sentences into complicated simple sentences?”)

The time to teach writing is not after the writing is graded but before and during the writing process while there is still time for the student to learn.  This is the time when students are most receptive to ideas which will help them become better writers.

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

Due to, because of–when do you use each?

“Due to” and “because of”–are they interchangeable?  Or are they used in particular situations?  Does it matter?

EPSON MFP image

These phrases have similar meanings, but they are not interchangeable.  If you are taking the SAT or ACT, it matters because sometimes there is a question testing you on these phrases.  If you are a student writing for a stickler of a grammarian, it matters because you might lose credit if you misuse these phrases.  If you are someone like me who writes a blog or edits a newsletter or reports for a newspaper, it can matter if your readers discern that you don’t know the proper use of these phrases.

“Due to” should be used as an adjective after a linking verb. 

“Because of” should be used as an adverb and should not follow a linking verb.

Good:  My swollen ankle is due to a tumble I took today.

Bad:  My swollen ankle is because of a tumble I took today.

Good:  Because of a fall, my ankle is swollen.

Bad:  Due to a fall, my ankle is swollen.

 

Five ways to write with style

Stylish, polished writing can be reduced to five elements, according to the author of more than 1,000 columns for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Dr. Stephen Wilbers* offers these five elements, which I have paraphrased.

Write concisely. Avoid wordy phrases, omit blah adjectives and adverbs, and replace nouns with action verbs.

Use vivid vocabulary.

Show, don’t tell by writing precise, concrete detail.

Listen for rhythm in your writing by reading it aloud and by varying sentence lengths.

Infuse your personality into your writing.

* http://www.wilbers.com/style.htm

What percent of your sentences should be compound sentences?

I came across an intriguing statistic in a book* for teachers of writing.  A study of 20 well known writers, including Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, showed they used compound sentences no more than nine percent of the time.

Or said another way, these classic American writers wrote simple and complex sentences more than 90 percent of the time.

Ever since, I have told my students to strive for a majority of complicated simple sentences.  An uncomplicated simple sentence is good from time to time, especially after a long, complicated simple sentence or a long complex sentence.  But too many uncomplicated simple sentences make writing seem childish.

What is an uncomplicated simple sentence?  All the sentences in this paragraph are.  What is a complicated simple sentence?  All the other sentences in this blog except for the second sentence are.

Often you can tell an uncomplicated simple sentence by its length.  It’s short, usually fewer than ten words.

*Notes Toward a New Rhetoric:  Six Essays for Teachers by Francis Christensen, 1967.