Tag Archives: third grade author

What is the right age to start a child writing essays? Is first grade too young?

3rd grader writing an essay.For 20 years I have tutored children in how to write. Only one rising first grader and two children already in first grade were ready to write essays. Essays require thoughtful organization for which most first graders don’t have the patience or organizational skills. They want to jump right in without planning.

What qualities do I look for in students ready to write essays?

  • Children who already write long narratives—the fronts and backs of notebook paper. Sometimes this is the sign of a gifted child who is more advanced than her peers in writing skills.
  • Children who can read at a third grade level or better. Through their reading, these children have encountered lots of writing which subconsciously will influence their style, vocabulary and topics.
  • Children with strong vocabulary skills. During a writing class, students will hear new words, or will hear words used in new ways. Liking to work with words is a sign that students are ready for essay writing.
  • Children who can spell well (not perfectly) with more correct spelling than phonetic spelling. A writing lesson is not a spelling lesson.
  • Children who speak English well, using words and grammar correctly. Writing lessons include fixing up grammar errors, but in general, the student’s command of English grammar and usage should be good. A writing lesson is not a grammar lesson.
  • Children who can focus for up to an hour. Many skills come together during writing classes—holding a pencil, forming letters and words, organizing thoughts, spelling, finding synonyms in a thesaurus, listening to a teacher’s instructions, sitting (or standing) for most of an hour, and asking questions. Writing is a process, not a single skill, and parts of the process are best worked on while the ideas are flowing, so the child needs to be able to hang in there.
  • Children willing to take direction. I have taught talented first graders who had all the above qualities but they were not willing to listen to my suggestions or to follow my directions. Children need maturity to begin essay writing.

Third grade is a good time to start essay writing for some children. For others, fourth grade is better. During kindergarten, first and second grade, students can focus on writing sentences or paragraphs. They can also learn from reading with an adult. You can point out to your child why a certain sentence sounds good, or how a writer gets the child’s attention. You can point out how a certain character in a book sounds like a child because of the words she uses or the way she uses them, while an adult sounds differently.

Use dialog to begin sentences and paragraphs in order to add variety and life to writing

Author's Quote on adding dialogueHave you ever turned the page of a novel and come to long paragraphs of description or exposition?  And then the corner of your eye sees far down the next page a section of dialog?  What do you do?  Do you read the long paragraphs or do you jump to the dialog with its short sentences and friendly white space?

If you are like most people, you beeline to the dialog.

Dialog makes writing sparkle.  Once I read a novel in which there was no dialog, none whatsoever.  Over and over I wanted to quit.  This novel taught me the power of dialog in writing.

Children read chapter books like Junie B. Jones that are full of dialog, but children rarely think of adding dialog themselves.  However, once they add dialog they keep adding it, and their writing improves tremendously.

Why?  One of the easiest ways to get personality into writing is to introduce a character—even if it is the writer herself—whose unique way of thinking and saying attracts readers.  Charles Dickens was a master of this.  But so are some of my students.

dialog example

Notice how a third grade student uses dialog to show his personality and to hook the reader.

Adding dialog is like adding powerful verbs.  It has the same effect.

Sometimes when I read a student’s writing, I suggest, “This would be a good place for dialog.”  Often the student has people talking anyway, but using indirect speech.  I show the student how to turn the speech into direct quotes, and how to start a new paragraph when a different person speaks.

Dialog can also be a great hook in the introduction of an essay, providing that the person speaking says something worth hearing.

One caveat:  Sometimes, once students learn the power of dialog, they want to write only dialog, leaving out any sense of setting or nonverbal action.  In these cases the writing is confusing.  Help the student to see that some description of place, time and the emotional reactions of the people talking and listening are important for a well-rounded essay.

Next we’ll look at sentence types and how they impact writing.

For comparison and contrast essays, use a chart or a Venn diagram as a prewriting organizer.

How are Percy Jackson and Harry Potter the same?  How are they different?  How are an iPhone and a Droid the same?  How are they different?  How are elementary school and middle school the same?  How are they different?

For essays like these, where one concept needs to be compared (to show similarities) and contrasted (to show differences), a simple chart or a Venn diagram is easy for children to create and does the job well.


Click on the graphic to enlarge it.

For the chart organizer, draw two vertical lines on notebook paper, creating three columns.  Use the first column to list ideas to be compared or contrasted and the other two columns for the ideas being contrasted (for example, WWI and WWII).  Similarities can be written over the line separating the second two columns.

For the Venn diagram organizer, start with two huge circles that overlap by a third.  On their own, students draw circles that are too small and that barely overlap.  Instead, I have them trace a seven or eight inch bowl whose shape fills about two-thirds of a page of notebook paper.  If two seven-inch circles are traced, overlapping in the middle, the result is enough room for the three kinds of information needed in the essay:  how each concept differs (the outer parts of the circles) and how each concept is similar (the overlapped part).

For students comfortable with mind webs, I recommend using Venn diagrams.  The circles of the Venn diagram look something like a mind web and bring continuity to the prewriting experience.  If there is not enough room in the circles, we tape another paper to the bottom or side of the page and add more information there.  But a chart works just as well for students who prefer that way of organizing.

When the chart or diagram is full, I ask students to use colored pencils to identify information that should go together in the same body paragraphs.  Students might circle Harry Potter’s and Percy Jackson’s ages in red; where they live in red; where they go to school or camp in red and when the stories take place in red.  They might circle their friends in blue.  They might circle their tasks or actions in green.  Then they number the colors to show what kinds of information they plan to use in the first, second and third body paragraphs.

Essay on sharks by a third grader.

To enlarge, click on the photo.

Previous blogs have covered why prewriting organizers are important, and how to construct and use easy kinds of organizers for expository and persuasive essays (mind webs) and for narratives (modified time lines).  Now the student is ready to begin the first draft.  Next time we will talk about introductions.