How to Teach Essay Writing
Everyone needs a teacher bestie that gives them new ideas. I am thankful to have a teacher bestie who is really good at breaking down concepts for students – and she shares all of her excellent ideas!
Recently we discussed our students’ evidenced-based essays. Although students had good comprehension of the paired reading passages, they struggled to write a well-supported essay. Students often developed a strong topic sentence but failed to use text evidence to support it.
A Simple Way to Improve Essay Writing
She told me about a simple change in her writing lessons that helped both her and her students. Instead of having students write an entire essay, she only had them write the introductory paragraph.
As students mastered writing a thesis sentence and introductory paragraph, my teacher friend introduced the skill of selecting supportive text evidence. Instead of having the students write the body paragraphs, she just asked students to identify information in the text that supported their thesis/topic.
In fourth and fifth grades, many students really struggle with supporting evidence. She was able to quickly see who understand how to select information from the text and who needed more support.
For example, we use introductory passages on having cats and dogs for pets. Students have to develop a thesis on which makes a better pet and support it with text evidence. Instead of using evidence from the reading passages, many students use their personal experience with cats or dogs. Although this can be included in the essay, students still have to include supporting evidence.
Her class continued writing their essays one step at a time. It took longer to finish the essay, but her students had to show an understanding of each step of the writing process to finish.
Teaching an Essay in Steps
Essays can be easily broken into specific skills:
- Thesis/Topic Sentence
- Introductory Paragraph
- Selecting Text Evidence
- Citing Text Evidence
- Adding Analysis
- Counterargument (for Argumentative Essays)
- Revising & Editing
Certain steps are usually more difficult than others. By breaking the essay into pieces, students can spend more time on specific steps instead of revising and editing their essays multiple times – which tends to frustrate them.
Students usually need a lot of practice selecting and citing evidence, as well as adding analysis. Once students understand how to choose text evidence, they often just want to add a list of facts. For the analysis, they need to explain how the evidence supports their thesis. Teachers should plan to practice these steps multiple times.
In addition, teachers should plan on practice each type of essay multiple times – informational/explanatory and opinion/argumentative.
Why It Works
By focusing on just one piece of the essay, she saw an improvement in her students’ essays. Why? We conclude that the small change helped for many reasons:
- Students only had to focus on learning one writing skill at a time.
- Her writing time, like many teachers, is very short – no more than 20 – 25 minutes. Having a specific focus helped students use the time more effectively.
- Chunking the writing prevented students from becoming overwhelmed. Students worked at their own pace, and they didn’t feel rushed to finish.
- Chunking also kept students from staring off into space while they thought about what to write. Teachers are able to identify who needs immediate help quickly.
- She could grade their writing much faster because she was only looking at one skill.
In the long run, this lesson strategy saved a lot of time. Students didn’t practice writing complete essays before they were ready – which takes a lot of time. Plus, my friend didn’t have to spend her evenings grading mounds of essays!
If your students are struggling with evidence-based essays, try this strategy. I’d love to hear how it works in your classroom.
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