What first pops into your mind when I mention essay strategies? Fair to say that many of us would think of the the characteristics and/or structure of a particular genre (domain), say a persuasive essay.
What first pops into your mind when I mention football? Fair to say that many of us would think of a big game such as the Super Bowl for the pros or the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) for college.
Fine. We are all product-centered. We need to have the culminating event in mind, be it the final draft of a response to literature composition or the big football game. However, ask any football coach the question above and you are more likely to get practice as the answer. Football coaches live for the conditioning, the blocking sled, the tackle practice, and the omnipresent videotape. Perhaps we ELA teachers should take a page from our coaches’ playbooks and be a bit more process-centered. Now, I’m not talking about the writing process; I’m talking about teaching the essay strategies that will prepare students for the big game.
My first year of teaching was at a small K-8 school in Sutter Creek, California. Teaching seventh-graders in this isolated “Gold Rush” town was a wake-up call after student teaching the “best and brightest” high school juniors out of my credential program at U.C.L.A. Like most ELA teachers, I had no training nor coursework in how to teach essays. I studied Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and Hemmingway—not how to teach the fundamentals of writing. Like most ELA teachers, I reverted to and mimicked what and how I had been taught. If it worked for me, why wouldn’t it work for my students? And it did work (mostly) for those high school juniors, but it did not work for my seventh-graders.
I remember this debacle well. I began teaching my first seventh-grade class with a scintillating lecture, replete with masterful examples (including my own), on how to teach the five-paragraph essay. The structure, the components, and the unified balance of thought. “Go and do likewise,” I advised.
Of course, you probably already know the results. Most of my students did master the structure and had some sense of what the components were and where they belonged. But that unified balance of thought? I couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t fill in the rest of the blanks. Fortunately, after a few classes with U.C. Davis Area 3 writing mentors (Thank you!), I began to see the value of teaching the part-to-the-whole. I learned that my students needed more practice-more conditioning-to prepare them for their process papers. The following essay strategy tools focus on this conditioning at the sentence level.
Essay Strategies Conditioning
1. Eliminate the crutches
Sometimes removing a writer’s comfort zone is the only strategy that will force the writer to take the necessary risks to learn new tricks of the trade and improve his or her writing craft.
“To-be” Verbs: Restrict students’ usage of is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been. Nothing forces students to search for concrete nouns and expressive verbs more than this strategy. Nothing makes students alter sentence structure more than this strategy. Nothing teaches students to write in complete sentences more than this strategy. After initial banishment, allow a few of these verbs to trickle into student writing, say one per paragraph. Sometimes the best verb is a “to-be” verb. After all, “To be or not to be. That is the question.” For more, see How to Eliminate To-Be Verbs in Writing.
1st and 2nd Person Pronouns: Essays designed to inform or convince are not written as a direct conversation between the writer and the reader. Instead of using the first person point of view I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, or ourselves pronouns or the second person point of view you, your, yours or yourself(ves) pronouns, essays are written in the third person point of view such as in the writing model below. It’s fine to use the third person he, she, it, his, her, its, they, them, their, theirs or themselves pronouns to avoid repeating the same nouns over and over again. Nothing forces students to focus their writing on the subject more than this strategy. Nothing teaches students to rely on objective evidence more than this strategy.
2. Teach and help students practice complex sentences
Some prerequisite direct instruction is required here. Students need to know what an independent clause is. Students need to know what a phrase is. Students need to know what a dependent clause is. Teaching and memorizing the subordinate conjunctions are essentials. See How to Teach Conjunctions for a great memory trick. Students must be able to identify subordinating clauses and create them. Students need to be able to identify complex sentences and use them. Sentence models and analysis works well. I recommend using Sentence Revision, which uses sentence models and requires students to practice sentence combining and sentence manipulation at the sentence level. Using individual student whiteboards for practice and whole class formative assessment works well. You are going to have to differentiate instruction to ensure mastery learning of complex sentences.
3. Teach and help students practice grammatical sentence openers
Students have been trained to write in the subject-verb-complement pattern. Fine. Now we need to revise that writing mindset. We need to teach students that writing style and sentence variety matter. I suggest that you limit your students to composing no more than 50% of their writing in the subject-verb-complement pattern. Teach students to begin their sentences with different grammatical sentence openers. See How to Improve Your Writing Style with Grammatical Sentence Openers for a fine list with examples. Nothing forces students to write with greater sentence variety than this strategy. Nothing integrates grammar instruction into writing better than this strategy.
Look for my next article on the Pennington Publishing Blog on helping students learn how to scrimmage. Focusing on the essay writing strategies at the paragraph level, including structure, style, unity, and evidence will further help students prepare for the “big game.”
Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay Strategies. The download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.
Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies.