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The Parts of an Essay

To be able to teach our students how to write effective essays, we first have to identify the underlying problem.

I think we are the problem. We confuse students. We don’t mean to do so, but we do. The problem is compounded by the fact that students are exposed to many different teachers, each with a different knowledge base, a different set of teaching experiences, and a different language of instruction.

This article will pose questions and only hint at a possible solution. If all your questions about essay terminology have been answered, read no further.

The Parts of an Essay

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Let’s begin with the thesis statement. We all have different expectations as to what is and what is not a thesis statement. The Common Core writers compound the problem by using confusing terminology and reducing all exposition to Writing Standards 1 and 2.

To pose a few questions: Is a thesis the same as a claim? or include a claim? Does a thesis apply to both argumentative and informational writing? Is a thesis the main idea/purpose of the writing? Does a thesis always state a point of view? Is a literary thesis different than one in science, or one in the humanities, or one in social science/history? Can a thesis pose a question to be explored? Does the thesis always have to be arguable?  Does a thesis statement have to be placed in an introductory paragraph? Does a thesis statement have to be placed last in the introduction? Does a thesis statement have to include the topics/claims/main points of each of the body paragraphs? Is a split (divided) thesis permissible? How general or how specific should a thesis statement be? Should a thesis statement use as many of the words from the writing prompt as possible? Is it realistic/possible to apply a generic definition for a thesis statement to all genre/domains of exposition? For example, a pro-con, cause-effect, compare-contrast, personal essay?

Then to muddy the water a bit: What is the purpose of the introductory paragraph(s) with respect to the thesis statement? Do non-narrative essays have “hooks?” Must introductions be ordered from general to specific (a.k.a. funnel paragraphs)? Are rhetorical questions permissible? Is background/context/a brief summary required? Are there different introduction strategies for different genre/domains of writing?

Then… to muddy the water even more: What about the purpose and terminology of body paragraphs? Is it a topic/ or topic sentence, claim, or reason? Does evidence always precede analysis? Is a concluding statement ever/always included? Are counterclaims and refutations best included as separate body paragraphs or as embedded within body paragraphs. Is a variety of evidence preferred? Are direct quotes preferred over indirect quotes when textual evidence is cited? When is textual evidence needed and when is it not?

Of course this leads to conclusions. The Common Core writers seem to discount conclusions. Are concluding paragraphs necessary? Is a thesis restatement necessary in a brief five paragraph essay? Does a conclusion always include a summary? Does a conclusion always include a “call to action?” What is the purpose of a conclusion? What does “give a finished feel to the essay” mean?

We all know that “cookie-cutter” approaches to complex tasks, e.g. writing, are rarely effective; however, I’m still interested in them. Some are clearly more useful than others.

The most useful set of terminologies I’ve found to be effective with students is a numerical hierarchy. An argumentative or informational explanatory essay might look like the following:

Introduction

(1) (1) (2)  

Body Paragraphs

(3) (4) (5) (5) (4) (5) (5) – (4) (5) (5) (4) (5) (5) (3) – (4) (5) (3) (4) (5) (5) (5)

Conclusion

(2) (6) (6)

Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

The numbers take away (or at least limit the damage of) years of confusing languages of writing instruction. Placing prior learning in context makes instructional sense. To be able to say, “You know how Ms. Johnson called ‘this’ a thesis statement last year; how Mr. Poindexter refers to ‘this’ as a claim in history; while Dr. Sterling labels ‘this’ as an hypothesis in science? These are all good terms, but we’ll just call ‘this’ a (2) this year. So simple.”

Check out this complete writing process essay to see a sample of the resources provided in Teaching Essay StrategiesThe download includes writing prompt, paired reading resource, brainstorm activity, prewriting graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

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

The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies uses this numerical hierarchy to teach the parts of and structure of the essay. This full-year curriculum includes 42 essay strategy worksheets,  8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory) with complementary reading resources, 128 writing openers, 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

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How to Write a Good Thesis Statement

The Common Core State Standards Writing Strand includes the argumentative essay (W.1) and the informational/explanatory essay (W.2). Each genre requires a different form for its thesis statement. 

Of course, the thesis statement is dictated by the demands of the writing prompt. The writing prompt tells you what to write about and how to do so. A good thesis statement directly responds to the writing prompt. For an argumentative essay, the thesis statement states the claim(s) of the essay. For an informational/explanatory essay, the thesis statement states the specific purpose of the essay.

How to Write a Good (2) Thesis Statement

To make sure that you directly respond to the writing prompt, include the writing topic and key words of that writing prompt in your (2) Thesis Statement. Usually place the (2) Thesis Statement at the end of the introductory paragraph. The (2) Thesis Statement should be as specific as possible, but general enough to permit more than one (3) Topic Sentence to support the purpose or point of view.

Mistakes to Avoid in a (2) Thesis Statement

The (2) Thesis Statement does not state your specific purpose for informational/explanatory essay.

The (2) Thesis Statement does not state your specific point of view for an argumentative essay.

(2) Thesis Statement introduces evidence (4) or (5).

(2) Thesis Statement refers to only part of the task of the writing prompt.

(2) Thesis Statement refers to the essay and to the writer.

(2) Thesis Statement includes a split (divided) focus which either argues against itself or introduces more than one focus of the essay.

(2) Thesis Statement confuses the writing genre. For example, the writer states a point of view for an informational/explanatory writing prompt.

(2) Thesis Statement is too specific and does not allow the writer to address the broader demands of the writing prompt.

Practice #1

Directions: Carefully read the Writing Direction Word and Writing Prompt. Study the Bad (2) Thesis Statement and the Explanation. Then revise into a Good (2) Thesis Statement.

Writing Direction Word: Analyze means to break apart the subject and explain each part.

Writing Prompt: Service to one’s country is true patriotism. President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to “…ask not what your country can do for you−ask what you can do for your country.” Analyze what President Kennedy meant by this statement in his Inaugural Address from January 20, 1961 to share during class discussion.

Bad (2): President Kennedy meant Americans should not view their country as existing for their benefit when he said “…ask not what your country can do for you…”

Explanation: This (2) Thesis Statement refers to only part of the task of the writing prompt.

Good (2): _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Practice #2

Directions: Carefully read the Writing Direction Word and Writing Prompt. Study the Bad (2) Thesis Statement (Claim) and the Explanation. Then revise into a Good (2) Thesis Statement.

Writing Direction Word: Persuade means to convince the reader of your argument or claim.

Writing Prompt: The editorial from the Reno Times includes research studies and statistical data to demonstrate the benefits of regular exercise. The editor claims that elementary school students do not get enough exercise. Write a letter to the editor to persuade the editor and readers that elementary schools need more money to buy playground equipment.

Bad (2): Every elementary school must have a jungle gym, ten swings, and four seesaws.

Explanation: This (2) Thesis Statement is too specific does not address the broader demands of the writing prompt.

Good (2): _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

For more thesis statement and essay practice, check out the author’s Teaching Essay Strategies. This curriculum includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to teach the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory), 64  sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.

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