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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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Common Core Essay Writing Terms

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate (Cool Hand Luke, 1967).” A great line from one of Paul Newman’s best movies… but also relevant to, arguably, one of the more controversial strands of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS): writing. Controversial because of three reasons:

  1. As with the reading strand, much of the writing focus is now on the argumentative and informational/explanatory domains, rather than on the narrative.
  2. The new history/social science, science, and technology literacy standards include each of the ten components from the writing strand.
  3. It looks like secondary content area teachers are going to have to start talking to one another. Some tips on beginning this conversation are in a related article, but the purpose of the present discussion to make the case for using a common language of instruction.

Much can be said in favor of a common language of instruction in writing. Using the same writing terms permits clear communication among teachers as well as with students. Terminology used by teachers in the subject disciplines can be quite “in-house” and can lead to misunderstanding/misuse out of context. Getting on the same page in terms of what we mean when we say “thesis statement,” for example, will facilitate more productive cross-curricular discussions, expectations, and instructional planning. Besides teachers, students have to scale the academic language barrier for each new teacher and course of study. Some of this may be necessary, but there is little doubt that students who hear and use the same academic vocabulary from grade to grade and course to course are more likely to apply prior content and process knowledge to new academic situations and tasks. Yes, students need to be flexible learners, but teachers also need to be “user-friendly” to their clients.

Common Core Essay Writing Terms

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I propose using the CCSS language of instruction for the key writing terms across all subject disciplines in elementary, middle school, and high school. Some of us will have to come down out of our castles and give up pet writing terms that we’ve used for years, and ones that, indeed, may be more accurate than those of the CCSS. But for the sake of collaboration and service to our students, this pedagogical sacrifice is a must. Following are the first two (of ten) components of the writing strand with their respective purposes and forms, according to language of the CCSS document. The 6-12 Writing Strand uses the same writing terms and a.-e. components, but scaffolds more complex expectations grade to grade. Following is the 6th grade Writing Strand with relevant comments regarding additional scaffolded Grades 7-12 components.

CCSS W1 Argumentative Essays

Purpose

1. Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Comments: Some teachers would distinguish between argument (focus on the writer) and persuasion (focus on the reader), but the CCSS makes no such distinction. Many teachers would prefer using thesis statement, instead of claim, but even the California revisions make no such reference.

Form

a. Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.

Comments: Essentially the introduction here with some reference to the organizational plan of the essay. Grades 7-12 scaffold alternate or opposing claim(s): “address” in the California revision (7th), “distinguish” (8th), make “clear” (9th -10th), and make “precise” (11th – 12th). The focus is on defining the claim(s) in context of competing claims.

b. Support claim(s) with clear reasoning and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

Comments: The writing terms for the body paragraphs are reasons and evidence. The usual structure of the body paragraph would identify the reason as the topic sentence and evidence as support/development. However, more mature writers could also select complementary claims as topic sentences (See 1a. “claim(s)) with reasons and evidence as support/development. Grades 7-12 replace “clear evidence” with “logical evidence” and add “accurate” to “credible sources. The California revision inserts “counterarguments” at 7th grade only. Grades 9-12 add the criteria of fairness and sense of audience to the argument.

c. Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.

Comments: Grades 7-12 scaffold in “counterclaims” and “evidence.”

d. Establish and maintain a formal style.

e. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument

Comments: In other words, the conclusion.

CCSS W2 Informational/Explanatory Essays/Texts

Purpose

2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Comments: The language of these standards suggests a variety of writing genre that would come under the umbrella of informative/explanatory, including, but not limited to the traditional essay.

a. Introduce a topic; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

Comments: Essentially the introduction here with reference to the organizational plan. The California revision includes “or thesis statement” following “Introduce a topic” in Grades 6-12. Specific strategies to be used throughout the body paragraphs to examine the topic are detailed. Additional strategies are scaffolded across the grade levels: “previewing” (7th), “broader categories” with “definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect” omitted (8th), “to make important connections and distinctions” (9th -10th), and “each new element build upon that which precedes it to create a unified whole” (11th – 12th).

Form

b. Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.

Comments: Essentially the same types of evidence in Grades 7-12 that would develop the body paragraphs of the essay/text.

c. Use appropriate transitions to clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts. Grades 11-12 add “syntax” to transitions.

d. Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic. Grades 11-12 add “techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.”

e. Establish and maintain a formal style. Grades 9-12 add “objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.”

f. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the information or explanation presented.

Comments: In other words, the conclusion. Grades 9-12 add two examples of conclusion strategies: “articulating implications or the significance of the topic.”

The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies, 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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