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How to Grade Writing

How can we effectively assess student writing? Should we grade upon effort, completion, standards, achievement, or improvement? Is our primary task to respond or to grade?

Here’s my take. We should grade based upon how well students have met our instructional objectives. Because each writer is at a different place, we begin at that place and evaluate the degree to which the student has learned and applied that learning, in terms of effort and achievement. But, our primary task is informed response based upon effective assessment. That’s how to grade writing.

For example, here may be an effective procedure for a writing task as it winds its way through the Writing Process: Read more…

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Using Music to Develop Authentic Voice

A few years back, I sat down at my kitchen table on an early Saturday morning to begin the arduous process of grading a set of seventh-grade persuasive essays. I had postponed the task for too long and grades were due on Monday. Why did I dread the grading so much?

I knew what to expect. I would see the results of my instruction and significant improvement. I would feel self-validated and be able to give myself a well-earned pat on the back. The essays would sound like miniature versions of me. No doubt my essays would make me look good that week during our department read-around. However, I knew what would be missing in my students’ writing: Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection. No… it was not the fault of the writing prompt. There were several to choose among, and they were intrinsically motivating for my students. There was something else.

As many teachers naturally do, I reflected back to my own successes as a writer. I drifted back to my own junior high experience. Mr. Devlin was an odd teacher with horribly worn black shoes. He was odd, even by English-language arts teacher standards. However, his writing assignment is the only one I’ve saved from my entire K-12 experience.

Mr. Devlin gave us a journal assignment with no rules. No, I’m not advocating this kind of unstructured experience, per se. After all, I’m still assigning those argumentative essays, right? In fact, it was not the assignment that was meaningful at all; it was what I did with it.

My room was my personal sanctuary. I’m dating myself at this point. My room was covered with psychedelic rock-art posters-each painted/printed in luminescent color. Yes, I had a black light. Yes, I had a strobe light. I begged my parents for black-out drapes, but olive-green was their choice. My stereo was bitchin’. I burned incense, even though I hated the smell. It was 1968.

I played the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour albums non-stop. One of the most irritating memories I have is that of my father, a professional musician, saying that the flutes sounded like cheap recorders on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill.” He said the song was garbage.

I listened-no… I felt the music and I wrote. As I read the journals today, much of the writing is juvenile and prurient—a budding Steinbeck I was not. However, my analysis of lyrics, wanna-be girlfriends, my parents, comments and warnings to Mr. Devlin to hold true to his promise that he wouldn’t read the journals rings true to my age and experience. The journal had what my students’ persuasive essays lacked-an authentic voice. With all of the Soul, Passion, Commitment, Connection.

I graded the argumentative essays, and as I expected, most were technically very good. But, I vowed to do things much differently with their next persuasive essay. I was going to Mr. Devlin their writing by allowing my students’ cultures to create their own voices. Music would be the transformative medium. Connecting to student experience with their own music can transform the way they write essays, reports, narratives, poetry, and letters. Music was just as influential, just as pervasive, for my students as it was for me. I knew what I was getting into. I hate their hip hop, new R&B, metal, and rap. It really is garbage.

Music, and songwriting in particular, can help teachers develop a creative writing culture. Learning the lessons of musical composition can improve student writing writing. Read how teachers can develop a productive writing climate by learning a bit about how the music business operates.

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.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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How to Teach Essay Strategies

Writing and Football

Writing is Like Football

Writing is like football.

Most ELA teachers focus on teaching the W. 1, 2, and 3 standards: the argumentative essay, the informational/explanatory essay, and the narrative. Irrespective of using the writing process, we are content and product-driven.

Of course, football is all about the final product (the big game), as well; however, ask football coaches what they spend their practice time doing. They’ll mention their BIG 3: conditioning, tackle practice, and the omnipresent videotape. Less so the content and product-driven X’s and the O’s on the chalkboard. Perhaps we writing teachers should take a page from our coaches’ playbooks and be a bit more skill-centered. I’m talking about teaching the essay strategies that will prepare students for the big game. In other words, the CCSS W. 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 standards.

Writing and football are all about skill development.

My first year of teaching was at a small K-8 school in Sutter Creek, California. I began teaching my first seventh-grade ELA 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: the essay strategies, or skills, necessary to make sense of the content and structure.

After a number of years learning how to teach the essay, following are my BIG 3: 1. Eliminate the crutches 2. Teach and help students practice complex sentences. 3. Teach and help students practice grammatical sentence openers.

Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

How to Eliminate “To Be” Verbs

1. Teach and help students 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.

The Ten Commandments of Essays

The Essay Ten Commandments

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.

Adverbial Clauses

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.

Complex Sentence Ladder

How to Teach Complex Sentences with Grammatical Sentence Openers

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 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:

Teaching Essay Strategies is a comprehensive curriculum designed to help teachers teach the essay components of the Common Core Writing Standards. This step-by-step program provides all of the resources for upper elementary, middle school, and high school teachers to teach both the writing process essays and the accompanying writing strategies.

The Teaching Essay Strategies program includes the following resources:

Eight Writing Process Essays

The program includes the writing prompts, resource texts, graphic organizers, response, revision, and editing resources to teach eight Writing Process Essays. The first four essays are in the informative/explanatory genre (Common Core Writing Standard 2.0). The last four essays are in the argumentative/persuasive writing genre (Common Core Writing Standard 1.0). Accompanying resource texts include both literary and informational forms, as prescribed by the Common Core Reading Standards.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

Diagnostic Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

This essay curriculum is built upon comprehensive assessment. Each of the eight Writing Process Essays begins with an on-demand diagnostic assessment. Teachers grade this writing task according to relative strengths and weaknesses on an analytical rubric.

Teachers differentiate writing instruction according to this diagnostic data with mini-lessons and targeted worksheets. Remedial resources include lessons in subject-predicate, sentence structure, sentence fragments and run-ons, essay structure, paragraph organization, types of evidence, transitions, essay genre, writing direction words, proofreading, introduction strategies, and conclusion strategies. Advanced resources include lessons in fallacious reasoning, logic, coherence, unity, sentence variety, parallelism, grammatical sentence openers, and writing style.

Formative and Summative Assessment with Essay e-Comments

Teaching Essay Strategies provides the tools for interactive formative assessment. This program includes a downloadable essay e-comments bank of 438 comprehensive and prescriptive writing comments. Teachers who have their students submit their essays electronically can insert these comments into a student’s essay with a click of the mouse. The essay e-comments cut writing response and grading time in half and give students all the tools they need to revise and edit effectively.

Comments cover writing evidence, coherence, essay organization, sentence structure, writing style, grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling—all with concise definitions and examples. Teachers can also add in content links and their own personalized comments with text or audio files. Students revise and edit with Microsoft Word “Track Changes,” then re-submit revisions and edits for peer and/or teacher review. Just like professional writers do with their editors! Teachers enter the results of their formative and summative assessments on the analytical rubric. Works on all Windows versions. You also download into Google Docs. Woo hoo!

Essay Strategy Worksheets

To master the essay strategies detailed in Common Core Writing Standards 4.0, 5.0, and 6.0, students complete 42 Essay Strategy Worksheets. Students move from simple three-word paragraphs to complex multi-paragraph Common Core Writing Standard 1.0 and 2.0 essays, using a time-tested numerical hierarchy for essay organization. This “coding” takes the mystery out of how to organize and compose coherent and unified essays. Students learn and apply the essay writing rules, essay structure, introduction strategies, evidence and argument, conclusion strategies, and all of the common grammatical sentence models in the context of authentic writing practice.

Writing Openers and Quick Writes

Teaching Essay Strategies includes a full year of Sentence Revision (sentence combining, sentence manipulation, and grammatical sentence models), Writing Style Openers, and Rhetorical Stance Quick Writes to help students practice writing dexterity and writing fluency (Common Core Writing Standard 10.0). These 10-minute “openers” require no advance preparation and no teacher correction.

Writing Posters

Get 59 pages of colorful writing posters to serve as anchor charts to teach and reinforce the key instructional components of the program including Essay Direction Words, Essay Rules, Introduction Strategies,Types of Evidence, Conclusion Strategies, Writing Style, Essay Numerical Hierarchy, Limit Using “to–be” Verbs, First and Second Person Pronouns, Transitions, and Editing Marks.

 

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How to Teach Thesis Statements

Thesis Statements

How to Teach Thesis Statements

The most important part of the multi-paragraph essay is a well-worded thesis statement. The thesis statement should state the purpose for writing or the point (argument or claim) to be proved. The topic sentences of each succeeding body paragraph all talk about the thesis statement.

Common Core State Standards

Common Core State Standards

  • When the essay is designed to inform the reader, the thesis statement states the author’s purpose for writing and serves as the controlling idea or topic throughout the essay. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1: “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”
  • When the essay is designed to convince the reader, the thesis statement states the author’s point to be proved and serves as the argument or claim throughout the essay. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2: “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.”

Before writing a thesis statement, the writer must read, re-read, dissect (tear apart and analyze), and mark up the writing prompt. The writing prompt is also known as the writing task, writing assignment, or simply the prompt. Check out How to Dissect a Writing Prompt for all the details about how to teach students this skill. The writing prompt WHAT needs to be boiled down to a question to be answered. That answer is the thesis statement.

Dissecting the Essay Prompt

Dissecting the Writing Prompt

A good thesis statement answers the question developed from the writing prompt and accomplishes the following:

1. It states the topic of the writing prompt. Check out How to Write an Effective Essay Prompt.

2. It repeats the key words of the writing prompt. Tell your students that this form of plagiarism is encouraged, because it assures the reader that the writer is following the writing prompt’s orders.

3. It directly responds to each part of the writing prompt with a specific purpose (for informational/explanatory essays) or point of view, also known as  the argument or claim (for argumentative essays).

4. It justifies discussion and exploration; it won’t just list a topic to talk about. For example, “Elephants are really big mammals” would not justify discussion or exploration.

5. It must be arguable, if the thesis introduces a persuasive essay. For example, “Terrorism is really bad and must be stopped” is not an arguable point of view.

For short essays, a good thesis statement is characterized by the following:

1. It is one or two declarative sentences (no questions). A declarative is a statement.

2. It is placed at the end of the introduction. This is not a hard and fast rule; however, the thesis statement does appear in this position in fifty percent of expository writing and the typical organization of an introductory paragraph is from general to specific. Think of the introduction as an upside-down pyramid with introductory sentences (I call them introduction strategies) leading into the focused thesis statement (the point of the upside-down pyramid). Some teachers prefer a picture of a funnel to illustrate the same paragraph structure.

3. It does not split the purpose or point of view of the essay into two or more points to prove. It has a single purpose or point of view that multiple topic sentences will address.

4. It may or may not include a preview of the topic sentences. The preview provides supporting reasons for the answer to the writing prompt. These supporting reasons will be the topic sentences and must be listed in the order they will be occur in the essay.

Examples

Short Thesis Statement: Daily flossing is essential to good dental hygiene. 

Longer Thesis Statement with a Preview of Topic Sentences (Supporting Reasons): Daily flossing is essential to good dental hygiene. Flossing prevents tooth decay, reduces the risk of gum disease, and freshens one’s breath.

Helpful Hints

1. Spend time helping students to dissect writing prompts, showing different forms and examples.

2. Teach the key Writing Direction Words  most often used in writing prompts.

3. Teach students to borrow as many of the words as possible from the writing prompt and include these in the thesis statement. Doing this assures the writer and reader that the essay is directly responding to the writing prompt. Additionally, using the same words flatters the writer of the prompt. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

4. Practice thesis turn-arounds in which you provide writing prompts, which students convert to questions and then answer in declarative thesis statements. Use your own content, such as novels, articles, media or search the web for your grade-level “essay writing prompts.”

5. Teach and have students practice a variety of introduction strategies to use for both informational and persuasive essays.

6. Teach transition words and help students practice these throughout the introductory paragraph.

7. Help students re-word their thesis statements, using different grammatical sentence openers, for their thesis re-statements at the beginning of conclusion paragraphs.

8. Constantly remind students that a thesis statement is part of exposition–not the narrative form. No “hooks” or “leads” as part of thesis statements, please.

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, pre-writing graphic organizer, rough draft directions, response-editing activity, and analytical rubric.

Get the Writing Process Essay FREE Resource:

Plus, a BONUS!

Following are the typical response comments I use to respond to student thesis statements. No sense in re-inventing the wheel. I use the alphanumeric codes to simplify comment insertions.

  • e7 Thesis Statement does not respond to writing prompt. Re-read the writing prompt and dissect according to the WHO (the audience and role of the writer), the WHAT (the context of the writing topic), the HOW (the resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word).
  • e8 Thesis Statement does not state the purpose of the essay. Dissect the writing prompt, focusing on the WHAT (the context of the writing topic), the HOW (the   resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word) to specifically state the purpose of your essay.
  • e9 Thesis Statement does not state the point of view of the essay. Dissect the writing prompt, focusing on to the WHO (the audience and role of the writer), the HOW (the resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word) to clearly state your specific point of view.
  • e10 Thesis Statement is too general. Get more specific in your thesis statement. Example: There were lots of causes to the Civil War. Revision: Although many issues contributed to problems between the North and the South, the main cause of the Civil War was slavery.
  • e11 Thesis Statement is too specific. Your thesis statement needs to be a bit broader to be able to respond to the demands of the writing prompt. A good thesis statement is like an umbrella-it must cover the whole subject to be effective. Save the specificity for the body paragraphs.
  • e12 Thesis Statement is inconsequential. The thesis statement must state a purpose or point of view that can be meaningfully developed in the essay.
  • Example: People in France really enjoy their cheese. Revision: The French especially enjoy four types of cheeses.
  • e13 Thesis Statement cannot be argued. An essay designed to convince a reader of the author’s specific point of view must provide a thesis statement that is arguable.      Example: Blue is the best color. Revision: Blue is the best color to complement a bright white background.
  • e14 Split Thesis Statement Don’t write a split (divided) thesis. A split thesis includes two purposes or two points of view. Focus on only one purpose of point of view       throughout the essay. It may be necessary to reference or refute another purpose or point of view in the body paragraphs or conclusion.
  • e15 Thesis Statement responds to only part of the writing prompt. Dissect the writing prompt according to the WHO (the audience and role of the writer), the WHAT (the context of the writing topic), the HOW (the resource text title and author), and the DO (the key writing direction word) and include each part.

Interested in more of these Essay e-Comments? Check out this video to get all 438 comments.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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 (works great with Google Docs), 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.

Dissect a Writing Prompt

How to Dissect an Essay Writing Prompt

Check out the FREE Download teaching summary of the WHO, WHAT, HOW, and DO strategy for dissecting writing prompts for display and practice.

Get the Dissecting a Writing Prompt Practice FREE Resource:

 

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Eight Great Tips for Teaching Writing Fluency

With the inclusion of essays on high-stakes tests such as the SAT® and ACT®, as well as many state standards tests and high-school exit exams, the need to improve writing fluency has recently surfaced as a desired goal. Which approaches to writing fluency work best?

1. Teach students to read a variety of writing prompts. Expose students to different content area and writing domain prompts. For example, using social science, literature, and science content with informational, expository, analytical, and persuasive domains. Teach students to read the writing prompt twice—the first time for understanding and the second time to circle the subject and highlight key words.

2. Give students ample practice in turning writing prompts into effective essay topic sentences. “Thesis Turn-Arounds” can be a productive “opener” to any lesson in any subject area. For example, if the prompt reads “Analyze the causes of the Civil War,” students could begin their theses with “Many causes contributed to the Civil War.”

3. Give students practice in developing quick pre-writes to organize a multi-paragraph writing response. Teach a variety of graphic organizers and review how each is appropriate to different writing prompts.

4. Give students practice in writing introductory paragraphs after pre-writing. Give students practice in writing just one timed body paragraph to address one aspect of the essay after pre-writing.

5. Provide immediate individual feedback to students with brief writers conferences.

6. Use the display projector to use critique real student samples. Write along with students and have them critique your writing samples.

7. Teach how to pace various allotted essay times. For example, the SAT® essay is only 25 minutes. The Smarter Balance and PAARC tests provide unlimited writing time. Brainstorm and allocate times before a full essay writing fluency for the following: analysis of the writing prompt, pre-write, draft, revisions, editing.

8. If a brief reading passage is part of the background for the writing task, teach students to annotate the passage with margin notes as they read.

Teachers may also be interested in these articles by Mark Pennington: How to Write an IntroductionHow to Write a Conclusion, and How to Use Writing Evidence.

Find 8 complete writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informational-explanatory) with accompanying readings, 42 sequenced writing strategy worksheets, 64 sentence revision lessons, additional remedial worksheets, writing fluency and skill lessons, posters, and editing resources in Teaching Essay Strategies. Also get the e-comments download of 438 writing comments to improve written response and student revisions.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Essay Strategies

Teaching Essay Strategies

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