There’s something about the word “essay” that instantly turns the smiles of middle school students into expressions of dread. Of course, we can’t avoid it when the time comes for teaching the essay. But there are some strategies we can use to show our students it’s not as difficult or taxing as they might think. Reluctant writers can gain confidence and produce successful writing in a supportive environment with lots of scaffolds and modeling. Here are 10 ways to make essay writing less stressful and more successful for your students:
Keep it Classwork
Have you ever assigned a writing piece as homework? (probably, yes) Then you most likely know that stronger writing happens in the classroom, not at home. Students who are expected to write formal essays need to be writing with you, the expert, on hand, as well as other writers. The expression “a community of writers” is a valuable one that should describe your classroom climate during the essay-writing process. Lead your student writers through the steps, model the requirements, check their progress, and allow them to interact with peers in ways that give them additional support and boost confidence. As they venture into the assignment, assure your students you’ll be with them throughout the process.
Let Students Choose Their Topics
If possible, start with an essay where students can choose their own topics. That way, they have a little of the stress lightened for the initial essay. Let’s say you begin with a How-To (Process) Essay. Each student can choose something he or she is good at or knows how to do. Or you could assign a Descriptive Essay, where students choose a place or experience that stands out in their minds to describe in detail. A Research-Based Essay is also a great opportunity for students to delve into topics they are truly interested in. Whichever essay type you decide to go with, you’ll definitely see more buy-in when students are allowed to choose the topic. Then if your next essay is an assigned topic based on a unit (for instance, The Holocaust), students will be moreconfident repeating the process.
Conduct Frequent Peer Exchange
Throughout the process, build in stops where students exchange their efforts. For example, after drafting the “attention-grabber,” have students share them with a partner or in small groups and get feedback. List three questions on your board for students to respond to, like Does the writing grab your attention (or not)? What part of it makes you want to read more? How can it be improved to better get your attention? You could also let students read a body paragraph or each other’s conclusions after drafting and write feedback in the margin or on a post-it. When students check out the writing of their peers (during the process), they often gain inspiration that helps them strengthen their own writing. Plus, you get students helping students!
Showcase Student Successes
Students love a pat on the back when they do something right, and a great student example goes a long way in terms of modeling for the struggling writers. So, if your students are working on introductions or topic sentences, walk around reading from their drafts, and stop when you see a decent one. Praise the writer (be specific about what he or she has done well), and then quietly askif you may read this wonderful example aloud. I don’t mind interrupting my writers to read a good, strong example and pointing out its attributes. I notice students who begin erasing because they realize they were on the wrong track. Other kids raise their hands and ask me to check theirs. An “I can” mindset begins to take over the classroom!
Provide Detailed Organizers
Wouldn’t it would be great if students could just take their topic and visualize the organizational structure needed for a formal essay? Well, we all know, in most cases, that’s not reality. When providing a graphic organizer, make sure it’s detailed and specific, so students can easily gather ideas and examples in the exact format required for the essay. To prevent frustration, make sure each field contains enough space for students to write in the information. You could also insert some arrows to help students see the “flow” of the paragraphs. Other helps: Remind students that they don’t have to write complete sentences on the organizer—that will come during drafting. Also, check that each student has enough information on the organizer, which is necessary before going on to the drafting.
Use Mentor Texts
The philosopher, Seneca, once said, “The road to learning by precept is long, but by example short and effective.” So True! Though it does take extra time, if you can provide a good example of a completed task, students really benefit. They always say it helps. Display the mentor text on your whiteboard right after you go over the directions for the essay. “Here’s what a completed essay might look like! What are some things that we notice right away, before we even read it?” You can do a turn and talk and have a class discussion. Then just read it through for them. They can now visualize the assignment, including the structure, approximate length, and the organization of ideas to support the thesis. When students get into drafting, pass out copies of the mentor text so they can examine it more closely in small groups. They could highlight different parts of the essay (attention grabber, thesis, topic sentences, supporting details, etc.) in different colors. They can also look at language and use of transitions. Students will surely make a transfer of knowledge to their own drafting efforts!
Give Out Note-taking Sheets
Ah, middle school students. They are not the most organized creatures on the planet. If the essay requires research with hand-written notes, pass out note-taking sheets with lines where students can take bulleted notes from sources. It’s SO much better than having them take notes on their own notebook paper (rip, tear, crunch). Make a section at the top for students to record the website URL or source title, copy them back-to-back, and have them available during the research periods. They’ll be much easier for students to locate in a shuffle of papers later on.
Show Them a Citation Generator
When sourcing is required, why not go the easy route? Show students how to use a reliable citation generator, and have them cut and paste their citations to a blank Word document that will become their Works Cited page. I’ve always seen reliable results from www.bibme.org, but there are plenty of others. If students are working in Google Docs, there’s a built-in citation generator in a drop-down menu. Instead of having to refer to the MLA rules for citing all different types of sources and writing down all that information from each source (ugghhh), the only task will be alphabetizing the entries.
Make Paragraph Scribble Diagrams
Students are better able to focus their writing with a blueprint. A paragraph scribble diagram helps them to see the types of sentences they’ll be needing to write for a given paragraph at-a-glance. Let’s think about a body paragraph. We want students to compose a topic sentence and then introduce the first key detail in the next sentence. An additional sentence should follow to support or explain that detail. Depending on the requirements, that process should repeat, leading up to a concluding sentence. Here’s a way to have the paragraph-writing format you need really sink in for the students: Draw a big piece of paper on your whiteboard (or do an anchor chart) and scribble in your topic sentence with a certain color. Then label it off to one side using an arrow. Have students come up and scribble in the rest of the required sentences, one by one, using a different color for each requirement and labeling. It might end up looking something like this:
Allow End-Product Sharing Time
Students are generally thrilled when given opportunities to read some of their classmates’ finished products. After the essays have been turned in, reserve 15-20 minutes in your lesson plan where you let students read each other’s ungraded pieces (with a partner or rotate in small groups). Students can give feedback on a post-it or half-sheet. Provide a few sentence starters for them to choose from. Just think of what students can take away in terms of added knowledge, not only from reading and responding to others’ writing, but from the peer feedback on their own pieces. This meaningful step will carry over to upping the confidence level when the next essay is assigned!
Though students don’t always view essay writing as desirable, with some of these steps built into your instruction, they will definitely become more comfortable with the process and ultimately more successful. Just keep an enthusiastic attitude, even if they complain. You’ve definitely got this!
If you’re looking for acomprehensive, step-by-step resource for essay writing, check out my Informative Writing – 5 Informational Essays with Guided Writing Templates. There’s everything you need to teach a Research-Based essay, Compare/Contrast essay, Problem/Solution essay, Descriptive essay, and How-To (Process) essay. You’ll have lots to choose from with the scaffolds students will appreciate, including mentor texts.
Filed Under: Essay Writing, Informative Essay, Middle School WritingTagged With: descriptive essay, essay writing, graphic organizers, How-to essay, informational essay, informative essay, mentor texts, Middle School English, Middle School writing, research-based essay
In the “Writing with Purpose” section of the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay program, students learn to apply their new writing strategies to different types (or modes) of writing. The truth is — it’s quite easy to get students writing many different types of paragraphs when they have the right foundation.
Put simply, all of these different types of paragraphs simply involve layering on a different purpose or intent. When students have the right foundation, it’s just that simple.
What are you trying to achieve in this paragraph and in your whole composition? What is your purpose right here? Do you wish to describe? Do you want to evaluate? Is your goal to narrate? Is your intent to persuade?
When students don’t have a proper foundation, these questions don’t mean much to them. After Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay, these questions mean a great deal.
It’s just that easy! For Writing Success CLICK HERE! Let’s get your students writing amazing paragraphs. Wait! Why stop there? Why not get your students writing entire essays filled full of amazing paragraphs? Check out the Pattern Based Writing program! It’s perfect for grades 2-6 and for remediation in middle school and above.
1. Describe: I am going to DESCRIBE a sunset!
Sunset is the time of day when our sky meets the outer space solar winds. There are blue, pink, and purple swirls, spinning and twisting, like clouds of balloons caught in a blender. The sun moves slowly to hide behind the line of horizon, while the moon races to take its place in prominence atop the night sky. People slow to a crawl, entranced, fully forgetting the deeds that still must be done. There is a coolness, a calmness, when the sun does set.
Informational Paragraph and a Narrative Paragraph
2. Inform: I am going to INFORM you about the Apollo 11 space mission.
On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Its mission was to go where no human being had gone before—the moon! The crew consisted of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. The spacecraft landed on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility, a basaltic flood plain, on July 20, 1969. The moonwalk took place the following day. On July 21, 1969, at precisely 10:56 EDT, Commander Neil Armstrong emerged from the Lunar Module and took his famous first step onto the moon’s surface. He declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was a monumental moment in human history!
Narrate: I am going to NARRATE a story about the Apollo 11 space mission.
It was July 21, 1969, and Neil Armstrong awoke with a start. It was the day he would become the first human being to ever walk on the moon. The journey had begun several days earlier, when on July 16th, the Apollo 11 launched from Earth headed into outer space. On board with Neil Armstrong were Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. The crew landed on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility a day before the actual walk. Upon Neil’s first step onto the moon’s surface, he declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It sure was!
Process or How-to Paragraph
3. Process: I am going to explain the PROCESS of cleaning and organizing your room.
How-to: I am going to describe HOW-TO clean and organize your room.
Here is the perfect system for cleaning your room. First, move all of the items that do not have a proper place to the center of the room. Get rid of at least five things that you have not used within the last year. Take out all of the trash, and place all of the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Now find a location for each of the items you had placed in the center of the room. For any remaining items, see if you can squeeze them in under your bed or stuff them into the back of your closet. See, that was easy!
Compare and Contrast Paragraph
4. Compare/Contrast: I am going to COMPARE and CONTRAST an ocean and a lake.
Oceans and lakes have much in common, but they are also quite different. Both are bodies of water, but oceans are very large bodies of salt water, while lakes are much smaller bodies of fresh water. Lakes are usually surrounded by land, while oceans are what surround continents. Both have plants and animals living in them. The ocean is home to the largest animals on the planet, whereas lakes support much smaller forms of life. When it is time for a vacation, both will make a great place to visit and enjoy.
5. Critique: I am going to CRITIQUE the Blue Whales’ first baseball game of the new season.
The Blue Whales just played their first baseball game of the new season; I believe there is much to be excited about. Although they lost, it was against an excellent team that had won the championship last year. The Blue Whales fell behind early but showed excellent teamwork and came back to tie the game. The team had 15 hits and scored 8 runs. That’s excellent! Unfortunately, they had 5 fielding errors, which kept the other team in the lead the entire game. The game ended with the umpire making a bad call, and if the call had gone the other way, the Blue Whales might have actually won the game. It wasn’t a victory, but I say the Blue Whales look like they have a shot at the championship, especially if they continue to improve.
Persuasive Paragraph and Argumentative Paragraph
6. Persuade: I am going to PERSUADE my neighbors to buy tickets to the school fair.
The school fair is right around the corner, and tickets have just gone on sale. We are selling a limited number of tickets at a discount, so move fast and get yours while they are still available. This is going to be an event you will not want to miss! First off, the school fair is a great value when compared with other forms of entertainment. Also, your ticket purchase will help our school, and when you help the school, it helps the entire community. But that’s not all! Every ticket you purchase enters you in a drawing to win fabulous prizes. And don’t forget, you will have mountains of fun because there are acres and acres of great rides, fun games, and entertaining attractions! Spend time with your family and friends at our school fair. Buy your tickets now!
Argue: I am going to present a logical ARGUMENT as to why my neighbor should attend the school fair.
The school fair is right around the corner, and tickets have just gone on sale. Even though you may be busy, you will still want to reserve just one day out of an entire year to relax and have fun with us. Even if you don’t have much money, you don’t have to worry. The school fair is a community event, and therefore prices are kept low. Perhaps, you are still not convinced. Maybe you feel you are too old for fairs, or you just don’t like them. Well, that’s what my grandfather thought, but he came to last year’s school fair and had this to say about it: “I had the best time of my life!” While it’s true you may be able to think of a reason not to come, I’m also sure you can think of several reasons why you must come. We look forward to seeing you at the school fair!
Problem and Solution Paragraph (Narrative Version and Informational Version)
7. Problem/Solution: I am going to describe a kitty door PROBLEM and then explain the kitty door SOLUTION.
Narrative Version (1st person)
Last week we installed a kitty door so that our cat could come and go as she pleases. Unfortunately, we ran into a problem. Our cat was afraid to use the kitty door. We tried pushing her through, and that caused her to be even more afraid. The kitty door was dark, and she couldn’t see what was on the other side. The first step we took in solving this problem was taping the kitty door open. After a couple of days, she was confidently coming and going through the open door. However, when we removed the tape and closed the door, once again, she would not go through. They say you catch more bees with honey, so we decided to use food as bait. We would sit next to the kitty door with a can of wet food and click the top of the can. When kitty came through the closed door, we would open the can and feed her. It took five days of doing this to make her unafraid of using the kitty door. Now we have just one last problem; our kitty controls our lives!
Expository/Informational Article Version – This began as one paragraph, but needed two—one for the problem and one for the solution. Also, notice that the second paragraph is a process paragraph. It would be very easy to add an introduction and conclusion to these two paragraphs and have a complete essay!
People often install a kitty door, only to discover that they have a problem. The problem is their cat will not use the kitty door. There are several common reasons why cats won’t use kitty doors. First, they may not understand how a kitty door works. They may not understand that it is a little doorway just for them. Second, many kitty doors are dark and cats cannot see to the other side. As such, they can’t be sure of what is on the other side of the door, so they won’t take the risk. One last reason cats won’t use kitty doors is because some cats don’t like the feeling of pushing through and then having the door drag across their back. But don’t worry—there are solutions to this problem.
The first step in solving the problem is to prop the door open with tape. This means your cat will now be able to see through to the other side; your cat will likely begin using the kitty door immediately. Once your cat has gotten used to using the kitty door, remove the tape. Sometimes cats will continue to use the kitty door without any more prompting. If this does not happen, you will want to use food to bribe your cat. When it’s feeding time, sit on the opposite side of the door from your cat and either click the top of the can or crinkle the cat food bag. Open the door to show your cat that it is both you and the food waiting on the other side of the door. Repeat this a couple times, and then feed your cat. After a couple days of this, your kitty door problem will be gone.
Cause and Effect Paragraph
8. Cause/Effect: I am going to explain the CAUSES that had the EFFECT of making me a high achieving student.
(Note: This is also a first person narrative.)
I do well in school, and people think I am smart because of it. But it’s not true. In fact, three years ago I struggled in school. However, two years ago I decided to get serious about school and made a few changes. First, I decided I would become interested in whatever was being taught, regardless of what other people thought. I also decided I would work hard every day and never give up on any assignment. I decided to never, never fall behind. Finally, I decided to make school a priority over friends and fun. After implementing these changes, I became an active participant in classroom discussions. Then my test scores began to rise. I still remember the first time that someone made fun of me because “I was smart.” How exciting! It seems to me that being smart is simply a matter of working hard and being interested. After all, learning a new video game is hard work even when you are interested. Unfortunately, learning a new video game doesn’t help you get into college or get a good job.
Personal Narrative Paragraph
9. Personal Narrative: I am going to give a PERSONAL NARRATION of an event that changed my life.
Last year was the first time I had ever been the new kid at school. For the first four days, I was completely alone. I don’t think I even spoke to a single person. Finally, at lunch on the fifth day, Karen Watson walked past her usual table and sat down right next to me. Even though I was new, I had already figured out who Karen Watson was. She was popular. Pretty soon, all of Karen’s friends were sitting there right next to me. I never became great friends with Karen, but after lunch that day, it seemed like all sorts of people were happy to be my friend. You cannot convince me that Karen did not know what she was doing. I have a great respect for her, and I learned a great deal about what it means to be a true leader.
After Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay, when the students’ purpose or intent is to:
• Describe >>>> they write a >>>> Descriptive Paragraph
• Inform >>>> they write a >>>> Informative Paragraph
• Narrate >>>> they write a >>>> Narrative Paragraph
• Persuade >>>> they write a >>>> Persuasive Paragraph