Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Crafting an Essay

Students are still working on their fish essays. As they move from graphic organizer to rough draft, I've found that it's very helpful to give them a rough draft template. I first created this back when I taught sixth grade. I was horrified to see that students were writing each paragraph on a separate sheet of paper! Somewhere along the line, they had started to see each part of the essay as a separate piece of writing.

The rough draft template helps students to see what their writing will look like in the end. I used text boxes to remind them of the job of each paragraph. This template also frees students to use some of my favorite writing tricks, like skipping the introduction at first. (I do so hate writing introductions!) They can easily see where the introduction should go, leave it blank, and jump right into Body Paragraph #1.

Like any scaffolding tool, I use this one just at the very beginning. By the end of the year, many students have enough of an understanding of structure that they can create essays without this support. I have gone back and forth on the merits of five paragraph essay. My current thinking is that if I teach it to students in fourth grade, then by middle school they'll be past its constraints and be ready to soar with new, more complex forms.

That's my hope, at least!


  1. And every high school English teacher in America thanks you :-) Since you teach at an age where they should be learning paragraphs, I wondered how you get them to grasp the idea. I teach high school and my SENIORS don't get when they should create a new paragraph unless they are writing a 5-paragraph essay, where they still write like middle schoolers or lower (eeek!). I feel like everything I say is above their heads, so do you have any ideas or exercises that you use for your fourth graders for this concept that could be adapted for their age group?

  2. Thanks for the comment! I have to say that the single best thing that I've found to teach students about paragraphing is diagramming a mentor essay. I first saw this in Barbara Mariconda's book Step-by-Step Strategies for Teaching Expository Writing (a fabulous book, by the way), and I've adapted it ever since. Use or create an example essay for students. Then, have them number the paragraphs. Create a sheet that draws students' attention to what you want them to see: "Underline the sentence that connects Paragraph 2 to Paragraph 3," or "How are the topics of Paragraph 4 different from Paragraph 5?" For older students, this could help them to see how a writer goes beyond 5 paragraphs. Hope this helps!

  3. I am the same poster as above (finally figured out the OpenID thing), and your ideas do help, immensely. Thanks! I ended up buying the Mariconda book, and hope it will help me to make things clearer for my kids. It's just a level that in high school we expect them to already know basics, so I don't have the pedagological tools to help them with it. Really appeciate the tips to get them there!!!!