How do I support my fourteen-year-old as she learns how to write essays for school?
September 22, 2010 5:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I support my fourteen-year-old as she learns how to write essays for school?

I tend to think a little too deconstructively when working with my daughter on her junior high school writing assignments. Are there any good self help books on how to tutor kids at that age who are just starting out with essays? Specifically, how do I help her start to see the distinctions between thesis, argument and conclusion and understand how to make it all flow well and properly, without breaking her work down and sounding negative, and without doing her teacher's job for him?

Clearly these kinds of questions should be directed to her teacher (done, still awaiting a reply or invitation to meet) but I thought I'd query the hive mind anyway. Any great books or online resources for this, short of taking classes?
posted by christopherious to Education (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What helped me the most at that age was reading examples of good essays and bad essays. I had a teacher who encouraged us to proof read each other's essays, and it's a useful tool to be able to articulate why bad writing is bad or good writing is good. They probably sell books of sample essays (maybe for AP prep?), but I imagine your daughter isn't going to be interested at all in doing "unnecessary" school work at home with you. Good luck with that.
posted by phunniemee at 5:10 PM on September 22, 2010

I don't know about her school, but I wasn't taught proper outlining and argument structure until the end of my secondary education. So you could help her with that if her class isn't -- get her thinking about what a thesis is, how her points support it.

If they assign the abomination that is the "5 Paragraph" essay, help her work out her essay so that she always has three supporting points, while teaching her that in the real world, essays can have 2, 4 or even 10 supporting points.

A construtive way to get her working on theses and points would be to get her brainstorming theses before she writes, rather than criticising them later.
posted by jb at 5:12 PM on September 22, 2010

I've found that practising book reviews really helps students learn the different aspects of an essay, and how to be concise.
posted by analog at 5:20 PM on September 22, 2010

"The Lively Art of Writing" by Lucile Vaughan Payne.
posted by kindall at 5:20 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: I feel your pain! For the most part, my kids' teachers themselves didn't write very well -- I'm a writer/editor by trade and I had to restrain myself from copyediting the assignment instructions half the time. And I was especially conscious, as you seem to be, about negativity -- it took much pep-talking myself in order to be gentle and kind and to not grab that pen and slash and burn through my girls' essays. I very much concur with finding great essays to read together, and then discuss the 'strategy' the writers use. Also, encourage reading aloud (alone if she's shy) since so much is revealed that way (for all kinds of writing). I got to the point where I avoided line-editing all together, and tried to stay high-level and ask questions that helped reveal what the issues were. It's not easy, but both my girls are good writers now! Good luck.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:25 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and my girls loved Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and still refer to it as a game-changer in the way they approach writing.
posted by thinkpiece at 5:26 PM on September 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Ask her to bring you an example of what she thinks is a good essay and another example of a bad essay. (I'm hoping her textbook has some age appropriate essays with both types of examples. If not, ask the teacher if they put together a collection of student essays as some schools do. For essays written by other teenagers, you can go here. However, it's important that SHE pick both examples.) Then sit down with her and talk to her about what qualities contribute to each essay. Is the subject matter? The examples? Does she just like the author's viewpoint? While doing that see if she can do things like easily point out a thesis statement, argumentative strategies, and supporting evidence. If she can, ask how that effected her evaluation of the essay.

Don't lead her towards your interpretation of the essay. Allow her to express hers, but push her to articulate WHY she found one effective and the other not so. (Warning: students often find it easy to identify and talk about what doesn't work in an essay. They have a much harder time talking about essays they like. They tend to just say "I like it" and leave it at that.) This process of thinking about writing will help develop both her analytical reading and writing skills. Once you have talked to her about these essays (and you might want to make it an on-going game), you can use those examples to help her improve her own writing. It will give her a context for your comments.

Part of being able to write good essays is about having an effective model and a clear understanding of why that model works.
posted by miss-lapin at 5:36 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing Bird by Bird as an amazing, amazing writing book--it's more about writing creatively, things like memoir and the like, but a great tool for writers.

I teach freshman comp and I want to give you a huge hug for taking such an interest in your daughter's education and specifically her writing education; how I wish SOMEONE would have payed attention to many of the students I've had.

I'd say at this point focus on her ideas, not necessarily how grammatically correct the writing is (for now). When I proof my 17 year old sister's paper I always frame advice and criticism in the form of questions about what she's thinking: Did you mean to say this? What are you trying to say in this sentence? What are you trying to tell your reader? That sort of thing, and then we go from there.
posted by LokiBear at 5:42 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know it's cliche, but you really can't go too far wrong with Strunk & White. The Elements of Style is a good starting point for any beginning writer. If you have access to a library, the Economist Style Guide is also worth looking at.

Ultimately, I found as a kid that the more I read, the easier it became to identify examples of good and bad writing. Writing is a process like any other, and your daughter may not be happy with her initial efforts. You should impart to her that she will improve with practice. If your daughter devotes a little bit of time every day to reading well-written essays and practicing her writing, she will improve dramatically. I guarantee it.

One more thing: if the teacher is fairly conventional, you'll want to err on the side of caution when it comes to directing your daughter towards certain examples of good writing. It may be difficult for her to identify the thesis and the other elements of 'good' writing, because well-written essays are often unconventional. A lot of good writing involves 'breaking the rules', so to speak - but your daughter still should learn the rules first so she knows which ones are worth breaking in the future.

Good luck!
posted by Despondent_Monkey at 5:52 PM on September 22, 2010

Best answer: This has always been my formula for a good essay. Maybe you can create a blank sheet "outline" that she can fill in with some sort of structured sections. My suggestion for structure is below.

1. Interesting opening/hook then state your argument/hypothesis and summarize how you're going to prove it in 3 ways or more.
2. First, example 1.
3. Next, example 2.
4. Finally, example 3.
5. Summarize briefly and answer the question "So What?"
posted by thorny at 6:12 PM on September 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I remember using Writers Inc: A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning in high school and thought it cleared up a lot of things that were expected, but never really laid out by my English teachers.
posted by wsquared at 6:12 PM on September 22, 2010

I struggle with "helping" in this manner also. It's hard to persuade teens that there is a difference in how people speak vs. how they write. Good writing often sounds 'fake' to teens but they need to learn that differentiation.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:14 PM on September 22, 2010

I taught essay writing to college freshmen for 13 years, and the thing I most wished they had was experience reading. It seemed to me that it was very hard for a student to understand when a paragraph wasn't unified or a sentence was a comma splice from being given a technical explanation of what those things were; still less were they able to then fix the problem, even if I worked through examples in their papers with them one-on-one. Reading--or listening to written non-fiction--work being read via podcasts or audiobooks, I thought, might have helped those students develop an "ear."

The other thing I would say that may help you not get too negative is that, if you have a good ear and eye for writing, you might be unconsciously comparing your daughter's work to some image of professional-level writing in your head (once in a faculty session, one prof was consistently assinging the sample essays we were looking at much lower grades than the rest of us were. Finally the facilitator asked him why, and he said, "I guess it's because I've been reading E. B. White." Sorry, no. It's perfectly OK for a high school student to write like a high school student, or a college freshman to write like a college freshman). If you can develop a sense of what a high school freshman's writing is likely to be like even when it's good, it can help you focus with your daughter on those aspects of the writing that will bring her work to the level that her teachers are looking for.
posted by not that girl at 6:20 PM on September 22, 2010

Teach the five-paragraph essay. Intro, three pararagraphs, one for each point supporting the thesis, conclusion.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:22 PM on September 22, 2010

My approach (with my 10 year old) which will be admittedly much simpler work than your 14 year old, is to give her a lot of help with structuring her writing, while largely leaving her alone to develop the actual content herself (which can be easier said than done if she doesn't know where to start)
posted by singingfish at 6:42 PM on September 22, 2010

Heartily seconding all the suggestions above that you encourage her to read, read, read. Good writing and argumentation are a little like porn-- hard to define, but you know them when you see them-- and the absolute best way for her to develop that intuitive sense of what "works" and what doesn't in composition is for her to read a ton of good writing on various subjects.

Also, one practice that may help defuse tension in tutoring/feedback sessions is for you to focus as much as possible on your own authentic responses as a reader. Too much high-school composition sucks because students are taught formulae like the five-paragraph essay in isolation, as bloodless, arbitrary ideals, without understanding that all writing is meant to reach an audience and to achieve a purpose (beyond just getting an "A," of course). Thus, it may be less useful for you, as a tutor, to judge whether your daughter's writing is "right" or "good" in the abstract than to explain to her what it does or doesn't do for you, as a stand-in for her target audience. You may or may not be qualified to judge good writing, but you'll always have the authority to say that paragraphs without topic sentences confuse you, that all these generalizations leave you wanting more details, that poor spelling makes you mistrust her intellectual authority, and so forth. Let her find her own voice and make her own writerly choices, but be there as a reader to give honest feedback about what how those choices affect her audience.
posted by Bardolph at 6:51 PM on September 22, 2010

For grammar/mechanics:
Rules for Writers, Diana Hacker

For general style and revision strategies as well as specific types of writing:
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:52 PM on September 22, 2010

If they assign the abomination that is the "5 Paragraph" essay, help her work out her essay so that she always has three supporting points, while teaching her that in the real world, essays can have 2, 4 or even 10 supporting points.

The "five paragraph" essay is not an abomination in itself. The problem is the failure of some teachers to drive home the point that it isn't the be-all, end-all of essay writing. For someone in middle school/junior high, it is a perfectly acceptable, even helpful, structure. Just make sure your daughter realizes that as she improves her writing skills and becomes a more proficient essayist, she need not be bound strictly to five paragraphs.

I don't have any books to recommend in particular, but if she's having trouble seeing the difference between the thesis and the argument, you can simplify it by telling her that a thesis is basically the set-up for the rest of the essay. It's just distilling what will be discussed so the reader has an idea of what's coming. That is why the thesis goes with the intro, usually, because the intro will hook the reader (get them interested in the paper topic), then tell them what's about to come, but not as blatantly as, "Now I will talk about _____."

The thesis statement at its most basic would look similar to this completely silly made-up example: "Cats make the best pets because they are independent, intelligent, and photogenic." Her topic is "cats as pets," her overall argument is "cats make the best pets," and her next 3 paragraphs of argument should be detailed analysis of cats' independence, intelligence, and photogenic qualities. The conclusion is just a restatement of the thesis by saying, in better phrasing, "All of this demonstrates that cats do make the best pets."

As for flow, a lot of that has to do with learning how to write introductory hooks and transition statements from one subtopic to another. That takes practice, and the patience to put the pieces together in her mind -- she has to make the connections from one argument to the next before she can demonstrate them, so this may be a point at which she needs to do some extra outlining or brainstorming so she can see how things fit into the larger picture of the essay as a whole.

I suspect your daughter's teacher has provided this kind of instruction, so if you're afraid you're doing his job for him, maybe review her notes/reading assignments/handouts and go through them with her so she can see that she's already learned these basics? Then she can ask you questions or formulate questions to bring to her teacher if there's anything about which she's unclear on the process of essay writing.
posted by asciident at 7:00 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The problem is the failure of some teachers to drive home the point that it isn't the be-all, end-all of essay writing. For someone in middle school/junior high, it is a perfectly acceptable, even helpful, structure. Just make sure your daughter realizes that as she improves her writing skills and becomes a more proficient essayist, she need not be bound strictly to five paragraphs.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the five paragraph essay [which I agree, is limiting once you've mastered it] is usually the basis of essays on standardized tests. So, it's really good if your daughter can write one backwards and forwards and just DO the thing so she doesn't stress for the tests. Then have her do other stuff that's more creative and focused on enjoying writing and getting her thoughts and ideas out in ways that make sense to her.

I used to grade standardized test essays as a part time job and you can really really tell the difference between kids who at least grok the general idea and kids who don't even know how to support and argument or write a thesis-type sentence. Often I think it's useful to talk about ideas [like "kids should have dress codes in schools" and then ask "do you agree or disagree? Why?" "okay can you support the opposite perspective? What would you say?"] and then teach your daughter how you can then narrow down the large clump of ideas into one cohesie narrative. I think a lot of people think that writing is just like talking, only on paper, and it's good to get across the idea of having a piece of writing be about an idea and a sort of story arc-ish thing which means you don't have to write about everything. Teaching her to be discerning about her ideas and talking about those is a good way to not get into the nitpicky rightness or wrongness of specific grammar and spelling issues.
posted by jessamyn at 7:14 PM on September 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As you mention, since you're a parent, it can be easy to lapse into the role of critic when it comes to your teen's writing, but what writers need more than judges are actual readers who can take their ideas and texts seriously and respond in a supportive, thoughtful manner. The chapters in this book deal with strategies for responding to the work of developing writers as a reader, and by doing so prompting them to take seriously the range of concerns that go into good writing.
posted by 5Q7 at 7:28 PM on September 22, 2010

This former college English instructor is also a firm believer in the 5-paragraph essay. Most of my students wanted me to teach them how to write decent college-level essays, not become avant-garde literary masters, so a little structure was very helpful to them. Your daughter will be able to focus on the assignment, on the dates and examples and facts and grammar and such, rather than worrying about the overall structure of the essay, and she'll be able to get it done in a class period. Once she has all that down, she can do something more creative. I taught hundreds (thousands?) of kids how to write this way. It's a standard because it works.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:36 PM on September 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For examples of good essays: google George Orwell Essays. Fourteen may be a bit too soon, but not for a smart fourteen.

For essay structure I like the tripod:

1) describe the subject clearly
2) give your personal opinion
3) relate it to a broader context
posted by ovvl at 7:44 PM on September 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think that the tricky part is not understanding the concept of the topic statement/supporting statements/conclusion, which we learn in elementary school after all, it's figuring out how to re-contextualize a topic into an argument.

Not to pick on asciident's actual point whatsoever, but I remember being frustrated by what seemed like endless variations on the "Cats make the best pets because they are independent, intelligent, and photogenic." type of examples. My fourteen-year-old self said yeah, great, but my assignment is to talk about this novel that we read, that's just a wee bit more complex than "I like cats." And the teacher already said that our papers shouldn't just be our opinions? So...uh...what am I supposed to do again?

I was lucky enough to have a great teacher who met with me during lunchtime and helped me learn to brainstorm and then turn the brainstorming into a rough outline. So, he'd ask me to start thinking out loud about what I found most inspiring about [subject], and then he'd give the aha! when a theme emerged, and then would give me the ahem! when I had identified something that supported my thesis, and so forth, until I got the knack. (Thanks, Mr. Bowers.)
posted by desuetude at 8:23 PM on September 22, 2010

The other thing to keep in mind is that the five paragraph essay [which I agree, is limiting once you've mastered it] is usually the basis of essays on standardized tests.

This is not true in the US. The SAT essay, for example, works best with a four-paragraph structure. AP humanities and social science essays are unburdened by paragraph restrictions. A great AP Lit essay, for example, will usually be 6-9 paragraphs.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:13 PM on September 22, 2010

The five-paragraph essay was a tremendous asset for me throughout high school because the format lends itself to outlining.

1. What's my thesis?
2. What are my three (or more; teachers rarely wanted fewer) supporting points?
3. What are my examples from the text to support my points?

Using this structure let me concentrate more on the writing itself, because I was always able to refer back to the point I was making in order to check if I was really making that point or not. It also freed me up to argue my own ideas, because I felt on safe ground as long as I could back my points from the text.

As far as helping distinguish between thesis, argument and conclusion, what I learned was that the thesis was the Big Idea, and the argument was "Here's why I believe my Big Idea". The introduction states the thesis and briefly states what the argument will be. The body is the argument. The conclusion brings the reader back to the thesis.
posted by epj at 12:36 PM on September 23, 2010

This is not true in the US.

Yes sorry I should have been much clearer. My experience as a grader for essays was the CAHSEE and to a lesser extent some other state aptitude test which I have somehow forgotten. However, these tests were the "can you graduate high school" tests in California and they basically required the five paragraph style [though you could expand to six or tighten to four]. The trick with standardized essays is that they need to be gradeable, by humans, in under a minute or two. They'd prefer that they were entirely gradeable by machine but that's not totally possible. So you look for very specific things that are outlined and arguably "qualitative" but realistically one of those things is whether students understand essay structure and how to make an argument with an essay or how to support a conclusion. There are a few outstanding writers who can make this sort of thing work outside of the standard form, but for the most part, you see kids who either can't make an argument at all, or know how to argue a point but can't really write an essay.

So, sorry for the slightly sideways comment, but in some standardized tests in the US being able to write a five-paragraph-style essay is critical (from my perspective as someone who graded them for several years) and in others there may be more leeway.
posted by jessamyn at 1:00 PM on September 23, 2010

One block I had to get over myself and then help my students get over when I taught high school history was the idea that I had to personally care about my argument.

Before analytical essays are introduced in middle/high school, most students' in-school writing experience is based on their personal experiences and opinions. This is especially true when schools/teachers try to achieve "relevance" to students, sometimes at the expense of building a foundation in actual content and analysis. Then when students get to middle/high school and have to write analytical essays, they think they are supposed to have a personal investment in questions like, "To what extent could the American Revolution be considered revolutionary?" And they get stuck.

Once I figured out that analytical essays only had to be what I could PROVE as opposed to what I cared about, they were so much easier to do. And my students found this to be true as well.

In terms of process, this means that sometimes the best approach was to work on the body first. Brainstorm several possible points, look for examples/evidence to prove each one, and then pick the strongest three (or however many) to write about. Then, knowing what you plan to argue, it's a heck of a lot easier to write the thesis.

So to help your daughter, release her from the obligation to care and free her to simply prove. Just as others have pointed out, show her that good essays can be five-paragraph or four-paragraph or whatever. And tell her that she can attack the essay from different sides-- thesis then body or body then thesis. Whatever works for her so that she has a well-organized and proven argument at the end.
posted by scarnato at 4:50 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

They Say, I Say is a neat little book that establishes templates for writing, such as how you introduce a piece of evidence and then explain it, how you shift from a summary to a response, the types of responses, etc. (An example would be, "While _____ argues _____, others like _____ disagree and say _____. In my opinion, _____." The fill-in-the-blank parts can be as long or as short as you need to properly explain yourself.) I'm a big fan of the template method, both for learning how to write your own essays and how to identify the structure of other things you read. We recently used it in my graduate teaching assistant class for how to help undergrads write, but it's aimed at high schoolers. It may or may not be helpful for the types of essays she's writing now but it will certainly be a great resource down the line.
posted by lilac girl at 5:40 PM on September 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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