Helping Your Students Tackle Essay-Length Writing Assignments
All experienced teachers have watched their students, essay topic in hand, sit in front of a blank sheet of paper for an entire period without producing anything, claiming over and over again, “I can’t figure out how to get started,” or “I can’t think of anything to write!” We tend to blame their sudden case of writer’s block on a lack of desire rather than a lack of ability or preparation. After all, if a kid can text all day long, he or she can certainly write four or five paragraphs.
Accept the Fact that it’s Hard for Most Students to Get an Essay Started
Most English teachers enjoy writing, or, at the very least, tolerate it well enough to do it successfully. It’s always something of a challenge to understand that other folks may not like the same things we like, so we expect other people to like to write also. But the fact is, most students dislike writing anything more than a few sentences. And when you start talking about essays, that dislike becomes something more like unbridled hatred.
Over the years, I have come to believe my students when they say they can’t get started or think of anything to write about. As hard as it is for me to understand, ideas don’t just pop into everybody’s head and find their way down to their pen or pencil or keyboard. It’s going to be awhile before most students are going to reach the point where they can just sit down and write without going through some agony first.
Teach them an Effective Prewriting Process
So, before actually assigning any essays in class, help jumpstart the process by teaching them how to set up their essays ahead of time with a simple pre-writing form. This form should include several sections: topic, brainstorming (at least ten ideas), a plan for each paragraph, and the essay title. Below is the one I use. You might want to modify it to suit your own taste, but the basic idea should work for anybody. I am limited with my formatting options here, but you can make this look better yourself.
Essay Prewriting Form
Brainstorm (what are the first ten things that pop into your head when you think about the topic)
Paragraph Plan (Briefly describe what each paragraph will be about. You may use topic sentences if you wish.)
1. Opening sentence (this is your “hook”):
2. Topic sentence:
3. Topic sentence:
4. Topic sentence:
5. Concluding “echo” (restate your hook):
Essay Title (make your audience want to read your essay):
Believe it or not, that's it. You'd be surprised how many teachers try to get students to write by putting a topic on the board and saying, "Okay, get to work," without giving them a chance to do a little basic planning.
The trick is to insist that students always complete this form in its entirety. It is easy for students to claim that they can only think of four or five things to include in their brainstorming section, but that’s just because they haven’t tried hard enough yet. The act of completing this form will improve students’ writing by forcing them to come up with new ideas and making them better at organizing their thoughts. It works, I promise, but you have to stick to your guns and make students do the whole thing.
I’ve found that an effective procedure is to have the students prewrite on one day and write the essay the next day. That way they can help each other come up with ideas before they have the pressure of producing the actual essay. Just make sure you collect the prewriting sheets the first day, or you can count on a lot of them magically disappearing before the class meets again.
This Really Works . . . With Practice
Here’s a helpful hint: Assign the prewriting sheet on a few topics several times before you have students use it with an actual essay assignment. In fact, do the first one together as a class. This will help eliminate a lot confusion and most of the questions that students would normally ask when doing something new. If you want to do the ultimate in preparation, give students a handout with a completed prewrite on one side and the essay that goes with it on the back. Hole punch it for them so they’ll stick right in their notebook. Many students will now use this as reference when the time comes to write their own material.
Once they become familiar with this prewriting process, their ability to organize thoughts into an effective essay will improve tremendously (they may not admit this, but it’s true). Most students, after enough practice, begin to automatically arrange their thoughts in terms of the prewriting sheet before they even write anything down. That’s a skill that will serve them well for the remainder of their educational (and sometimes professional) lives.