Essay-writing made easy

For many children, writing is a big challenge.  The skill has many facets, and beginning writers can very easily feel overwhelmed by all that is involved, even to produce an essay of only a few paragraphs.

Yesterday a friend asked what we use for a writing curriculum.   ‘Umm….nothing?’ was my first thought.  But once I explained to her what we did, I realized I’m more organized than I first thought.  I decided to share my approach here, in case others are looking for a writing program that is simple, free, and (judging by my college kids’ grades) reasonably effective.

I usually begin essay-writing with kids around 6th or 7th grade, and aim for a simple 5-paragraph essay format: ie, an intro paragraph of 2-3 sentences, a conclusion paragraph of 2-3 sentences, and at least three subtopic paragraphs in the body of the essay, consisting of 4-6 sentences each.  An essay like this usually ends up being about a page, or somewhere in the range of 250-300 words. We spend only half an hour a day on writing, so most of the time it takes kids about 3 weeks to produce a one-page essay.  Slow and steady wins the race.

Here’s how I break it down:

Week #1Fact finding (30 min a day)

Sometimes I let kids pick their own essay topics, but often I simply assign something, usually related to history or to the world around us.  (Examples:  U.S. presidents, countries, sport heroes, animals, plants, etc.)  I usually choose topics about which we own at least a couple of books so that we don’t have to go to the library.   Kids sit down with 2-3 source books that I select, one usually being an encyclopedia, and read everything available on the topic.  Sometimes I also print off internet articles.    As they read, they write down 20 ‘fact’ sentences in their own words.  This process takes several days.

Week #2 –Rough draft (30 min a day)

  • Examine the ’20 facts’ list for themes, the goal being to make three main topic paragraphs. An essay about Abraham Lincoln might contain paragraphs such as:  birth and childhood, adulthood and family, presidency and Civil War.  The first couple times kids do this, they’ll need help grouping facts into logical categories.   I always ask my kids to show me their paragraph ideas before they begin writing their rough draft.
  • Once they choose three topic paragraphs, label each ‘fact’ sentence with a 1, 2 or 3, depending on which topic-paragraph it will best fit. A few sentences may be discarded if they don’t fit any of the topic paragraphs. A couple others can be used in either the intro or conclusion.
  • Write logical intro and conclusion paragraphs, usually using a fact or two.
  • Rewrite ‘fact’ sentences by paragraph in a logical order. Often chronological order works well, but kids don’t automatically understand that, so be sure to remind them of this tip.

Week #3 -Polishing (30 min a day)

  • Have the child read his first draft to himself listening for missing words and grammar errors.  Reading OUT LOUD really helps point out grammar and missing words, even to kids for whom English is a second language.
  • Then he should read it again, asking himself if someone who knows NOTHING about this topic would understand his explanation of it.  Is the flow logical?  Are all the facts there? They may need to rearrange details, or add a sentence to tell a story completely. For example, if the story is about a president, INCLUDE what the president did during his presidency. (This seems logical to a parent, but it doesn’t always occur to a kid).  Older kids can be encouraged to work on smooth transitions from one paragraph to the next, though I don’t worry too much about transitions until they have a year or so of essay-writing under their belts.
  • Once the child feels like the essay reads smoothly, he should check for punctuation, capitals, and correct spelling.  Then it is time to rewrite essay and bring it to mom for feedback.
  • Rewrite neatly again, incorporating mom’s suggestions. Type the essay in a word document on the computer. Show it to mom once again, then print it out for school records.

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These are VERY basic short essays. But they let kids practice essential writing skills needed for more involved writing projects later in high school and on into college.  One additional note:  avid readers tend to be better writers.   So no matter what else is going on in their lives, keep them reading!!

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  1. I’m a middle school Language Arts teacher and I LOVE your process and suggestions. Never thought of the categorization quite like you described and it seems less restrictive/scary to kids who fear the blank page. Thank you for sharing!

  2. As a former high school English teacher and current college writing teacher, I approve this message. 🙂

  3. Love the idea that you have your children writing, period. If things continue the way they are in most public schools, we are going to have generation after generation who will be able to write (using pen and paper) their name and simple sentences but beyond that- they will have to have a computer.
    Parents of public schooled children are going to have to step up to the plate and be sure their children KNOW how to write and this might have to be done after regular school hours. Your process is a great one to follow if someone has no ideas on how to proceed.
    You’re right, this is a wonderful process to prepare them for the thousands of papers they will have to write for the college years.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. We’re not quite up to essay writing yet (my daughter is only 6), but I am definitely noting this procedure for the time we’ll need it.

  5. any suggestions for a 4th grader who has atrocious handwriting and absolutely HATES any writing assignment? He’s much better at typing.

    • I have an 8th grader who was in that boat for years who is currently pecking out a whole story on the computer just for fun. Sometimes it takes awhile for them to get more comfortable with writing. I usually have kids do school writing assignments out long-hand before they type them onto the computer. But I think with so many folks using the computer these days, bad handwriting is not a huge deal.

  6. girlsmama says:

    Thank you Mary! My 5th grader (in public school) has just started this process. Her teacher has approached it very similarly based on what DD has told me. It’s so nice to have it spelled out this way. I feel like I can assist DD much more effectively now. Thanks again!

  7. Thank you! A straight forward approach that makes logical sense and is methodical.

  8. Homeschooling for 13 years and I’ve never come across such a simple plan. I LOVE your 20 facts ideas and numbering them. My 10, 11, 12, & 14 year olds may love writing yet….thanks!

  9. Thanks so much for this!! I’ve been struggling with how to teach my kids to write essays and I haven’t found a book or system that works. Going to try this with my 7th grade son for his science report this quarter.

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