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10 Tips for Teaching the Art of Essay Writing

Do you have a home-schooled student in middle or high school? If you do, you know that it can be a frightening time when algebra and chemistry start to make a daily appearance in your and your child’s life (yikes!) In many cases, this is when school begins to transition into a more independent learning format or to incorporate online programs. While the kind of self-teaching this requires can be good preparation for adulthood, what about when it comes to college-preparatory writing? Your older student will need to know how to research, organize, and compose persuasive essays and research papers (not to mention college application essays). While some students may be able to independently learn the rules of math or grammar, becoming an effective essay writer is a little more involved; it’s a process that may need a little extra guidance from you!

10 tips for teaching the art of essay writing

Teaching high school writing may sound scary, but it doesn’t have to be. The most important things to teach an older student about writing essays is how to think about what she reads, organize evidence in a way that makes sense, and accept the fact that the first draft is never (ever) perfect! With these basics in mind, here are my top 10 “Dos” for creating an effective writing process with your home-schooler.

Before Writing…. disclaimer

1. Do demonstrate different types of writing. Think simple. If you haven’t before, explaining the basic difference between expository and persuasive writing may be plenty to begin with. Expository writing presents the facts. This includes science lab reports, written biographies on historical figures, or book summaries. Persuasive writing, however, deals more with subjective ideas and a writer’s ability to support those ideas with facts. This is the kind of writing needed for literature papers, SAT essays, and college applications. A basic understanding of the differences between these two types of writing lays the groundwork for most essay assignments in your student’s future. Read several examples and talk with your student. What does he think about each? What main differences does she notice?

2. Do practice reading with an eye for possible paper topics. If you are reading a work of literature together, it’s okay to overview some of the themes your student can look for before reading even begins. While you may not want your student to rely on pre-teaching, it can be helpful as a starting point with a first literary essay. For instance, if you are reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter with your student and plan to use it for a first essay, go over some possible topics that are relevant to the novel–identity, purity, gender roles, etc. As your student reads, have him jot down page numbers for any relevant examples to each topic. This will inspire some ideas for writing and help him learn how to read with an essay in mind.

3. Do define the difference between topic and thesis. A good approach is to explain the difference between topic and thesis in a very simple way: a “topic” is the general subject that an essay will explore whereas a “thesis” is the specific argument, often persuasive, that will be made in the essay. To practice, choose a general and simple topic like, “ice cream” or “smartphones.” Have your student write a strong topic sentence, sharing her specific opinion related to that topic. Have her write it in a complete sentence, followed by a few reasons she believes her argument to be true (a practice thesis and supporting evidence). While simple, activities like this can be a great way to introduce the difference between topic and thesis.

4. Do practice developing a clear thesis sentences and paper organization with your student. Once your student has chosen a topic and sits down to outline an essay, the first thing he needs to do is write the thesis. It needs to be well thought out, clear and specific, so it may need to be reworked a few times. Once the thesis is written, there are a variety of different ways he can practice outlining the essay around it. I like to use 3 different colors of note-cards or post-its and write the thesis sentence on one color, the main supporting points on another color, and the details that belong with the supporting points on a third color. Arranging the finished cards on the floor or a table in the right order can provide a really helpful visual for students.

5. Do practice these organizational, outlining, and research skills together. It’s okay if you feel like you’re doing all of this together with your student, especially for middle schoolers or high schoolers who have never written an essay before. The preceding tips are all about the planning stages of writing an essay. Once you feel that your student has a handle on how to plan an essay, it’s time to let her stretch her wings during the actual writing.

During Writing and Editing…

6. Do let her write that first draft by herself, and do let her make mistakes. It’s okay! That’s the point of practice and revision.

7. Do have your child type out his first full draft when he’s written it. This makes revision easier and is good practice for typing skills. Sidenote: there are several free programs online where your child can learn the correct fingers for each key to improve typing skills.

8. Do encourage your student to print out a copy of the first draft (and subsequent ones) and read it aloud, pen in hand. See how many mistakes he or she can spot independently. Often we naturally skim over our own errors when we read silently off a computer screen, and sometimes it just takes a physical copy and reading aloud to catch those mistakes.

9. Do lend a helping hand in the editing stage. After your child has caught several things to tweak on his or her own, then you can feel free to jump in there and offer your thoughts as well. Every parent will do this differently, but it’s important to find that balance between too much feedback and not enough. The great thing about homeschooling is that you intimately know your own child well enough to determine what will be helpful and constructive versus what will be overwhelming or discouraging.

10. Do make separate assignments of at least two drafts–a rough draft and a final draft. Personally, I think that multiple drafts are even better!

As you’ve probably noticed, these are all “dos,” but there aren’t any “don’ts.” This is based on some personal experience. My mom homeschooled me, and while she was a great writer and teacher (and a kind person), her inductive approach to teaching me would probably be considered a “don’t,” for most students. When I was 12, she asked me to read Moby Dick and write a research paper on it! I had never even written a literary essay before, but I tried my best. Then she “graded” it; I was pretty much devastated to see all of the red marks on my carefully written pages. Afterwards, she proceeded to teach me how to write a paper.

While I’m pretty sure I will never teach my own children to write by this method, it did help me to become a better writer because of how she followed through. Even though my mom committed a possible teaching “don’t,” there were many “dos” that came out of it–how to read with a topic in mind, how to write a thesis, how to take constructive feedback, how to edit. These have helped me as a student and a teacher over the years. The point is, as a homeschooling parent, it’s ultimately your caring dedication that will help your students learn an effective writing process –even if you occasionally mess up.


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One Comment

  1. Thank you my dear for this tips and info in general!
    I am freelance writer, so such kind of advices are helpful for me. I need to write a long essay about “Bullying in school” and I am not imagine how to write it up to this point, until I read your article.

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