Writing essays is a skill that will serve kids well throughout their lives. Knowing how to present facts and opinions in an interesting, understandable way is valuable in all sorts of situations.
Unfortunately, the trend today is to focus on something called the "Five Paragraph Essay." This fill-in-the-blank style of writing has one main goal -- training students to write essays that are easy to mark in the classroom and on standardized tests.
As a homeschooling parent, you can help your children learn to produce informational writing that is meaningful and alive. Here are some tips:
The Problem with the "Five Paragraph Essay"
In the real world, people write essays to inform, to persuade, and to entertain. The Five Paragraph Essay lets you do that -- but only in a limited way.
The structure of the Five Paragraph Essay consists of:
- An introductory paragraph that states the point to be made.
- Three paragraphs of exposition that each lay out one point of the argument.
- A conclusion that sums up the essay's content.
For beginning writers, this formula can be a good starting place. The Five Paragraph Essay can help young students get beyond the one-paragraph page, and encourage them to come up with multiple facts or arguments.
But past fifth grade or so, the Five Paragraph Essay becomes an obstacle to good writing. Instead of learning to develop and vary their arguments, students remain stuck in the same old formula.
According to Chicago Public School English teacher Ray Salazar, "The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless."
SAT Prep Trains Students to Write Badly
The SAT essay format is even worse. It values speed over accuracy and depth of thought. Students are conditioned to turn out large amount of words quickly, rather than to take the time to present their arguments well.
Ironically, the Five Paragraph Essay works against the SAT essay format. In 2005, Les Perelman of MIT found that he could predict the score on an SAT essay solely on the basis of how many paragraphs it contained. So to get a top score of six, a test taker would have to write six paragraphs, not five.
Teaching Informational Writing
Don't feel you need to assign your children school-type writing projects. Real-life writing is often more valuable and more meaningful to them. Suggestions include:
- Keep a journal. Many kids enjoy keeping a journal or notebook to capture their thoughts. It can be something to share with you (some teachers use journals to communicate with their students; you can do the same) or a private record. Either way provides useful writing practice.
- Write a review. Ask your kids to review their favorite books, video games, movies, restaurants -- the list is endless. Unlike most school-type reports, reviews have to be written with the audience in mind, and they have to be entertaining. They also help kids learn to express opinions and present valid arguments to the reader.
- Do a research paper. Give your kids' essay-writing a purpose by integrating it into the history or science they're already covering. Let them choose topics that interest them, and explore it in depth. Writing research papers also gives students practice in evaluating and crediting source material.
Essay Writing Resources
"How to Write an Essay: 10 Easy Steps". This hyperlinked guide by writer Tom Johnson is a particularly easy-to-follow explanation of essay-writing techniques for tweens and teens. It is available for free on the website of the American University in Cairo, Egypt and in printable form on Scribd.
Purdue OWL. Purdue University's Online Writing Lab contains sections on the writing process, how to understand an assignment, grammar, language mechanics, visual presentation and more.