How do you help kids improve their essay writing skills?
For many years, I worked on essay writing with students (I taught high school & college history) and now as a homeschooler, I’m working on essay writing skills with my own kids. I thought I would share some of writing strategies that I am using with my kids as they learn to write in this genre.
A few days ago, for example, the kids had to write about the journey that food takes through the digestive system (information that they know really well by this point). Here’s how we tackled the essay:
We talked about the essay and I gave them a paper with the essay assignment/question on it: I think this is key because as kids (or adults!) sit there pondering how to begin, they need something to refer back to. Here’s the paper they used (from the Digestive System unit):
I gave them a set amount of time. In this case, I gave the kids 30 minutes. This is important because it gives them an end point. They know they just have to get *something* down on paper. At the end, if they say, “oh I just need a few more minutes,” I always give them extra time, but I don’t want them to think of this as a research paper!
Then, we almost always read our essays aloud. In our case, we’ve been reading things aloud for the past several years in our Writing Workshop, so the kids feel comfortable sharing. This is an important step because the kids will often see spelling errors or syntax mistakes that happen just because they are working quickly! If your kids are reluctant to share their writing, you might just have them read it aloud to themselves in another room.
I ask them if they know how essays are graded? Then I give them a basic rubric of what I look for when I grade (any!) essays. This is really helpful because now after they’ve re-read their essay (and heard what their siblings wrote), they can evaluate their own essays!
1. Did you show a good understanding of the material? Is the analysis thoughtful and insightful? Do you show original thought?
2. Is the content fair, good, wonderful or superb? Do you cover the basic facts? Do you provide specific details? Do they go above and beyond, really tying in some amazing details?
In this case, I asked the kids if they talked about some of the specific details about the digestive system — offering basic facts like the length of the digestive tract? the role of villi? the fact that the small intestines are rough, but the large intestines are smooth? the role of bile, pancreatic juice and bacteria in the breakdown of food? These, I explained to the kids are good specific details.
3. Is the main idea clear? Do you have a strong, clear thesis? Is it supported throughout the essay?
4. Is the essay readable? Does it flow well?
5. Are there many grammar and spelling mistakes?
6. Was there a strong introduction that hooked the reader in?
7. How was the conclusion?
I think this next step is pretty important. I had the kids take their essays and a red/colored pen or pencil and add in any missing commas and circle any spelling mistakes. I didn’t make them write out the correct spelling (which was a huge relief to them), but just to identify the places where they had made mistakes. This is a huge step that 90% of my AP history students didn’t do until months into the class! It’s important for students to go back and proof-read their own work at least looking for the basic mistakes!
And, that was it. I did not have them re-write their essays, but had them self-evaluate their own work… which is an incredibly important skill in and of itself!!
By the way, my kids are now 10, 12 and 14. I really wouldn’t start teaching essay writing skills until middle school (on up)… unless you have a child (like my 10 year old) who wants and expects to be in the thick of things! But, I think 4th grade is a bit young for working on formal essays (my personal opinion). My main goal with her, is to enjoy writing and to use her writing skills across the curriculum (in science, in history, in our Writing Workshop).
Writing & Grammar Checklists:
As many of you know, we tend to work more on grammar and editing in the second semester. We have a ton of free grammar pages that you print out for your kids.
I made a new writing and grammar reference resource for the kids, printed them out on cardstock and put it on a key ring (like these sold at Amazon). (affiliate link)
The first checklist is a basic essay writing checklist, but the others go over some basic grammar rules (commas, capital letters, parts of speech, numbers, plurals, etc.) and some cards have lists of homophones and words to use properly.
How are we using these? I’m just sitting down with my older two and spending a five minutes or so each day going over some of the things on these cards… like making sure they remember the difference between some of the tricky homophones like principal & principle (The principal is my PAL!), etc. Plus, we’ll have it on hand as they work on editing their own essay work more and more.
These writing checklists are free if you can use them! Enjoy! ~Liesl
That’s about it for today!
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase. Thanks for your support!
Check out our FREE Grammar Worksheets – commas, quotation marks, apostrophes, semicolons, homophones and more. These two posts are a good place to start looking, we have dozens of free printables!
Middle and High School Writing/Grammar Resource: I mentioned this in another post fairly recently, but LD is using this reference book: Writers Inc, A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning. (affiliate link) It is an excellent writing resource to have an hand for writing itself.
I am having my older two read through the sections on grammar, homophones, and parts of speech — pages 487 to 549. The explanations of how to use the punctuation is excellent review for students in middle school and high school. It’s hard to rave about grammar, but this is really is a useful resource to have on hand! (You can buy it used for under $10 over at Amazon: Writers Inc.)
35-page Writing Resource Packet: 5 Tips for Helping Kids to Write – This is another free resource available here at the Homeschool Den!
Do you want to learn more about starting your own Homeschool Writing Workshop? Here are some related posts:
- Creating a Homeschool Writing Workshop – Post #1 — How/Why we needed a change in our writing program
- Creating a Homeschool Writing Workshop – Post #2: Creating a Writing Workshop Area and Materials to Have on Hand
- Creating a Writing Workshop Post #3: This post is about Mini-Lessons during writing time, mentor texts and includes reviews of 8 or 9 writing books that you might find helpful.
- Writing Resource Pack: This is a post about the 30-page pack I made for our writing workshop. Reference pages on the 6 +1 Wri ting Traits, Mini-Lessons, the types of writing, creating a powerful beginning, techniques for ending a story/paper, and so forth. (These writing resources are free to download.)
- Writing Workshop: Dr. Seuss Style: The kids and I had fun writing in the style of Dr. Seuss!
- Biography Research Paper Resource Pack
- Practical Pointers for Working with a Reluctant Writer (or any Writer)
- Writing Activity to Spark Kids’ Imagination!
- Animal Portfolio Project: writing, art and geography activities that go with any animals… With many activities to choose from. Writing activities include both fiction and non-fiction suggestions such as
- Write a speech or a letter to the president on why your animal needs protection in the wild.
- Menu: Create a humorous menu at a restaurant where your animals would like to eat.
- WWII Portfolio Project
- Writing Workshop Rules! Why the Writing Workshop continues to work so well in our homeschool.
- Free Creative Writing Paper (Mythological Creatures)
Mini-Lessons to Use in a Writing Workshop (in any order):
- Writing Workshop Mini-Lesson: Rules for Writing and the Story Writing Process — Have your kids read the Plot Chicken? We started our Writing Workshop this year off with this book. What a great buk, buk!! In fact, I liked it so much that I created a chicken writing rules printable to go along with the book!
- What makes a good book or story?
- Make your story come alive with details and description.
- Creating Interesting Characters
- Story Openings: Set the mood or feeling of your story
- Gathering story ideas from your own life
- Alliteration and more
- Adding Details Exercise Don’t miss this one, the kids LOVED this activity!!
- Writing Workshop: Conflict in Literature (Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self, etc)
- Writing Workshop Discussion Questions
- Writing Workshop Mini-Lesson: Rules for Writing and the Story Writing Process
- Writing Scary Stories
- Writing: Literacy Depth and Complexity Icons and More
See you again soon here or over at our Homeschool Den Facebook Page! Don’t forget to Subscribe to our Homeschool Den Newsletter. You might also want to check out some of our resources pages above (such as our Science, Language Arts, or History Units Resource Pages) which have links to dozens of posts. You might want to join our free Homeschool Den Chat Facebook group. Don’t forget to check out Our Store as well. Happy Homeschooling! ~Liesl