Learning to Write Essays Without Calling it an Essay

I’ve struggled with timing. I never know when to teach essay writing. The Tornado is eight, and while she writes blog posts and journal entries, the concept of essay writing seemed a bit daunting. But, she kept asking me how to write one and, because I am trying to incorporate more child-led learning into our homeschooling, I agreed.

Years ago when I was a high school teacher, I discovered that children have a natural aversion to writing essays. They seem to freeze in fright with the mere mention of the word, and the results very rarely reflect their skill or knowledge. So I decided to avoid calling what we were going to do an essay. I only said that we were going to answer some questions. That meant saving my favorite essay graphic organizer, the Hamburger, for a later date.

The Tornado has been reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Her interest in Greek Mythology mirrors my own, so I’m happy to discuss these books with her. A few days ago she asked me why people think that girls are weak. That prompted a discussion about the stereotypes that society places on boys and girls. And that led to a comparison between our world and that of Riordan’s- a perfect opportunity for an essay.

The following is a six-part lesson, and in this post, I’ll be presenting parts 1-3. I may add parts 4-6 in the future.

Part 1- Pre-Planning

venn-diagram
Our Venn Diagram

 

The first step is to ask a question that you will answer.  DO NOT say that you will be writing an essay. NEVER refer to what you are doing as an essay until the end of part 3.

We began with:

“What are the differences and similarities in the portrayal of boys and girls in Rick Riordan’s society and how we perceive boys and girls in our own?”

The goal is if you are working with younger children, to keep it straightforward and easy to answer. And it helps if you have previously discussed this with your child.

Next, we create a visual comparison to represent our thoughts. For our lesson, we compared Our Society vs. Rick Riordan’s. We used a hand-drawn Venn Diagram, but you can download one here.

Some things to keep in mind when doing a Venn Diagram are:

  • Spelling does not count. Venn Diagraming is a low-stakes activity, and your child should focus only on getting her thoughts down on paper, not on spelling.
  • Use bulleted-notetaking form. Do not worry about sentence structure or grammar- just the thoughts.
  • Dig deeper! The Tornado began by saying things like, “Girls like pink and boys don’t.” Rather than stopping here, I helped her discover the IDEAS behind the colors– that pink is warm and blue is cold- that girls are soft and boys are hard. Don’t allow your child to stop at the surface. Dig deeper.

All About SpellingOnce the Venn Diagram is complete, discuss it. Look for ways to expand upon ideas and flesh out the root of the ideas. It is important that your child understand the differences and similarities between the items that she is comparing.

Part 2 – Writing Sentences

When we break down the steps to writing an essay, the most fundamental tool is the ability to write a complete sentence. Children can be overwhelmed by the thought of writing an essay. There are paragraphs, sentences, and more. So, let’s me it easy and focus on writing one or two sentences.

For our purposes, I came up with five sentences as a throwback to the “an essay is five paragraphs” mantra of English teachers everywhere. We will have six questions but did not include that on my list because it is the conclusion.

My questions were simple:

  1. Does Rick Riordan’s world (books) reflect the same stereotypes of boys and girls within our society?
  2. What are some stereotypes of boys in our society?
  3. What are some stereotypes of girls in our society?
  4. How are boys portrayed in Rick Riordan’s books?
  5. How are girls portrayed in Rick  Riordan’s books?

We placed each question in a box on our chart [download here], and The Tornado answered them by pulling things off of her Venn Diagram and putting them into sentences. Now, you must be strict here and ensure that your child is writing complete sentences with proper punctuation and form. Help with vocabulary too so that your child can see complex words in use. Obviously, you want them to understand the meanings, but it’s nice to have a thesaurus handy so that they can find better words to describe their thoughts. Remember this is not just about copying from the Venn Diagram. You are creating arguments and setting up examples.

venntosentences
Ignore the grammatical issues with my questions. But this is our sentence chart.

Part 3 – Putting it All together

And this is where the essay starts to take form. All we are doing in part is combining the sentences into a paragraph. It will probably be a rather long paragraph, but that’s OK. I call it a mini-essay and once it has been written out, you can celebrate the joy of finishing the first essay.

In her Writing Journal, we wrote the overreaching questions at the top of the page and then she rewrote her sentences below. The only rules were that she had to indent the first paragraph, use proper punctuation, and spelling counts. I asked her to take her time to see how the sentences connect and the ideas flow.

comparing-contrasting-essay
Putting all the sentences together to create a mini-essay.

Notice that I re-worded our question again so that it was a little more complex. I wanted Mya to see that we could as the same questions in multiple ways and that changing how we ask a question can help to expand on ideas. As she was rewriting her sentences, she stopped several times to share her thoughts and ask questions that were sparked by her rereading the questions.


 

The three parts took us two days to complete. Here are some tips to make it easier for you:

  • Don’t call this an essay. No seriously!
  • Choose a topic in which your child is interested.
  • Make sure that YOU are not the focus of the lesson. Your child needs to control the topic selection.
  • You are the guide- so guide. Don’t be afraid to pull answers out of your child. Do n’t hesitate to put him back on track if he veers off. And don’t be scared to share your thoughts. Remember you are teaching your child HOW to think regarding writing an essay.
  • Do as little or as much as your can. Don’t be afraid to continue if it is going well. And don’t be afraid stop if it is not working. You may need to work on doing multiple Venn Diagrams on different topics daily until your child is more comfortable with it.
  • You are trying to spark a discussion! So talk to your child and let her speak to you. Share ideas. Answer and ask questions. For help with, questions, use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help form higher-level thinking questions.
  • Have fun because learning should be FUN!

 

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One comment

  1. I like this idea for my son who will be 8 soon. This may even work as an alternative for my older daughter who is gifted writer, but like your daughter despises the idea of the essay. Thanks for this idea!!

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