Help for homeschoolers: High school writing

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As a veteran homeschooling parent with twenty successful years of experience, plus work as a writer and editor, I sometimes get calls from parents whose teenage children need help writing. What I concentrate on when I tutor this age group is mastery of a basic, five-paragraph essay. If your child knows how to properly organize and construct this type of paper by the time he graduates, he will be well on his way to academic success in college. There is a simple, almost mathematical formula for constructing such an essay. If your child follows these steps and applies my top two tips, success is only a matter of time: Know the material;  jot down whatever comes to mind, otherwise known as freewriting; create an outline; draft a strong thesis statement and solid topic sentences; pay attention to organization and flow; and rewrite if necessary.

If the student is new to essay writing, it is best to first assign descriptive or narrative essays that are based on personal experience. These don’t require research, so a bibliography is unnecessary. A descriptive essay can simply be about which restaurant makes the best pizza, and a narrative essay can be about the student’s best or worst day. Since the subject matter is familiar, the actual writing and structure of the paper become the focal points, so the teacher or tutor will more easily see where help is needed, if any.

If the student is writing a paper that requires some research, such as an argumentative essay, then he needs to keep a list of all his sources so that he can give credit in footnotes and in the bibliography. It is best to assign this more difficult type of essay after the basic structure and organization of the simpler ones mentioned in the previous paragraph have been mastered.

Once the subject matter has been decided and the research, if any, has been completed, the student should write down all the ideas that come to mind about the topic. This is called freewriting because the writer jots down everything that comes to mind, with no concern at this stage about language rules. From these notes, the student should be able to cull at least three strong points which will form the body of the essay. A basic rule-of-thumb for the standard five-paragraph essay is that there should be three supporting points, or topic sentences, for the thesis statement.

The next step is one that most students dislike more than anything else, even though its importance cannot be overstated: creating an outline. Students hate this step because they view it as unnecessary work—and a lot of work at that. This view is incorrect because, even though it may be difficult and perhaps time-consuming, a completed outline actually ends up saving the writer time. An outline helps the writer stay on track and keeps him from forgetting any important points. Everything that he considers pertinent, even if it is only in note form, should be on the outline, so that the ideas are readily visible as he checks and double-checks to make sure that nothing is forgotten. So many students tell me that they don’t know where to begin or what to write, so they end up doing nothing until they panic at the last minute and just dive in to write the essay. They may stay up all or most of the night before the paper’s due, and then they end up coming for help after getting a bad grade in hopes that they won’t make the same mistake the next time.  While I would never condone procrastination, if these same students had at least been following an outline, they should have been able to stay on track, always returning to the points they intended to make, instead of heading off on lots of irrelevant rabbit trails. The situation just mentioned is quite common, but can be very easily remedied with just a bit of discipline.

The thesis statement, which is always found in the introductory paragraph — usually at the end — is the most important sentence of the entire essay. It clearly states the position the writer is taking on the chosen topic, and because it is a position, it is one that could be debated. The writer backs up his thesis statement with sub-points or topic sentences, which are always the first sentence of each body paragraph. The topic sentences directly support the thesis statement and are themselves proven by the supporting sentences, which comprise the remainder of each body paragraph. Most teachers expect no less than three supporting sentences in each body paragraph.

The introduction is, in some ways, the most important paragraph of the whole essay because it is at the very beginning that the writer will either capture or lose the interest of the reader. Therefore, the student should not only have a catchy title that will make the reader want to look at his introduction, but he must also draw the reader in right at the beginning. Some students like to ask questions to start off their essays; this is a good approach if not overdone.

The conclusion is the easiest paragraph to write. In it, the writer can either restate the thesis and/or add some new, concluding thoughts. The bulk of the work has been done when it’s time to start on the conclusion, so new essayists need not be intimidated by this part. Simply tie up the loose ends and add a final thought.

Two important things to consider as the student is getting ready to do the actual writing are organization and flow. The order of the essay must follow the order presented in the thesis statement. For example, the supporting point that is mentioned first in the thesis statement is the one that will form the topic sentence of the first body paragraph, and so on. In addition, transitional words and phrases help the reader move from one idea, sentence, or paragraph to the next. These are words and phrases such as “in addition,” “furthermore,” and “then.” There are many more, so there is no excuse for being repetitive.

The two best tips that I tell all my students are to leave enough time before the assignment is due to have the luxury of being able to put it down for a full twenty-four hours before doing a final proofreading, and to always read the essay out loud, even if no one else can hear, because words that are overused will be much more noticeable, as will other mistakes.

Writing competently is the least that is expected of every high school graduate, and it is a minimum requirement for college success. If you are unsure of your child’s capability or of your own ability to assist them in this area, I highly recommend that you seek outside help from a writing tutor. Sometimes, only three or four sessions are all that is needed to get a student on the right track.