Nailing An Elementary Essay: Show That Paper Who's "BOSS"

 photo credit: flickr user Corey Holms

photo credit: flickr user Corey Holms

Kids groan when they hear that they're being assigned an essay. Visions of blurred words and sweat-drenched faces come to their minds. They imagine biting their nails to the quick as they try to come up with something impossibly smart and creative to say. They worry about word choice. They stress about sentences. They agonize about organizing. Essays can certainly cramp a kid's style.

They don't need to.

You can help your child prepare to score as high as she can on an essay with a few simple tricks. But first, you need to know what's expected of her.

Essay Expectations Per Grade Level

So, how do you know what your kid should be able to do? Should she be using transitions in first grade? What's the difference between a great essay for a seven-year-old and a great essay for a ten-year-old?

Those questions are easily answerable by a little thing called a standard.

In general, standards are a framework designed to guide school districts as they write curriculum; they're goals that explain what most kids should be able to do in every subject area by the time they complete a grade level.

Specifically, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a nation-wide group of these goals used in school districts from Washington to Florida. There are eight states in the country (Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) that haven't adopted the CCSS, so they have their own state standards by which they ascertain students' academic success. 

Here are the basic Common Core expectations for writing an informative/explanatory text per grade. If your state doesn't use these, check out your education department's website.

Kindergarten: Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.

1st Grade: Write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure.

2nd Grade: Write informative/explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, and provide a concluding statement or section.

3rd Grade: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. Introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension. Develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details. Use linking words and phrases (e.g., alsoanotherandmorebut) to connect ideas within categories of information. Provide a concluding statement or section.

4th Grade: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. Introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension. Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic. Link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., anotherfor examplealsobecause). Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic. Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.

5th Grade: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly. Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension. Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic. Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrastespecially). Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic. Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.

 6th Grade: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. Introduce a topic; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension. Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples. Use appropriate transitions to clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts. Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic. Establish and maintain a formal style. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the information or explanation presented.

Obviously, as the grades progress, the writing standards evolve as well! 

 Show That Essay Who's "BOSS"

 Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. That's where the idea of being the "boss" comes from. If your child can remember this handy acronym when she is composing her essay, she'll nail it every time, no matter the grade level.

B: BRAINSTORM

O: ORGANIZE

S: SUPPORT

S: SKIM

B is for BRAINSTORM

Before any good writer puts his or her pencil to paper, he or she needs to get some ideas flowing first. Brainstorming is the act of writing a bunch of ideas about the topic or prompt in order to have a pool of information from which to choose when organizing and writing the essay. It only takes a couple minutes and can actually save your child time; she won't be forced to come up with things to say in the middle of the essay because she'll have thought of them prior.

Suppose your child receives this prompt, an opinion essay topic for 5th grade from Houghton Mifflin:

Some people think that watching television is a waste of time. Other people think that watching television can be valuable. What are some of the benefits of watching television?

If your child Brainstorms, she could come up with a quick list like this:

  • teaches you and parents things (cooking, fixing stuff, counting, other countries)
  • you can learn how to be nice to people
  • family time
  • it's relaxing
  • cheap fun
  • weather

For a first or second-grader, her brainstorm lists could even be comprised of one or two words to shorten writing time:

  •  learn things - nice, weather, countries
  •  relax
  •  family time

From here, we move on to the next letter.

O is for ORGANIZE

Once your child has brainstormed a list of ideas for the topic, she can quickly get those ideas organized by following this mini-outline:

            Introduction of topic

            Idea 1

            Idea 2

            Idea 3

            Conclusion

If she examines her brainstorming, she may see that she has a few good ideas to include in her essay! She doesn't have to use everything in the list, but should focus on the three items about which she may know the most or may be able to provide the most examples.

Looking at her list, and assuming this is a 5th grade student, her organization may look something like this:

Introduction: TV is a good thing

            Body Paragraph 1: cheap fun

            Body Paragraph 2: educational (teaches you and parents things)

            Body Paragraph 3: relaxing

            Conclusion: TV is good because it's cheap fun, educational, and relaxing.

She chooses three ideas, because she knows she'll be expected to write 2 – 3 good support paragraphs in the middle of the essay. 

S is for SUPPORT

Now, it's time to write.

First, the child will need to build an introduction, based on her teacher's instructions. Most older grades will have learned to start with a broad statement and narrow their ideas to the main point or thesis of their essay.  

Next, they'll need that "S" for support. After a transition sentence that indicates what the paragraph is about, she'll need to dive in to proving her point. On an essay in class, your child may not have the luxury of finding facts to support her ideas from an outside source; hence, she'll need to use stories, facts and definitions she has memorized, ideas from books, tv shows, movies or songs, important dates, and other info to prove her point. For example, as she writes the first body paragraph, she could demonstrate how television is cheap fun by contrasting staying home with the expense of hockey tickets or the price of movie popcorn. If she's writing at home, she could look up the actual prices to support her opinion. When she's done proving her first point, she transitions to the next paragraph and uses that "S" again.  

Finally, she will need to conclude the essay. Your teacher will be duly impressed with a conclusion that ties back to the introduction in some way, but will expect her to restate her thesis and the main points of the paragraph she used at the very least. Most teachers will tell you to leave the audience with a kicker: a thought-provoking question, or a sensory-laden sentence, perhaps. Something that makes the reader keep thinking long after they've put down the essay.

S is for SCAN

When she's finished writing, it's time for her to quickly scan the essay for two things: mistakes and improvements.

Mistakes: spelling errors, illegible handwriting, sentence errors, grammar errors

Improvements: specific vs. vague words, sentence construction, sensory language

If she sees a vague word like happy, for example, she could replace it with a more specific word like ecstatic, pleased, content, or blissful. A sentence like "It's fun to sit and watch TV with my family to relax at night” could be made more interesting by adding one or two of the five senses and some specificity into it: "Stretching out on my sofa with my head on my mom's shoulder to watch ice-skating is so relaxing at night!"

Spending just a couple minutes at the end of the essay to improve it could be the difference between a good and a great score.*

If you'd like to see what a top-scoring essay about this topic looks like for a fifth grade student, check it out, here!

* * * * *

Writing an essay doesn't have to ruin your kid's day. If a kid feels prepared before sharpening her pencil, her scores will go up, guaranteed! Show your kid who's "BOSS" when it comes time to write, and give her that boost she needs!

* Houghton Mifflin has published some samples of great and not-so-great essays per grade level. They're grouped according to essay type (persuasive, descriptive, narrative, etc.), are all graded according to the included rubrics. The higher the assigned number, the higher the score.