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Writing a Winning Essay

By: Kristina Robertson (2008)

"Writing well means never having to say, 'I guess you had to be there.'"

— Jeff Mallett

Grade Levels: 4-12
Subject: Writing

As part of assessments and/or high school graduation requirements in many states, students must pass a writing test. In most of those tests, students are given a writing prompt and are asked to compose an essay following the prompt's instructions. For my ELL students, the writing test posed one of the biggest challenges to their successful graduation. It's not surprising that they struggled since writing is usually one of the last language skills in which students develop proficiency.

My ELL students often passed the reading and math tests, but would have to take the writing test more than once to pass. They had a lot of anxiety around writing, and the state writing exam was like a monster growing in the room as the test date neared. After talking about their fears, the students and I worked together to develop a deeper understanding of the writing test requirements and how to write a solid five paragraph essay. I will outline the process in this article.

Analyze the Test

First, it was important that the students understand what the writing test score meant and how points were assigned. I started by writing a K-W-L chart (what I know, what I want to know, what I learned) on the board, and then asked the students to complete the first part of the chart by filling in what they already knew about the state writing test. They knew the basics, such as, "You need a 3 to pass" or "It's really hard," but other than that, the students didn't have a lot of information. Together we brainstormed many questions to fill in the second part of the K-W-L chart: what they wanted/needed to know in order to pass the test.

In order to find answers to our questions, we looked in the state testing booklet. The testing booklet describes the scoring method and points assigned in each category of the writing test. In Minnesota, for example, the writing sample was scored in several different areas, such as organization, vocabulary, mechanics, and spelling. Students could receive a score from 1 to 6, with 3 being a passing score. I brought the state testing booklet to class and divided up the scoring information sheets among the groups. Each group had a topic to "research" and report about. One group read the section on the rubric system of points, another group read about mechanics, and another about organization, etc. After each group had read their section and clarified any questions they had, they presented a summary of their information to the class with examples to support their statements.

Through this process students discovered that one of the most important categories to be scored on the writing test was organization. If the essay response was well-organized and there were mechanical errors, but they didn't detract from the meaning, the students would be given a passing score. This was surprising to many students, who had largely focused on spelling, grammar, and mechanics, thinking they needed to improve their English language skills in order to pass. Now we could identify what they had learned, and we had a place to start our essay writing work.

Getting Organized

I had the students analyze a simple five-paragraph sample essay to begin to understand the parts of an organized essay. The writing sample (see sample in hotlinks) had a basic beginning paragraph that stated the main idea with three supporting points. Here is an example:

"My mother is a very important person in my life. She has done a lot for everyone in my family and doesn't always get the appreciation she deserves. I admire her especially because she is a hard worker, a good listener, and a very caring person."

First, I asked the students to underline the main idea and circle the three supporting ideas. Then we moved on to paragraphs 2, 3, and 4. Each of these paragraphs began with a statement that corresponded to the ideas in the opening paragraph. For example, paragraph two might say, "My mother works really hard. She has two jobs, and she always makes dinner for our family each night." Each of the paragraphs started in this obvious way, and the students circled the idea that related to the three ideas listed in the opening paragraph.

Finally the students looked at the closing paragraph that re-stated the main idea and the three supporting points in a creative way. Again the students underlined the main idea and circled the supporting points. Through this process they were able to see how the essay was organized, and how the ideas were connected.

Try It and Define It

Before the students wrote their own essays, I gave them another five paragraph essay that had been cut into strips. They worked in groups to place the sections in order so that they would have a well-organized essay. We discussed why they placed the sections where they did and how they knew that was the right place. They were able to articulate the connection and the appropriate order of the ideas in the different paragraphs.

Finally I asked the students to describe the relationship they saw between the main idea and the supporting ideas. The metaphor they decided upon was a mother with her three children. They explained, "A mother is all about her children, and if she has three children she will talk about each of them." From this we created an essay template (see sample in hotlinks) for them to fill in as a guide when planning their own essays.

Planning is Key

It was time to prepare for writing. I gave the students an essay topic: "How to be a Successful Student." First they did a "quick write" on the topic and wrote for five minutes without stopping or lifting their pencil off the paper. The quick write was just to get a lot of ideas on the page and not to worry about spelling, grammar, or mechanics. When they finished the quick write, I asked them to circle some of the points they thought were important and choose their top three. Then I gave them copies of the template we had created, and we began to fill in the information paragraph by paragraph. On the template, paragraph one looked something like this:

Paragraph two picks up on the first point:

Some students found it very easy to fill in the template and add details under each point, while others had more difficulty and kept inserting information that wasn't relevant to the point they were trying to make. Through pair work and review, though, all the students finally completed the template successfully.

Writing is a Snap

Once the students had their essay templates complete, they began to write their essays. We discussed the concept of "first draft," "second draft" and "final draft." I made it clear that this would be a "sloppy copy." They just needed to write the essay using the information on their template. The students wrote the essays that were fairly basic, almost a straight copy from what they had written on the template. The first draft was well-organized but lacked personality, and contained spelling and grammar errors. Nevertheless, we took a moment as a class to pat ourselves on the back for creating well-organized essays.

Editing Is Where It's At

We then worked in groups to "peer edit" the essays. In groups of four, each student had a "job" to do in reviewing the other group members' essays. One student checked for spelling, one for grammar, and one for vocabulary. The vocabulary checker read the essay to highlight areas where the author could use more appropriate or exciting vocabulary. I gave the students the example of the overuse of the word "good." For example, "My mother is a really good person. She cooks good food and she is a good friend to many people." The students talked about different words that could be used besides "good" in the sentences — such as kind, wonderful, great, delicious, excellent, helpful, etc. The peer editors made their marks and suggestions, but the author did not have to accept them if they didn't agree. Next, the students did a re-write to create their second draft.

For the second draft the students edited for style and personality. We discussed ways of creating interesting introductory and closing paragraphs. I gave examples of boring introductions, such as "In this essay I will tell you about a person I admire. My mother is kind, helpful, and a hard worker." As a class we worked with ways to make the introduction more interesting by using a catchy statement or a question, and then did the same thing with the closing paragraph. The trick with the closing paragraph is to repeat the main points of the essay but to make it snazzy and not so rote. The students read their opening and closing paragraphs to a partner and discussed ways of using more original language.

Finally, the Final Draft

The students wrote or typed the final draft and put it in their folder, which contains all of their notes, quick write, completed template, and earlier drafts of the essay. Before they handed in the folders, I had them look over the papers in their folders and write a response to this question: "What are two things you learned about how to be a better writer?" Most of the students wrote about how they finally understood how to organize an essay; many wrote about how they always thought they should just write something and hand it in, but that now they realized how much work they needed to do to produce quality writing. Many of them also expressed confidence that they would be able to pass the writing test.

In the end, the "writing test monster" was defeated, and my students faced the test with confidence and the tools they needed to be successful. I am proud to report that 17 out of my 18 students passed the writing test that year, and there was great jubilation in the classroom. The one student who didn't pass the test wrote to the state to ask for an explanation of her score. She received a detailed response and with a little more practice she passed the writing test on the next round. I am very proud of all of my students, and I feel honored to have played an important part in their successful graduation from high school. For many of them, these very basic writing skills provided a foundation with which to develop more advanced skills in college, and to ensure future success in their careers.

Hot links

  • Taft College: Online Writing Lab

    This online writing lab includes essay samples as well as information about different kinds of essays.

  • Colorín Colorado: ELLs and the Joy of Writing

    This previous Bright Ideas article offers tips for differentiating writing activities, and other ways to help ELLs discover the joy of writing.

  • Five Paragraph Essay Sample

    A sample five-paragraph essay with an outline template from the Gallaudet University English Works website.

  • Structure of the Five Paragraph Essay

    Sample outline with links to examples from the Glendale Community College website.

  • Blank Essay Template

    These templates were created to accompany Janet M. Parady, M.S.Ed.'s article, "Helping Your Child Write an Essay: Organizing and Brainstorming." Ms. Parady is head of the high school Language Arts Department at Landmark School in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts.

  • Helping Your Child Write an Essay: Organizing and Brainstorming

    A basic introduction to organizing and writing an essay. Straightforward and clear language is used in the examples of the thesis statement and supporting details.

  • ReadWriteThink: Peer Editing PowerPoint

    PowerPoint tutorial introducing students to peer editing.

  • Peer Editing Form

    Peer editing checklist for student use from Time Savers for Teachers.

  • The Elements of Style

    The Elements of Style has been the standard of English composition since 1913. The book has useful examples of all the little mechanics of writing such as the proper use of commas, parentheses, quotations and more. This link goes to the book's Amazon.com page.

  • The "I Hate to Write" Guide to Writing a Report

    This little report from Steve Kessell at the Curtin University of Technology is written in a folksy style and highlights some of the barriers to good writing and offers simple guidelines to good writing, such as the essay advice to "1. Tell what you’re going to tell them, 2. Tell them what you have to tell them, and 3. Tell them what you told them."

  • Online Resources: Graphic Organizers

    This website from Lee's Summit District in Missouri links to many websites of graphic organizers. Other resources available on the site include supports for grammar, note taking, handwriting, and different styles of writing.

  • AdLit.org: Teaching Writing to Diverse Student Populations

    This article from The Access Center, featured on AdLit.org, discusses areas of difficulty for students with writing problems, qualities of strong writing instruction, strategies for building and assessing advanced writing components, and ideas for integrating writing instruction with content area learning.

  • AdLit.org: Computer-Assisted Instruction and Writing

    This article from The Access Center, featured on AdLit.org, discusses what computer-assisted instruction is, what it looks like when used with writing, and how it is implemented, as well as a list of resources.

  • LD OnLine: Reinvigorate Your Students' Enthusiasm for Writing

    This article, featured on LDOnline.org, discusses effective ways of motivating students to write, including the use of graphic organizers.

  • Reading Rockets: Inviting Personal Narratives Into the Classroom

    Article from Reading Rockets discussing the use of personal narrative in writing exercises.

  • TeacherVision: Language Arts Graphic Organizers

    These graphic organizers can be used to prepare for a five-paragraph essay, organize sentences in a paragraph, map concepts and events, compare topics with a Venn Diagram, organize notes for a presentation, create a double-entry journal, and much more.

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