3 Ways to Help Students Write a Better Thesis Statement

3 Ways to Help Students Write a Better Thesis Statement
Many times students seem to have a difficult time writing their thesis statements. It looks like it has nothing to do with the ideas presented in the paper, or can just be the students trying to take on too much. For middle school and high school teachers, it is important to teach thesis statements early, so students don’t struggle with them too much down the line. In college, students will be expected to write a poignant thesis statement without any instruction or help from the professor. There are a couple of ways to work on thesis statement writing with students, but these are my favorite three to talk about.

3 ways to help middle school and high school English students write better thesis statements
1. Have students look at their body paragraphs and follow the main idea through.
The thesis statement is mostly a guiding statement of the paper’s main idea without stating the conclusion. Have students read over their papers, and have them write a sentence about what the entire paper is about. That means waiting for the final drafting process to create the intro, but for many students, this tends to work a little bit better for when they start to learn about the essay writing process. This is also very helpful for students who experience writer’s block at the beginning of an essay. Sometimes they just need to write the meat of the paper first, and then go back and write or revise the introduction and thesis.n

2.  Have students map out their main ideas.
When students map out their ideas for a paper, they usually have some topics that they have in mind to discuss. Have students sum up those few main topics for their big idea into a few phrases that they can make into a connecting statement. This helps to make one of the easiest thesis statements and gives them something to build off in future English class.

3. Have students focus on why the information they present matters.
Why the student has written the information can be very important in persuasive papers. The research is important, but unless a reader knows why the paper will fail to make an impact. If a student can sum up why their topic is important for the reader, then they have a thesis statement, or at least the start of one, and all they need to do is write it down.

3 Common Student Writing Mistakes and How to Fix Them

3 common student writing mistakes in middle school and high school English and how to fix them
Students—and teachers, alike—are capable of making an array of writing mistakes.  While this can be due to a lack of proof-reading or a simple typo, many students make writing mistakes because they are unaware of the grammatical rules that are in place. Recognizing that a mistake has been made is usually the first step to solving it.  Here are three of the most common mistakes made by students today.

1. Comma Splices
In general, comma splices are not tricky.  They occur when two complete sentences are fused together with a comma rather than the appropriate conjunction. For example: "I must go to the store, we need bread." The two parts divided by the comma are both independent clauses that should not be joined by a comma.

Before fixing this error, students must understand what comma splices are as well as how to recognize an independent clause. A quick lesson on conjunctions and sentence structure will enable your students to identify when and how to join sentence.

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2. Pronoun-Antecedent Disagreement
This common writing mistake is not only a writing error, but a grammatical mistake made all too often in everyday speech.  Pronoun-antecedent agreements occur when a singular pronoun links with a plural antecedent or vise versa. For example: “The student must take their test.”  The word "student" is singular while the pronoun "their" is plural, and, therefore, the two are in disagreement.

Students are most likely to make a mistake like the one above because they do not know the gender identity of the ambiguous student. They attempt to atone for this with the neutral their.  An easy way to fix this is by assigning gender, if it is applicable. Students may hesitate to take this liberty, but the student in the example sentence can remain ambiguous in a sentence like, “The student must take her test,” or “the student must take his test.”  While it may sound clunky, even “the student must take his or her test” is grammatically acceptable.  However, students are most likely unaware that it is permissible to take such liberties in their writing. Start fixing this problem by letting your students know that such freedoms are allowed.

3. Its and It’s
Recognizing the difference between this homophonic pair is essential to good writing. Students often mix up these two words because they are so used to possessive nouns containing a comma.  In reality, its is possessive while it’s is the conjunctive version of it is. The apostrophe in it’s acts as a placeholder for the space and the i.

Aside from knowing the proper use of its and it’s, the best way to correct this error is by simple proof-reading. Most students know how to use the two words correctly, but experience a slip while writing quickly. Encourage your students to take their time proofreading their writing. It can also help to have a friend proof-read it or complete peer editing as well. It also helps to teach students that possessive pronouns do not contain apostrophes. Show them examples (his, hers, theirs, ours) to help solidify this concept.

Writing a Class Collaborative Précis

Writing a class collaborative rhetorical precis
I recently started teaching rhetorical analysis to my sophomores. This unit precedes our research paper, and so one of the goals of my rhetorical analysis unit is to help students become critical readers. I want my students to be able to read a complex text and know a few things within their first read: I want them to know if it is a credible source, I want them to know the author’s purpose, and I want them to begin thinking about why the text is effective.

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Collaborative rhetorical precis writing in the secondary ELA classroom

When I teach rhetorical analysis, I also teach the rhetorical précis. This four-sentence writing task is quite difficult for students, especially when they are so used to summarizing a text and its main points rather than how an author crafts his or her argument.
Collaborative rhetorical precis writing in the secondary ELA classroom

Since this writing task is so complicated, I scaffold my instruction so that students gradually ease into writing their own précis. The first part of the scaffold is writing a class précis. It is a fun and engaging activity that takes about two 60-minute class periods. To prepare for the activity, I dedicate one piece of chart paper for each class, and I label each sentence on the paper using sticky notes. After we finish writing a class précis, I display the class précis on the wall for students to reference later.

After reviewing the précis (I’ve found that this is the best online resource for writing a précis), we begin. I first have my students work in groups to write one sentence at a time on a collaborative Google Doc that everyone can edit. I take the best parts of each team’s sentence to formulate the winning sentence. To begin this process, we first write a class précis. I already seat my students in groups of six students at their tables, and so they work together in their teams to draft a team sentence. As my students are working on a collaborative document, I visit each table and explain what they are doing well, and I also explain how the team can improve its sentence.

Once we have a winning sentence, a student volunteer writes the sentence on the chart paper. We go through this process for each sentence -focusing on one sentence at a time until the class has written one précis. At the end of the activity, I read the précis aloud to the class. My students are usually pretty impressed with their writing, and I am, too!

Here is a sample of the Google Doc I use in my classroom. Since this is a Google Doc, you can edit it after you make your copy.
Collaborative rhetorical precis writing in the secondary ELA classroom
I hope that you and your students love this activity. It’s a fun, hands-on, engaging lesson that authentically helps students learn how to write a rhetorical précis.

Teaching Literary Approaches in the Classroom

When teaching literature to secondary ELA students, it is important to include and angle to approach to the novel. An appropriate approach to literature is necessary for any reader to understand and appreciate a text fully.  For students, a lens matching the text can not only help their understanding of the reading but their general strength in English courses as well.
The following are four critical approaches to literature that will help students grow as readers as well as short-stories that students can read while learning about these approaches.

The Feminist Approach:
The feminist approach to literature encourages students to analyze the relationships between characters while considering gender roles.  It highlights an existing hierarchy while forcing readers to consider the historical context of the piece.  Feminist literature is an essential tool for readers and writers alike as it provides a voice while provoking personal reflection.

Students looking to analyze a short-story through a feminist lens should consider “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, and “The Hand” by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.  Both stories encourage thought while providing unique perspectives on the relationship between men and women.

The Marxist Approach:
While the feminist approach analyzes the relationships between genders, the Marxist approach focuses on the relationships between different socio-economic groups.  The Marxist Approach is a necessary approach because it provides an essential perspective on the conflicts of various works of fiction.  While reading a short-story through a Marxist lens, students should look for economic divisions between characters and consider how this may affect the events of the story.

“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner is an American short-story that highlights how economic stresses can spur the conflict of a story.  This short-story encourages readers to consider how economic factors could justify a character’s actions.

One of the most famous short-stories by an American writer is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.  While students can analyze this story through many different lenses, a Marxist approach may assist students in recognizing how the economic position of a whole town can have such a drastic outcome.

Finally, “Brownies” by Z.Z. Packer offers a unique perspective on the differences between varying socio-economic groups as well as race relations.  The story is told from a young girl's perspective and includes simple revelations that only the innocence of a child can offer.  Students will be provoked to reflect on their own childhood experiences after reading this short story.  

The Archetypal Approach:
An archetypal approach to literature is a fun way for students to recognize common themes, symbols, and character-types in literature.  While learning about different archetypes, students will begin to understand how they are used throughout literature.

A good starting point for students learning about archetypal characters can be found in Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  This story includes archetypal characters like the beautiful woman and the initiate-hero.  

Additionally, “The Prophet’s Hair” by Salman Rushdie contains many archetypes while acting as an allegorical story.  For students looking for further experience with this approach, “Rapaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne includes archetypes such as the damsel in distress, the beautiful garden, and the forces of good and evil.

The Psychological Approach:
Students with a background in psychology may find the psychological approach fun and exciting.  This approach encourages readers to evaluate the forces within a character that drive him or her into action.  Students with little experience studying psychology may also appreciate this perspective as they learn how conflict within a character can change the story significantly.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville contains multiple characters with curious personalities.  The psychological approach will push readers to question why and how each character makes his decisions.  Additionally, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” by J.D. Salinger is a unique short-story that forces the reader to consider that mental state of its characters.

Teaching Literary Analysis

Teaching Students Cover Letter and Resume Writing

Along with practicing interviewing skills, another set of skills that high school juniors and seniors should hone are writing personal resumes and cover letters. The skill of self promotion is one that students will need for many years to come and can be the difference between gaining or losing a golden opportunity. Written below are a few quick tips to help students make the best first impression to potential employers on paper.

The Cover Letter
Much like the dozens of essays students have written across their high school career, a cover letter should make a clear and concise point, namely, why the writer deserves and would be a good fit for the position he or she is applying for. For this reason, students need to write a cover letter for every position they apply for that is written specifically for the position advertised. They can’t and shouldn’t make an all purpose cover letter that generally describes how the writer is a “good worker.” Such cover letters tend to be too vague and gives the employer no concrete evidence that the applier is qualified for the position. The best way to write a cover letter is to constantly refer back to the advertisement for the job. The writer should note the skills the employer is looking for and give specific examples of how they have honed and used such skills in their daily lives.

Fortunately for students, a cover letter should never be very long. A good length is usually only one or two strong paragraphs that do not exceed a page. Employers, much like English teachers, have to read a lot of paperwork that is turned into them, except they don’t have the same patience we teachers do. Employers want to be able to skim a letter quickly and glean the evidence of whether the applier could potentially be a match for the position and then move on. As such, every word counts and should not be wasted on anecdotes or experiences that have little to no relevance to the job.

The Resume
Students will likely find formatting resumes much easier with the use of templates which is why I recommend using a website like My Perfect Resume which offers free, editable resume examples. Although formats can vary, resumes should never exceed a page and students should always place their name in bold at the top followed by their mailing address, phone number, and email address. Students should be very wary of what email address they list on their resumes because an employer will never write to the address of party_gurrrl420@gmail.com. Email addresses should simply be the student’s first and last name, possibly with an underscore in between.

Every resume should have a skills section where the student lists their proficiencies. Emphasize that students should edit this section for each application so that only skills applicable to the applied position are listed. If the student is trying to get a job as a newspaper editor, the employer will likely not care if the student is skilled in installing drywall.

The education section should list the institutions or education programs the student has attended in chronological order and should include their grade point average. The experience section should also be written with most recent experiences first and can include any relevant internships, clubs, and jobs. Each experience should have within the heading the company’s/club’s/ internship’s name followed by dates the student held the position. Underneath the heading, the student should describe the position, specifically how they contributed to the association. The job descriptions should be listed in such a way as to promote the student’s skills. For example, instead of stating that for a job you, “Serviced frequent customers,” you should state, “Provided excellent customer experience and was valued by frequent customers.”

Resources for teaching college and career readiness: