How do you find the thesis of an essay?

A high school English teacher emailed me with a problem.

She said that the textbook she was using included essays with questions for understanding that the students were supposed to answer. One of the questions was, “In a sentence, what is the thesis of this essay?”

The teacher said the thesis statement the publisher provided in the teachers’ materials didn’t appear anywhere in the essay.

“How the hell am I supposed to find the thesis of an essay if it isn’t written anywhere in the essay?”

I have a feeling that saying, “by the preponderance of the evidence” will not help her.

Presenting once doesn’t necessarily teach

Quote: As far as anyone knows, the only way to develop mental facility is to repeat the target process again and again and again.

There’s never enough time in the day to cover everything teachers want to teach. That’s undoubtedly why a teacher inquired about how much time to devote to teaching the thesis statement.

She asked whether she could teach the thesis statement to her sixth graders in one class period or whether it would take two.

In reply, I said something like this:

I don’t teach preteens so I don’t know how long it will take your sixth graders to grasp the concept of the thesis statement.

I do know, however, that when I teach the thesis statement three days a week to my college students and require them to use a thesis statement in writing an essay each of those weeks, most of my college students grasp the basic idea within 15-20 weeks.

What the sixth grade teacher didn’t get is that students don’t understand a thesis statement until they can—and do—use a thesis statement routinely in their writing.

Writing is a skill.

Until students can demonstrate writing skill in every situation where it’s appropriate, they haven’t learned the thesis statement.

Give authentic analogy practice via writing prompt requirements

When a message’s content is complex or unfamiliar to readers, good communicators look for analogies to take the mystery out of tough concepts.

When teachers want to assess students’ understanding of course content, like other good communicators they scrap worksheets and multiple-choice exams in favor having students develop and use analogies.

An analogy is a type of example or illustration that works by a comparison between something very familiar and something unfamiliar.

Why give analogy practice

Creating an analogy allows students to demonstrate:

  • content mastery
  • effective communication with a target audience.

Students may think they understand a concept or precedure until they are forced to attempt to explain that content to someone else. A failure in that communication situation acts as formative assessment for the communicator—one that is more effective with students than any test score or teacher comment.

Students need analogy practice because many of them will not think of developing analogies without prompting.

Asking students to develop an analogy as part of a writing assignment forces them to engage in a higher level of thinking than they might otherwise do.

Unfortunately for us writing teachers, crafting writing prompts that give students analogy practice is not easy. It requires that we know our content and our students. In other words, we have to know the same things we expect of our students in order to teach them.

Whew! No wonder teachers get the big bucks.

Use analogies yourself

When you teach, use analogies to explain new concepts whenever you can. Analogies, like anecdotes, help students understand concepts by putting the concepts into a familiar context. They compare something unfamiliar to something familiar.

I use analogies to explain such things as transition sentences and the structure of an introduction.

If students have seen you using analogies regularly, they will be more comfortable with attempting to create their own.

Point out analogies in students’ texts

English courses that emphasize literature are more likely to discuss similes and metaphors than analogies. However, analogies are common in nonfiction material. You will find them in students’ history, science, and technology texts where analogies are used to help simplify complex ideas.

You may need to use texts from those other disciplines for teaching the reading comprehension activities that afford opportunities to point out analogies.

If you teach English language arts in a school that adheres to Common Core State Standards, you may have no choice but to help students master reading of complex texts that include analogies.

Instead of viewing that as an unpleasant chore, look at it as a chance to hook the student population turned off by literature by showing them how the material they read uses the same literary devices as classic novels and poems.

Require analogies in students’ writing

Once you’ve introduced students to the concept of the analogy, give them practice creating analogies as a means of developing an expository paragraph.

To build in the analogy practice, you will need to require analogies and explain in your writing prompts how and why students must create an analogy.

I suggest you have younger students develop a “paragraph essay” using an analogy. (Don’t use that term, however. Essay is so nebulous a term that it is meaningless even to most college-educated adults.)

Here’s a paragraph writing prompt that calls for an analogy:

“Paragraph Essay” ELA prompt

A topic sentence and a thesis sentence have a great deal in common. Write a paragraph in which you use an analogy to explain at least two aspects of the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis statement.

Stop right now and think about how you’d answer the question.

What analogy did you come up with?

I said the relationship between a topic sentence and a thesis sentence is analogous to the relationship of a room to a whole house.

The logical process needed to come up with an analogy is not terribly different from what a student would use to come up with the answer to a bubble-test analogy question like “cat is to  kitten as  cow is to _____.”

Although the writing prompt may look harder than a bubble test question, students see it as more relevant to their experience than standardized test questions. They know that people are asked to explain stuff every day, but nobody takes bubble tests outside of school.

As students mature, you can ask them to develop one paragraph of a multi-paragraph I/E text through analogy and use other strategies for other body paragraphs.

Teach writing broad to narrow

The best way to teach nonfiction writing is to teach the most broadly encompassing elements first. The student has to have an opinion (called a thesis statement) before doing any other work, so writing instruction should begin with the thesis.

Next on the list to teach is structure. There are only two basic nonfiction structures you could teach, and of these two, the thesis-and-support organizational pattern, which is characteristic of persuasive essays, is the more useful.

At the tail end of items to be taught as part of the writing process are issues like sentence structure, grammar, and usage.

Both teacher and students should have a rubric for evaluating whether an essay is satisfactory. Rubrics foster learning by offering students direction and self-correction help.

Working thesis aid to unity

Students usually have no difficulty asserting an opinion. Supporting that opinion is an entirely different matter.

Supporting an opinion means sticking to one idea. Beginning writers are not very good at that. Their writing is usually stream of consciousness with misspellings rather than logical reasoning with supporting evidence.

Having a good working thesis statement, however, helps student writers determine what to put in their essays and what to leave out. Savvy students (who typically are students taught by a savvy writing teacher) select a working thesis to use in thinking about their writing project.

If the thesis statement turns out to be workable, they have the biggest chunk of their writing planned.  If it turns out to be unworkable, they haven’t wasted hours composing and their thinking can usually be turned into a workable plan without a great deal more effort.

Serious academic writing in middle school social studies

A couple years ago, Glenn Wiebe shared on his History Tech blog information from a conference presentation that I tucked away to follow up sometime.

Leslie Duhaylongsod, who at the time was teaching at the Winsor School in Boston, shared at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies how she uses what she called argument writing with middle school students in her history classes. I’m not sure her students incorporated the refutation element that marks argument, but they clearly used thesis-and-support.

Duhaylongsod had students develop nonfiction thesis statements, find evidence for them, and explain how their evidence supports their thesis. From a writing teachers standpoint, it is useful to look at some thesis statements she shared at the conference:

  • The geography of Greece was an advantage of Ancient Greece.
  • The geography of Greece negatively impacted the lives of the Ancient Greeks.
  • Geography led to development of democracy.
  • Geography of Greece helped the ancient Greeks become powerful.

Wiebe reported that Duhaylongsod said the most difficult part of the work for her students was developing patience to deal with the frustration of writing on intellectually challenging topics.

Those of us who teach writing rather than history can learn from Duhaylongsod’s efforts. She  required serious intellectual work from middle school students. Granted, she taughts at a private school and didn’t have the hodgepodge of students that populate public school classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the public school teachers shouldn’t be pushing their students for learning adequate only for blackening bubbles on multiple choice tests.

Also, instead of letting them choose any topic that interested them, Duhaylongsod required students to choose topics within her discipline. That kind of authentic writing rarely happens in the English classroom at any level from middle school through associate degree except for writing assignments about literature.

I believe Duhaylongsod is now in an education doctoral program at Harvard University. She has been presenting at various conferences this spring (NARST, AERA) on a team lead by Harvard Associate Professor of Education Tina Grotzer. The researchers are investigating how how children reason about the nature of causality.

Wiebe is a member of the Curriculum Development Team of ESSDACK (the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas).

[Broken links removed 2/26/2014; updated link 2/03/2016]