Ah, the analytical essay. Whether it’s five paragraphs or not, whether it’s called an essay or a paper or even a “theme,” it’s pretty much the default major assignment in high school and even college English classes. Because I teach middle school, and because I work at an independent school, I have quite a bit of flexibility in my writing curriculum. I can assign a lot of varied creative writing assignments, and I very happily do! But I also need to teach students how to write solid, carefully structured analytical essays about what they read. Both my seventh and eighth grade classes are working on essays now, so I’ve been thinking about how I teach students to do this kind of writing and what seems to work.
The thing is, this kind of writing isn’t intuitive, so students need a lot of explicit instruction and examples. They need to be told that they can’t use first or second person, and then they need to see examples of how to write a sentence that shows their opinion without using “I” but also without a whole lot of confusing passive voice. They need to be armed with helpful verbs for analytical writing (depict, convey, portray, imply, reveal, etc.). A cheat sheet of good transition words helps, too (first of all, in addition, therefore, however, etc.). They need to understand the structure of a solid essay, and they need a lot of scaffolding to grasp how to structure an analytical paragraph and how to deal with quotes from the text they are analyzing.
I don’t blame them. I can clearly remember a moment when I was in ninth grade and had been assigned to write an essay with at least three quotes in it. I had been taught how to structure an essay in general, but not what to do with the quotes. So I wrote the whole thing and then asked for my mom’s help to sandwich in some quotes somehow.
I had always read a lot, so I had soaked up all kinds of unspoken rules of writing by reading. But it’s not like I was reading other people’s five-paragraph essays, so I had no way to soak up the rules of using quotes. After that assignment, my ninth grade English teacher wrote an essay in front of us, in marker on a transparency sheet that she projected on the board. I saw how she handled the quotations, and after that I knew what to do. But that experience has stuck with me. Students need to see good, accessible examples of the kind of writing we want them to do, and many of them need more than just examples. However, I don’t want to simplify essay writing to a meaningless formula in which students are simply filling in sentences rather than developing their own ideas.
I’m only teaching seventh and eighth grade this year, but when I have taught sixth grade in the past, I’ve asked for a modified version of analytical writing from sixth graders. They can still use the first person in their essays, which I’ve referred to as reader’s response essays rather than analytical essays. I’ve had them write responses with three body paragraphs that discuss three different points, and I’ve asked for one quote per paragraph, but I haven’t worried too much about how they integrate or format their quotes or how detailed their discussion of the quotes are. For seventh and eighth graders, I ask for essays that follow all of the conventions that students need to have mastered by high school, but I break essay assignments down into several manageable steps.
I haven’t done many teaching-related posts this year, so I thought I’d start a short blog series on teaching analytical writing in a way that gives students the support they need without encouraging overly formulaic writing. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post about the following topics:
-Essay Building Blocks: The TIQA(TIQA) Paragraph
-Preparing to Write an Essay and Essay Skeletons
-Introductions and Conclusions
-Why Analytical Writing?
I hope this series proves helpful, and I have some more student-author interviews in the works, as well, so those will keep coming, too!