The Question That Changes My Students’ Writing

My first year of teaching I taught thesis statements as these grandiose sentences that establishedimages the entire infrastructure of a paper. I conducted minilessons and writing units just on how to write a three-pronged thesis, which would inevitably lead into a five-paragraph essay. While this technique was arguably successful in its own right, it was also highly limiting. Because the three-pronged thesis set students’ papers up with a distinct outline right from the beginning, it didn’t allow students to delve deeper into their topics. If anything, it actually limited their exploration of their topic or research because it set too stringent of guidelines.

It wasn’t until I read Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This that I found one of the single-most valuable suggestions for student writers. Somewhere in this treasure trove of practical suggestions, Gallagher changed my approach to teaching theses with one question. Instead of asking what the point of the paper was, he questioned what the student wanted their reader to learn. Now during mini-conferences I ask students, “What do you want your reader to take away from this piece?” Not only does this question prompt them to acknowledge and think about their audience, but it also makes them recognize the value of their writing as a reputable, informative piece. As students answer this question, I jot down their responses, asking them additional questions to deepen my understanding of the subject. Eventually, when the point of the essay has become clear, I give them the notes I have taken and say, “This is your thesis,” showing them that the information we want our readers to take away is really the mission of our essay as a whole. From these notes, we formulate their thesis together to better address the overall message of their paper.

In the end, this approach oftentimes transforms students’ papers from flat, five-paragraph essays, to papers that delve deeper into the content. My freshmen recently finished their five-page research papers while my juniors and seniors completed eight-page TED talks. I used this approach during the initial conferences to help them hone in on the issues they wanted to research. After our conference, Emily’s essay transitioned from a simple history of prosthetic limbs to a deeper exploration of the rapid evolution of modern prosthesis and the technology needed to make them more lifelike. Sarah, on the other hand, found that her fascination with the Russian mafia also led into a deeper exploration of a lethal new drug called Krokodil, which is being trafficked through Russia. Each time students were able to isolate what they found to be fascinating about their topic and then ultimately use that as a jumping point for the rest of their paper. In the end, asking this one question helps students clarify an otherwise intimidating thesis while also helping them to polish their approach to the subject.


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6 thoughts on “The Question That Changes My Students’ Writing

  1. cmadeleine0816 April 15, 2015 at 8:19 pm Reply

    How wonderful that I should read this the day I’m having my students write argument essays. I actually used sentence starters related to the audience to get them to consider the audience. I have things like, “in order for my audience to agree with me, I need..” or “my audience will most likely disagree with…because…” and “it’s vital that my audience feels…because…”. I have a few more, but basically they are target to help kids analyze their topic in terms of using ethos, logos, pathos. It’s only after several years of attempting various approaches to teaching rhetorical appeals (and having them fall a little short), that I’m trying this new approach. So far, I think it’s really working. Just today, I saw much deeper analysis and engagement with even the usual topics like, “the dress code needs to be changed.” When I scanned their answers to the audience sentence starters, I could see where they might be missing out on other possible reasons, or not analyzing audience as much as they could. I steered them back on track and now *fingers crossed* it pays off! 🙂


    • jackiecatcher April 16, 2015 at 9:23 am Reply

      What a fantastic suggestion! I love the idea of integrating their audience into the sentence starters–it reinforces their need to focus on their reader instead of writing for some unknown person. I’m going to flag your approach so I can use it next year on our persuasive essays. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy April 15, 2015 at 2:50 pm Reply

    Thanks for the reminder, Jackie. Today in my conferences I remembered to use your question: What do you want your reader to walk away with, what knowledge? Powerful moments with my thinkers. Oh, wait! Yes, they were thinkers today. 🙂


    • jackiecatcher April 16, 2015 at 9:27 am Reply

      I’m glad your students rallied and had a good thinking day–mine have been struggling a bit lately as well, particularly with the approaching spring break and a couple days of standardized test. I can only imagine the magic that was happening in your room.


  3. jackiecatcher April 15, 2015 at 12:23 pm Reply

    Thank you Erika! You’re so sweet–I love your positive energy. It always cheers me up (particularly after a long day of standardized testing).


  4. Erika B. April 15, 2015 at 7:48 am Reply

    “Eventually, when the point of the essay has become clear, I give them the notes I have taken and say, “This is your thesis,” showing them that the information we want our readers to take away is really the mission of our essay as a whole.”

    I got chills when I came to these above statements. Wow. Imagine, students verbally creating their thesis, while we listen as their educator, and then literally SHOW them what THEY’VE created.

    You are magic!



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