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Tips for Students Struggling to Start an Essay

Posted by Emily Guthrie on Jan 30, 2016 11:49:30 PM

When students struggle with vocabulary, note taking, or other straightforward skill, teachers have a full toolbox of suggestions, but when the skill is more nuanced like composition, it gets a little trickier.  So often I have parents ask me in emails, meetings, and phone calls what their students can do to get the ball rolling on an upcoming essay.  I also constantly counsel students in office hours who look at me with lost confusion the week before a literature analysis is due.  It is so hard not to get frustrated when I have painstakingly set up the prompt and systematically gone through the pre-writing and writing steps with students.  However, in my experience, some students actually have the requisite skills to write well, but they need a little tip to take the edge off their writing anxiety. For these students, I offer some of the following little tricks as confidence boosters:

Searching Project Gutenberg or other online text: As an English teacher I emphasize the use of textual evidence, but for some students the stress of finding a quote buried deep in a book that they only half remember is enough to get them to give up before they start.  For those students, I show them how to search ebooks online through Project Gutenberg or other online text.  If they remember one small part or significant word of the quote, they are able to find it more easily by pressing control+f and searching the pdf or ebook.

Scaffolding from Essay Architect: If you have not checked out this Simply Novel staple, you really should.  It breaks down terminology, structure, and types of essays in a way that is clear to all all writers.  The system is an amazing security blanket for struggling writers and I highly recommend it even for our natural essay writers, who can always work on fine tuning their compositions!  Click here to find out more.

Record a conversation: This technique is great for students who have thoughts on the topic but have trouble organizing them. I set up a recording on my laptop and then I just have a conversation with the student, asking questions related to the prompt.  Then, I play back our conversation, pausing to arrange (in a written outline) the student's own words and ideas in collaboration with him or her.  I can email the recording if needed so the student can replay and remember the ideas that came out in conversation.

Jump around as needed: So many student struggle with the introduction of the essay.  Although I encourage students to have a thesis first, I often tell students with writer's block to start with a body paragraph and come back to add an introduction or transition later.  This is so simple, but can be freeing advice for students who only see the writing process in linear terms.

Draft and draft again. Some students stress about the wording of a particular sentence to a point in which the essay loses fluidity. This makes it incredibly difficult to organize ideas together. These students just need to get out of perfection mode and write.  I often suggest that they do a series of quick writes on each topic sentence and then go back and tweak wording and organization later.  In my experience, this works best during a drafting class period or in office hours where I can give individual attention and prodding.  I just have to keep reminding them not to stop writing!

What tricks do you give struggling writers?  We'd love to continue this conversation in the comment section below!

Topics: Essays, Writing, writing tips

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