Homeschooling Helps: Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay
When your first homeschooled child heads off to college, you start to second-guess yourself. Did I teach them enough? What if I didn’t prepare them for this or that? Will they succeed or will they come back to live in my basement for the rest of their lives? I know I worried about it, and yet, my two oldest boys graduated college with Honors in spite of me and my daughter seems to be doing fine. I’ve asked them what I did right and what I did not so that I can better prepare the two still at home. All of them have said the same thing. Learning to write well was a great help for them in college. I am a fan of the 5-paragraph essay and pretty much drilled them on it all through high school, so that pleased me. I am currently teaching the 5-paragraph essay to the two still at home and thought you might like to share our lesson plans.
Writing Is Best Done As a Group Exercise
I am a huge fan of collaborative classes. Find some like-minded homeschooling moms to share the workload. Each of you can offer to teach a semester class. This semester, I am hosting a writing class for seven students (two of them my kids) in my home once a week. No, I don’t have a teaching degree. I do write for a living, so I have some sort of credentials to offer, but even that is not really important. I am a facilitator. The curriculum is based on Jensen’s Format Writing.
When your homeschooled kids suddenly find themselves enrolled in a “class” it is amazing how motivated they become. Nobody wants to look bad in front of their peers.
As you will see, my goal for the semester was to teach the proper format of an essay. I didn’t concern myself overmuch with the subject matter. That comes later.
The Format of a 5-Paragraph Essay
A basic essay consists of an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. When the kids start writing, let them pick subjects they know a lot about. If that means you are grading essays on building Lego models or how to braid hair, so be it. Give them the framework before you require them to struggle with words and ideas.
I start by requiring an introduction of one to two sentences. One of those sentences should be a clearly defined thesis statement with three points. In other words, they need to state what the reader could expect to find in their essay.
There are three steps involved in baking sugar cookies. First, you mix the ingredients, then you bake the cookies, and finally, you ice them.
The first paragraph details the steps involved in the first point. Using the example above, the writer would list the ingredients and tell how to mix them together (e.g. cream butter and sugar). The second paragraph could explain how to cut out the cookies, baking temperature, and how long to bake them. The third and final body paragraph could give the icing recipe or tips for decorating.
The thing to stress is that they can’t go off topic. Nowhere in this essay can they talk about chocolate chip cookies, bars, eating cookies, packaging cookies, etc.
Rabbit trails are a NO NO!
The final paragraph restates the thesis almost word for word.
So, as you can see, you can have delicious sugar cookies in just three easy steps: mix them, bake them, and ice them.
Grading the Essay
The first 5-paragraph essay they turn will probably be short. It doesn’t matter! What matters is that they had a clear thesis, three points with some sort of explanation, and a conclusion.
I do encourage you to let your writers share their work with the group. Have them read it aloud. Some of them may be silly, but it doesn’t matter. Encourage them to have fun with it. I suggest you offer two points of encouragement and one point of constructive criticism, out loud, so that the whole group benefits.
For example: Let’s say young Tommy wrote an essay on How to Find Extra Lives in Mario Brothers. His thesis was spot-on. It was clearly written with three points. However, in the first paragraph, he went off on a rabbit trail and mentioned another video game. Praise his thesis statement. Mention how clearly he defined the content of his essay. Then, gently point out he went off topic and that he needs to be careful not to do that in future essays. Follow up by mentioning something else he did well like he had a great transition from paragraph one to paragraph two.
Constructive criticism is honest, kind, and very specific.
Even if he has twelve other mistakes, just pick one to point out and leave the rest alone. When he writes his next essay, look to see that he fixes the previous problem and praise him if he does. Use that essay to address another issue. The goal is IMPROVEMENT, not perfection.
Practice Makes Perfect
Writing is something that should be done often. Once your homeschooler has the format down, then start encouraging better content. Challenge them with questions and help them see the connections between ideas. Logic plays an important role in crafting arguments.
Show them how to back up the three points of their thesis with facts and good resource material.
I usually encourage creative writing at young ages and begin teaching the 5-paragraph essay in the 8th grade. By the time my kids are sophomores in high school, I expect them to be able to write a well-thought-out essay, using proper grammar, formatting, and also rich in content. So few kids actually make it to college with the ability to write, that just knowing how to craft a good essay will set them apart from most of the students.
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About the Author
Kim and her husband, Craig, live in Overland Park KS where she successfully manages a marketing company and homeschools her two children still at home. Twenty-two years of juggling business and homeschooling has taught her a thing or two about time management. In addition to work and family, Kim helps her husband with the College and Career class at the church and also directs the Children's Music Ministry and drama team. The Submissive Spirit was born from her desire to reach out to other Christian women across the globe and share encouragement and the love of Christ.