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I am currently teaching the way to write an essay as this:

Step 1, write the topic sentence of the whole essay. Then, in the following first paragraph, develop the ideas that you are going to expound later on. E.g., writing an essay on Macbeth, write the topic sentence "Shakespeare shows us through the story of Macbeth the possibility for ambition to turn to greed, and for power to corrupt us." Then, write about the ideas going to be expounded "Macbeth's ambition for kingship made him kill the king." and "Even when Macbeth was king, he still murdered, to secure his kingship and establish his power."

Step 2, Write your first paragraph, and make sure that it's a paragraph on the first idea that you introduced in your introduction paragraph. That is, if you first introduced "Macbeth's ambition for kingship made him kill the king.", then write your first paragraph on that idea. Then, write your other paragraphs expounding the rest of the ideas, in sequence.

Step 3, finish with a conclusion that sums up all that you have written in the above paragraphs, and make sure that your conclusion reaffirms the topic sentence.

I'm wondering what are some other techniques I can give my students? As in, someone once suggested that including the manners, customs and practices of the time around Shakespeare to help explain some of the ideas.

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2 Answers 2

You do not describe the essay like it should be written, you describe it like it should be read.

Except for tests in school there is no need to begin writing with a topic sentence or that the first paragraph contains the first idea. If they know how to describe the second idea and have no clue yet about the first then they shall go on writing about the second. If this essay is written at home and not in school under time pressure they can rearrange the paragraphs afterwards.

If you teach them what to write in which order they will follow that way, not questioning that it could be easier for them to write about the idea which pops up first in their head. Writing in a strict order is only useful for school tests, not for real life.

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As John says, you've given us an okay basic structure, but not a lot of ideas about how to TEACH it. For high school essay writing:

First thing I teach when I'm teaching essay writing is brainstorming, and then refining the ideas - what ideas do you have, which are interesting to you, which go together, what ideas do you have for supporting them?

Then we do a group exchange - share your ideas with classmates, see what they can contribute, and what you can contribute to them.

Once we've got ideas we like, it's time to look at structure, and for the first few essays of the year, I MAKE students do an outline. Like, I will not mark the finished essay if I haven't already seen an outline for it. I also sometimes say, okay, I'm only marking the outline, this time, so we're done. Students who have skipped ahead to the writing stage, without an outline, have done extra work, AND have to go back and write an outline now. (I do this because organization tends to be the big problem for these kids, and the outline is the best tool I know to deal with it. Later in the year, when I start relaxing my own demands for outlines, some of the kids try to write essays without them, and I can almost always tell. Someone will hand in a disorganized mess, I'll say, I'm not quite sure where this went wrong, let me see your outline, and the kid will get a shifty look...)

I have them outline in a triangular or hierarchical structure - thesis on top, then arguments beneath that, and then for each argument, the evidence that will be used to support it.

When the time comes to write, they've already got their ideas worked out, so they can focus on clarity and style. We teach a basic 5-paragraph essay structure to the younger kids, and have them expand on the same structure in the later grades. So the first paragraph has a Broad General Statement (a hook, or introduction), the Thesis, and a one-sentence summary of the arguments. Then, as you said, one paragraph per argument, with a topic sentence that introduces the argument, body sentences that introduce and explain the evidence, and a concluding sentence that wraps it all up. Obviously we expand on that for the more in-depth essays later on.

Then peer editing, INCLUDING a comparison of the essay to the outline in order to make sure the student didn't wander off topic while writing. Then revisions.

In terms of your Shakespeare's milieu question - sure, maybe. What's the topic of the assigned essay? Are you asking us how to teach 'the essay' in general, or how to teach Shakespeare?

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Yep, this is exactly how we learned how to write essays. Three body paragraphs, your intro covers all three, wrap up the intro with your thesis, and your conclusion covers what you wrote. We never had peer editing, though, and that sounds awesome. I wish we had. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 12 '11 at 13:20
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