By Emily Levy, founder & director of EBL Coaching
Do you find that your child has interesting, smart, and creative ideas but struggles to put them down on paper? Many students are unsure how to begin the writing process, how to write well-organized thesis statements, and how to structure each of their body paragraphs. As the writing demands of school increase, these struggles tend to follow. Yet learning the steps for composing a well-written five paragraph essay can help all students improve their writing.
Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: The introduction paragraph. This paragraph tends to be the most challenging one for students to write. At the start of the essay, the student must lure in the reader with an interesting, thought-provoking remark or anecdote. The paragraph must end with a well-constructed thesis statement to set the organization and tone of the essay. Here are some guidelines for writing a strong introduction paragraph:
1. The opener. Students can choose one of the following five ways to start the essay:
- Question (Ex. Have you ever wondered how lasagna is made?)
- General Statement. (Ex. Growing trees is an easy process.)
- Quotation. (Ex. A wise man once said, “If it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it.”)
- Opposite Statement (Ex. Many people believe that all water is safe to drink.)
- Story (Ex. The manager left his store to take a quick lunch break. He was sure all of his employees were trustworthy. He was gone for one hour, and when he returned, all of the cash was missing from his register.)
- For practice, encourage your child to write just the opener of several different essays on various topics. These five choices will add variety and creativity to his or her writing!
2. The thesis statement. The thesis statement should always come at the end of the introduction paragraph. It should contain two parts: the student’s opinion on the topic and his or her plan for the essay. For example, a well-constructed thesis statement might be as follows: Blue Man Grill is the best restaurant in town because of its food, atmosphere, and friendly staff. Note that for this thesis statement, the opinion is Blue ManGrill is the best restaurant in town and the plan is because of its food, atmosphere, and friendly staff. Thus, the first body paragraph of this essay would be about Blue Man Grill’s food, the second body paragraph would be about its atmosphere, and the third would be about its friendly staff. For practice, have your child write thesis statements on the following topics: winter sports, junk food, and holidays.
3. The lead-in. The lead-in is composed of 3-5 sentences and should come before the thesis statement and after the opener. We teach the lead-in after teaching the thesis statement, however, because it flows together and is easier to grasp this way. As practice, students should read well-written introduction paragraphs and highlight the opener in one color, the lead-in in another color, and the thesis statement in a third color.
Step 2: The three body paragraphs. The thesis statement sets the plan for the content of each body paragraph. When writing the body paragraph, students should ask themselves: If the thesis statement is: Skiing is a great sport because it is fun, social, and athletic, what would each body paragraph be about? In this case, the first body paragraph would be about why skiing is fun, the second would be about why it is social, and the third would describe why it is an athletic sport.
Each body paragraph should include details, examples, statistics, quotations, and any other specific information. The old adage “Show, don’t tell” certainly applies here. It is important that the student describes information in detail, with concrete backup from credible sources, rather than just “telling” about it. Remember that if any information is taken from other sources, it must be credited as an outside source.
Step 3: The Conclusion Paragraph. This paragraph can be a tough one for many students to write. Students must reiterate all of the information from the essay without being redundant, and add more information without really adding more information. How is this done: The solution for writing the conclusion paragraph is as follows:
- Restate the thesis statement. This is where the student should remind the reader of his or her opinion on the topic and restate the three supporting points. For example, for our Rocking Horse Grill essay, we might start our conclusion paragraph with the following: “Because of its delicious Mexican cuisine, convivial ambiance, and energetic staff, Rocking Horse Grill is one of the best restaurants in Chicago.”
- Lead-out. The next 2-4 sentences should lead the reader to the author’s final, conclusive remark. The student can reiterate some points about each of the body paragraphs. These sentences should, of course, contain words that are different from those used in the actual body paragraphs.
- Concluding Remark. This remark should be conclusive, strong, and perhaps profound. It should leave the reader thinking. For example, a concluding remark for our Rocking Horse Grill essay might be: “The next time you are in town, do not bother with any other restaurants since Rocking Horse Grill has it all.”
If your child follows the above model when writing, he or she will be well on the way toward a perfect five paragraph essay. But first, to your child, a few other pointers:
- Try not to directly state your opinion. Avoid phrases like:
- “In this essay, I will talk about…”
- “I think that smoking is bad for you because” (rather, simply state “Smoking is bad for you because…”)
- “In conclusion, my essay proves…”
- Remember to use transition words when transitioning between paragraphs and between points within paragraphs. For example, at the start of your first body paragraph, you might write, “The first reason why Rocking Horse Grill is the best restaurant in town is because it offers delicious Mexican cuisine.” Between points within that paragraph, you might write, “Next, the burritos at Rocking Horse are some of the best I have ever had. They are warm, thick, and are filled with fresh ingredients. Furthermore, there is a wide variety to choose from.” The words in italics are some transition words you might use.
- Perhaps the most important advice you should follow is to always use three steps when writing: brainstorm, write, and self-check. Use the following guidelines when doing so:
- Brainstorm. Use a visual diagram, a word processor, or even a hand-written list to plan your essay. Make sure you write out your opener, your thesis statement, your three points for your body paragraph, and some details, quotes, statistics, or other specific information that you might include in each body paragraph before writing. This step sets the stage for the organization and flow of your essay.
- Write. Use the above-mentioned guidelines for specific information on how to write the essay itself.
- Self-check. This step is critical; one that many students neglect! When self-checking your work, do not rely solely on the spell check or grammar check on your word processor. Many mistakes are missed by using just these tools! Instead, self-check your work using the following checklist:
- Capitalization: re-read your essay and make sure that all letters that should be capitalized are, and those that should not be capitalized are not.
- Tense: re-read your essay and make sure that all tense is consistent. That means that you should not mix past and present tense together. Rather, you should choose one of the two and stick with it throughout the essay.
- Organization: re-read your essay and ask yourself the following questions: Does my essay have a strong opener? Is that opener followed by a lead-in, and then by a well-constructed thesis statement? Have I clearly stated my points in each body paragraph? Have I restated my thesis statement in my conclusion paragraph and ended my essay with a thought-provoking remark? If so, then check off this box.
- Punctuation: again, re-read your essay and make sure all of your punctuation is correct.
- Spelling: re-read the essay and make sure all spelling is correct.
Note that the key theme here is re-read. You should re-read your essay five times, each time checking for a different element.
Encouraging your child to follow this step-by-step guide to writing a five paragraph essay can help him structure his thoughts on paper in a well-organized, logically flowing fashion. It may take some time, but the more practice, the more progress you will see – so help him get to work!
Dr. Emily Levy is the Founder and Director of EBL Coaching, which offers one-on-one tutoring and intensive summer programs. For more information, visit www.eblcoaching.com or call 212-249-0147.
Paragraphs & Topic Sentences
A paragraph is a series of sentences that are organized and coherent, and are all related to a single topic. Almost every piece of writing you do that is longer than a few sentences should be organized into paragraphs. This is because paragraphs show a reader where the subdivisions of an essay begin and end, and thus help the reader see the organization of the essay and grasp its main points.
Paragraphs can contain many different kinds of information. A paragraph could contain a series of brief examples or a single long illustration of a general point. It might describe a place, character, or process; narrate a series of events; compare or contrast two or more things; classify items into categories; or describe causes and effects. Regardless of the kind of information they contain, all paragraphs share certain characteristics. One of the most important of these is a topic sentence.
A well-organized paragraph supports or develops a single controlling idea, which is expressed in a sentence called the topic sentence. A topic sentence has several important functions: it substantiates or supports an essay’s thesis statement; it unifies the content of a paragraph and directs the order of the sentences; and it advises the reader of the subject to be discussed and how the paragraph will discuss it. Readers generally look to the first few sentences in a paragraph to determine the subject and perspective of the paragraph. That’s why it’s often best to put the topic sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph. In some cases, however, it’s more effective to place another sentence before the topic sentence—for example, a sentence linking the current paragraph to the previous one, or one providing background information.
Although most paragraphs should have a topic sentence, there are a few situations when a paragraph might not need a topic sentence. For example, you might be able to omit a topic sentence in a paragraph that narrates a series of events, if a paragraph continues developing an idea that you introduced (with a topic sentence) in the previous paragraph, or if all the sentences and details in a paragraph clearly refer—perhaps indirectly—to a main point. The vast majority of your paragraphs, however, should have a topic sentence.
Most paragraphs in an essay have a three-part structure—introduction, body, and conclusion. You can see this structure in paragraphs whether they are narrating, describing, comparing, contrasting, or analyzing information. Each part of the paragraph plays an important role in communicating your meaning to your reader.
Introduction: the first section of a paragraph; should include the topic sentence and any other sentences at the beginning of the paragraph that give background information or provide a transition.
Body: follows the introduction; discusses the controlling idea, using facts, arguments, analysis, examples, and other information.
Conclusion: the final section; summarizes the connections between the information discussed in the body of the paragraph and the paragraph’s controlling idea.
The following paragraph illustrates this pattern of organization. In this paragraph the topic sentence and concluding sentence (CAPITALIZED) both help the reader keep the paragraph’s main point in mind.
SCIENTISTS HAVE LEARNED TO SUPPLEMENT THE SENSE OF SIGHT IN NUMEROUS WAYS. In front of the tiny pupil of the eye they put, on Mount Palomar, a great monocle 200 inches in diameter, and with it see 2000 times farther into the depths of space. Or they look through a small pair of lenses arranged as a microscope into a drop of water or blood, and magnify by as much as 2000 diameters the living creatures there, many of which are among man’s most dangerous enemies. Or, if we want to see distant happenings on earth, they use some of the previously wasted electromagnetic waves to carry television images which they re-create as light by whipping tiny crystals on a screen with electrons in a vacuum. Or they can bring happenings of long ago and far away as colored motion pictures, by arranging silver atoms and color-absorbing molecules to force light waves into the patterns of original reality. Or if we want to see into the center of a steel casting or the chest of an injured child, they send the information on a beam of penetrating short-wave X rays, and then convert it back into images we can see on a screen or photograph. THUS ALMOST EVERY TYPE OF ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION YET DISCOVERED HAS BEEN USED TO EXTEND OUR SENSE OF SIGHT IN SOME WAY.
George Harrison, “Faith and the Scientist”
In a coherent paragraph, each sentence relates clearly to the topic sentence or controlling idea, but there is more to coherence than this. If a paragraph is coherent, each sentence flows smoothly into the next without obvious shifts or jumps. A coherent paragraph also highlights the ties between old information and new information to make the structure of ideas or arguments clear to the reader.
Along with the smooth flow of sentences, a paragraph’s coherence may also be related to its length. If you have written a very long paragraph, one that fills a double-spaced typed page, for example, you should check it carefully to see if it should start a new paragraph where the original paragraph wanders from its controlling idea. On the other hand, if a paragraph is very short (only one or two sentences, perhaps), you may need to develop its controlling idea more thoroughly, or combine it with another paragraph.
A number of other techniques that you can use to establish coherence in paragraphs are described below.
Repeat key words or phrases. Particularly in paragraphs in which you define or identify an important idea or theory, be consistent in how you refer to it. This consistency and repetition will bind the paragraph together and help your reader understand your definition or description.
Create parallel structures. Parallel structures are created by constructing two or more phrases or sentences that have the same grammatical structure and use the same parts of speech. By creating parallel structures you make your sentences clearer and easier to read. In addition, repeating a pattern in a series of consecutive sentences helps your reader see the connections between ideas. In the paragraph above about scientists and the sense of sight, several sentences in the body of the paragraph have been constructed in a parallel way. The parallel structures (which have been emphasized) help the reader see that the paragraph is organized as a set of examples of a general statement.
Be consistent in point of view, verb tense, and number. Consistency in point of view, verb tense, and number is a subtle but important aspect of coherence. If you shift from the more personal "you" to the impersonal “one,” from past to present tense, or from “a man” to “they,” for example, you make your paragraph less coherent. Such inconsistencies can also confuse your reader and make your argument more difficult to follow.
Use transition words or phrases between sentences and between paragraphs. Transitional expressions emphasize the relationships between ideas, so they help readers follow your train of thought or see connections that they might otherwise miss or misunderstand. The following paragraph shows how carefully chosen transitions (CAPITALIZED) lead the reader smoothly from the introduction to the conclusion of the paragraph.
I don’t wish to deny that the flattened, minuscule head of the large-bodied "stegosaurus" houses little brain from our subjective, top-heavy perspective, BUT I do wish to assert that we should not expect more of the beast. FIRST OF ALL, large animals have relatively smaller brains than related, small animals. The correlation of brain size with body size among kindred animals (all reptiles, all mammals, FOR EXAMPLE) is remarkably regular. AS we move from small to large animals, from mice to elephants or small lizards to Komodo dragons, brain size increases, BUT not so fast as body size. IN OTHER WORDS, bodies grow faster than brains, AND large animals have low ratios of brain weight to body weight. IN FACT, brains grow only about two-thirds as fast as bodies. SINCE we have no reason to believe that large animals are consistently stupider than their smaller relatives, we must conclude that large animals require relatively less brain to do as well as smaller animals. IF we do not recognize this relationship, we are likely to underestimate the mental power of very large animals, dinosaurs in particular.
Stephen Jay Gould, “Were Dinosaurs Dumb?”
SOME USEFUL TRANSITIONS
(modified from Diana Hacker, A Writer’s Reference)
- To show addition:
- again, and, also, besides, equally important, first (second, etc.), further, furthermore, in addition, in the first place, moreover, next, too
- To give examples:
- for example, for instance, in fact, specifically, that is, to illustrate
- To compare:
- also, in the same manner, likewise, similarly
- To contrast:
- although, and yet, at the same time, but, despite, even though, however, in contrast, in spite of, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, though, yet
- To summarize or conclude:
- all in all, in conclusion, in other words, in short, in summary, on the whole, that is, therefore, to sum up
- To show time:
- after, afterward, as, as long as, as soon as, at last, before, during, earlier, finally, formerly, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, since, shortly, subsequently, then, thereafter, until, when, while
- To show place or direction:
- above, below, beyond, close, elsewhere, farther on, here, nearby, opposite, to the left (north, etc.)
- To indicate logical relationship:
- accordingly, as a result, because, consequently, for this reason, hence, if, otherwise, since, so, then, therefore, thus
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