Teaching Essay Writing in Secondary Schools: Tips That Work

Updated November 18, 2020
teacher helping student with essay writing assignment
    teacher helping student with essay writing assignment
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Many middle and high school students (and some teachers!) dread those two words: essay writing. But essay writing can be very straightforward, and even enjoyable, to teach and learn. Keep reading for tips on teaching essay writing in high school to make the process easier for everyone.

Assess Students’ Essay Needs Early

Every teacher knows that meeting students where they are is the most effective way to teach. But too many teachers assign an essay early in the year without knowing where students are in their essay writing skills. Keep in mind that secondary students have written plenty of essays before they entered your classroom — to varying degrees of success.

Assign a basic informational essay early in the year before you teach anything about essays. See what students already know, and plan your essay unit on addressing those weaknesses. Be on alert for:

  • weak thesis statements
  • transition sentences
  • lack of evidence
  • not enough points
  • too many points
  • no sentence structure variety
  • bringing up new information in the conclusion

Take note of grammar and spelling issues, but address those skills in writing conventions lessons. Your focus on the initial essay assessment should be structure, fluidity of thought and support. See what students need help with, and spend your lessons addressing those skills.


Help Students Find a Thesis Statement First

The most important sentence of any essay is the thesis statement. Many students find themselves struggling to insert a thesis statement after they’ve finished writing, but in reality, the best essays revolve around a strong thesis statement. Teach students how to write an effective thesis statement before they even think about writing the rest of their essay.

Break Down the Essay Structure

High school English classes typically require a basic five paragraph essay as the standard. Breaking the paragraphs up into smaller parts makes it easier to understand for both teacher and student. Students can digest the brunt of the lesson when you break each paragraph up.

Spend at least one class period on each of the following paragraphs, with a particular focus on each sentence:

  • introduction - includes a “hook” sentence, a statement of the problem and the thesis
  • body paragraph 1 - starts with a topic sentence that connects to the thesis and states the first (least important) point, includes concrete details and commentary, ends with a transition to the next point
  • body paragraph 2 - topic sentence reflects the last transition sentence and the thesis, presents the second (semi-important) point with evidence and commentary, ends with a transition to the last point
  • body paragraph 3 - begins with an introduction sentence that connects the last transition sentence and the final (most important) point, uses the strongest evidence and commentary to end the essay
  • conclusion - restates the thesis statement, reflects on the problem, ends with a memorable conclusion sentence

Outlining an essay in these steps makes it much more straightforward for students. Beginning or struggling writers should stick closely to this structure until they become more comfortable. Advanced writers, who may find the strict structure confining, can venture out a bit as long as they adhere to the standards.


Gather Evidence Beforehand

All types of essays require evidence to back up claims. Even narrative writing must include evidence from the writer’s life to support their main point. For informational or argument writing, have students gather more evidence than they’ll ever use prior to writing the essay. They may find evidence that changes their entire outline — or thesis statement — so it’s important to do this before their pencil hits the paper.

Write in Class to Avoid Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a plague for secondary teachers everywhere. Students who are overwhelmed by an essay often resort to finding one online or copying from their friends. But there is a simple way to avoid plagiarism in an essay assignment: write the rough draft in class. Follow these steps to protect your gradebook against plagiarism:

  1. Spend one class period per paragraph on the essay. For example, Monday is intro day, Tuesday is Body Paragraph 1 and so on.
  2. Record each student’s progress. This can be as easy as initialing each paragraph when they are finished and marking it down in your gradebook.
  3. Require the rough draft as part of the essay assignment. That way you can ensure that students are not turning in a very different final draft (that they could have gotten online) to the rough draft they’ve been working on all week.

Not only does this process make it nearly impossible for students to plagiarize their work, but it also lets you assess their progress. You can spot a weak thesis statement or lack of evidence long before the final copy hits your desk.


Teach Peer Editing

You know how it goes — you tell students to peer edit their work, and they unceremoniously add “good job” to their friend’s paper. Then the essay comes to you and you grade it accordingly, for a likely lower score than “good job.” What’s the value in peer editing if it doesn’t prepare them for assessment?

Students aren’t born knowing how to edit each others’ papers. It can be an overwhelming task if they are already struggling to write their own essay, let alone assess their peers’ writing. Teach students how to edit each other’s work at least three times:

  • peer 1 - Read the essay. Does it make sense? Is it interesting?
  • peer 2 - Check for the thesis statement, make sure that each body introduction sentence connects to the thesis statement, and that the conclusion rephrases the thesis statement. Ensure that every body paragraph has evidence.
  • peer 3 - Find any spelling or grammatical mistakes.

This process keeps editors focused on particular parts of their peers’ essays. It allows three separate people to check out a completed essay before turning it in and reinforces what you will be looking for in your own assessment.


Provide Thorough Feedback

Nothing is more frustrating to a student than receiving little to no feedback on a hard assignment. Don’t send essays back to students with only a grade and a comment or two. Make sure you’re using a solid writing rubric (that you distributed and explained before assigning the essay) to grade student writing. Include at least as many positive comments as negative comments to avoid discouraging developing writers.

Additional Tips For Teaching Essay Writing

Now that you’ve got the basics, consider adding these tips to your essay instruction. You’ll find that a few tweaks to your essay unit may result in easier writing for students — and easier grading for you!

  • Model the process. Before students start searching the Internet for “what is a persuasive essay,” show examples of essays in class. These can be prior students’ writing or your own as you model the writing process in front of them. Include examples of weak or unacceptable essays to show students what not to do.
  • Don’t assume high schoolers already know how to write an essay. Many students are able to move through grades without ever having mastered this skill. Make sure your classroom is the grade in which they finally write a strong essay!
  • Create original essay prompts. This means changing your prompts year after year, or even semester after semester. Not only are new prompts more interesting for students, it makes plagiarism nearly impossible if versions of your essays don’t exist on the Internet.
  • Don’t assign more essays that you can grade in a timely manner. Feedback is incredibly valuable for students learning to write essays, but it means almost nothing if it’s delayed. Make sure you can return essays with feedback in at least two weeks. If you already have a lot to grade, assign the essay when you’re caught up.
  • Allow students to rewrite for extra points. There are very few professions in which a person has no opportunity to edit their work. If students are inclined to follow your feedback notes and resubmit their work, let them. It shows great initiative and allows them to learn from their mistakes.
  • Don’t let struggling writers slip through the cracks. Some students have learned that they only need to write the bare minimum to pass a class. But strong essay writing can be the difference between college admission and rejection. Meet with students separately or host writing groups during lunch to help students with this potentially life-changing skill.

Once you’ve gotten through a few units yourself, chances are that you’ll have your own tips to add. Take the lessons learned from each essay writing lesson and carry them forward into the rest of your teaching.


Writing Is a Lifelong Skill

There are many ways that you can approach the task of teaching essay writing. The main thing that you should do is keep an open mind. As long as you encourage creativity and integrity in the classroom, your secondary students will thrive when writing their essays. Check out these tips for writing a literary essay on a book. Or, if you’re preparing older students for an essay, find out how to help college students write essays.