Dear Dr. Louis,
According to our training on expository writing, having opinion in the topic sentence (TS) depends on several factors, not-the-least of which is what the prompt is asking. Does that hold true for thesis statements in expository essays? In other words, when does a thesis statement for expository essays have opinion and when does it not?
Some of my esteemed colleagues argue that a thesis statement must be debatable and, therefore, inherently would have opinion. I think the decision about what goes in a thesis statement depends on the standards being taught at certain grade levels and what the teacher is assessing at any given time. No matter what type of thesis statement we want from our students, however, remember – they cannot read our minds.
Therefore, writing an effective prompt indicates our expectations. In fact, the first step in the writing process is for the students to decode the prompt in order to develop a “working thesis.” An effective prompt inspires writing because it gives just enough information to guide the students. If a student says, “I don’t know how to start,” then, you might want to revise the prompt. I like to share my prompt with a colleague and ask him/her if it is clear before I give it to my 180 students.
Writing is a process not only for students, but also for teachers. In an earlier blog, I talk about writing prompts because, as teachers, our written instructions must be clear. That clarity in the writing process begins with creating an effective prompt with three parts: 1) background information; 2) the trigger; and 3) the task. The task provides the verb choices that guide students where opinion is needed (e.g., interpret) and where opinion is not needed (e.g., list) in their short answer, paragraph, or essay.
And while we’re on the subject of the writing process, students are going to struggle with remote learning this semester because teachers are going to struggle with giving students enough time to process what the students are learning and with assessing that learning. When we are in the classroom with our students we can see their minds at work; we know how to “bob and weave” by the way they verbally respond and gesture. However, in a virtual or remote setting, that observation will be more challenging, and we’ll not know as readily if the students have processed the skill or content unless they are able to write what they have learned. Therefore, both English language arts and reading teachers (ELAR) and non-ELAR teachers have the opportunity to develop a writing task with each lesson. The students’ responses may be as simple as a JSWP one-chunk response or a one-chunk paragraph. Student writing will be much more eye-opening than discussion or multiple-choice as to whether his/her students understand a skill or concept. When students write what they know, teachers will be able to assess mastery of skills and content. I believe that knowledge can be more easily in this remote environment through short and process writing responses.
If we focus on writing solid prompts, students will have a better understanding of whether we want opinion in the thesis statement for an essay or in a short answer for a discussion question. Verb choice in the task portion of the prompt is critical. In the table attached linked below in this blog, I have color-coded in green the words and phrases in a prompt that should yield an opinion and red for the ones that do not. These words and phrases come from great taxonomies we teachers have studied over the years, including Bloom’s (1956), Bloom’s (2001), Marzano, and Understanding By Design. More taxonomies are available, and I selected the ones I think are the ones that lend themselves best to creating the task portion of a prompt. Combining these words and phrases into a prompt will guide students in their decoding of the prompt and designing of their “working thesis statement.”
For September’s newsletter, I will demonstrate well-written prompts that yield well-written thesis statements.
Keep reading and writing!
And stay safe!