Teacher Tip: Break Down Essay Assignments With This 4-Step Process

By The Understood Team on Dec 08, 2017

Kids with writing issues often feel frustrated and may even shut down when asked to write an essay. Imagine your child receives this assignment:

Teacher: Class, your homework tonight is to read this short story, then write an essay about it. Please write your response based on the following three-part question: What conflict exists between the two characters? How is the conflict different from what you would have expected? What’s the effect of those differences?

Later at home, you notice your child is staring at the homework and hasn’t started. You approach and read over the essay question.

You: Hey there! Why haven’t you started the essay? Child: I don’t understand it. You: OK… specifically, which part? Child: [shrugs shoulders] I don’t know… All of it.

This often happens because students don’t know how to explain what they don’t know. They can get overwhelmed by a big task and aren’t sure how to ask for help.

The solution is to help them break down the essay question until they can explain which part of it is giving them trouble.

That’s why in my class, I use a four-step process to break down essay assignments. This method is not only efficient, but gives students more ownership over the situation so they don’t feel helpless.

Step 1. Find out if the problem is with the essay question or with the story itself.

Maybe your child isn’t struggling with the question, but with the text the assignment is based on. (Or it may be both.)

Encourage your child to re-read the story. Sometimes even the best readers need to go back and read things a second time. Also, have her jot down quick details about the main elements like characters and plot to give an overall understanding of the story.

You can also ask her to talk with you about the story details. This helps to make sure she’s focusing on information that’s crucial to answering the question.

Step 2. Break down the essay question.

With a multi-part question, just focus on one part at a time. Using the example above, the first question asks about the conflict in the story. As your child re-reads the story, have her underline any examples of conflict. She should take down notes about the conflict too.

Your child can continue like this with each part of the essay question. The point is to tackle one part at a time and break down the information. This method will also help reveal which part is the most confusing or problematic for her.

Step 3. Determine what information is needed to answer each part of the question.

This step takes the most time, but it’s a critical one to do. It gets faster with practice and eventually your child will start doing it automatically.

Using the above example, part one of the question requires knowing which conflict exists. Once she jots down notes about this, she can move on to part two: How is the conflict different from what she expected? To answer this part, your child must write down what she thought the conflict would be focused on.

This means she has to look at what actually happened and explain how it’s unexpected. With the notes she jotted down about the conflict (part one of the question), she already has some of the answer ready.

She can build on information similarly as she moves from part two to part three of the question. You might need to help her organize her ideas the first few times so she really understands the process.

Step 4. Have her identify which part of the question is confusing.

After she’s broken down the questions like this, your child will likely be able to tell you which part is tripping her up. She might say, “The last part of the question is confusing because I don’t know exactly what it means.” Or she might say, “What if I wasn’t surprised by what the conflict was about? How can I answer the second part of the question?”

Getting to this stage is great. Your child has identified the specific part that doesn’t make sense to her. Talk through the confusion and possible solutions. And remind her that the notes she took can be a road map to the quickest and best way to find answers to most of her questions.

The key to each of these steps is to get your child to think about an essay question in parts. With practice, this skill can become automatic for your child.

—Kimberly Eckert

Kimberly Eckert is a high school teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has years of experience teaching and mentoring students with learning and thinking differences. She was named 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year.


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    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.