Writer’s Block? Follow These 5 Steps to Help Your Child Write Essays with Confidence

In my nearly two decades working with students, I often hear the claim, “I can’t write.” Now, of course most of them can write, and after a bit of prodding on my part, we typically reach the same realization: it’s not the act of writing that scares most kids, but rather it’s the fear of not knowing how to organize their ideas—or even where to start, for that matter—that leaves many students staring at a blank piece of paper (or these days, screen). Especially for students with challenges in Executive Function areas like organization, planning, and task initiation, this fear can quickly turn into panic; however, when equipped with the right tools, they are able to approach essays and other writing assignments with confidence.

In this post, I’ll be offering some best practices for tackling the five (or more)- paragraph essay. While most students gradually develop their own system, it can be helpful to provide them with a bit of direction and guidance to get started. By taking these steps, you can help your child push past writer’s block and develop a clear and actionable plan.

But first, it’s important to make sure your child’s work environment is conducive to creative thought and productivity. As I mentioned in my back-to-school blog post earlier this year, establishing a routine—including where homework is completed—is key. Simple cues like always going for a walk before they sit down to work or sipping on some tea while they review their to-do list will help your child know what to expect and get in the right mindset.

Step #1: Clarify the question that’s being asked.

This may be stated directly in the prompt (e.g., What does the main character learn over the course of the novel?), but if not (e.g., Write an essay in which you discuss what the main character learns over the course of the novel), have your child rephrase the prompt into a question.

Step #2: Start with a working thesis.  

In order to formulate a coherent argument, your child will need to make a claim, aka a thesis. A thesis is simply an answer to the question posed in the prompt, and while it may change throughout the writing process (which is why we call it a “working” thesis at first), it should follow these three rules:

  1. It is focused, specific, and addresses the prompt.
  2. It is interpretive (in other words, someone could make a reasonable argument against it), and it offers a unique or revelatory perspective (i.e., it doesn’t just state the obvious).
  3. It provides a roadmap for the rest of the essay.

Step #3: Let the thesis be your guide.

While it may sound counterintuitive to not jump into writing the introductory paragraph next, I suggest saving it for later. A strong thesis should provide a roadmap for the rest of the essay, and more specifically, it should introduce the main points in support of the central claim.

In a five-paragraph essay, for example, there are typically three body paragraphs, so in that case, your child should consider the three most compelling points they would like to make in support of their argument, and organize their body paragraphs accordingly.

Step #4: Prove it.

Any argument is only as good as the proof behind it, and regardless of whether your child is writing a literary analysis or history paper, sound evidence and clear reasoning are essential. In each body paragraph, your child should offer evidence (e.g. quotations, statistics, facts, etc.), and they will also need to explain how that evidence connects to and supports their thesis.

To make each body paragraph lead logically into the next, they should also craft topic and wrap-up sentences that:

  • Topic sentence: introduces the main focus of the body paragraph.
  • Wrap-up sentence: brings the paragraph’s ideas together in a way that also points to the body paragraph/topic that follows.

Step #5: Introduce and conclude.

Remember when I said we’d get to the introductory paragraph “later”? Guess what: it’s later! Once a student has reached this step, the real heavy lifting of the writing process is complete, and now it’s time to bring it all together.  

First, I ask students to review their working thesis in light of the discussion that developed throughout their essay, and consider whether it needs any tweaking or revision.

In addition to their firmed-up thesis (which typically goes at the very end of the paragraph), the introductory paragraph should include:

  • A hook to draw in the reader, such as a short anecdote, relevant fact or statistic, or question.
  • Background information that provides pertinent context about the topic.

And now all that’s left to write is the conclusion! Personally, I find the concluding paragraph of an essay to be the most fun to write (and read), because it’s a chance to reflect on the discoveries made along the way and pull the piece together in a compelling way. A conclusion should:

  • Restate the thesis statement and summarize the main points made in support of it.
  • Address the overall importance of the argument and consider its greater implications. In other words, so what? Why does the argument matter or have relevance that goes beyond the pages of a novel/textbook and the assignment itself?

Some final thoughts…

Before printing or pressing “submit,” it’s very important that students take the time to read over their work and edit and revise as needed. Not only should they keep an eye out for typos and other technical errors, but they should also consider the clarity and efficacy of their argument, and whether the evidence they chose to include does, in fact, support their thesis—and if they’ve made that clear to the reader.

Writing is a highly personal and recursive process, and while these steps should offer some guidance, I find that most students gradually learn what works—and what doesn’t work—for them. And for those that need more support, my one-on-one Academic Coaching sessions are tailored to meet a child’s specific learning style, interests, and needs, and I am committed to helping students become responsible partners in their learning process.

Want to learn more? At the heart of my teaching philosophy is the belief that every child is unique and capable of success, and because of this, I design each program around the individual. I’d love to hear from you, and discuss how I can partner with your family!

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