Essay and Sentence Structure

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SWBAT develop awareness of the variety of essay and sentence structures by describing the structure of an argument and mimicking the author's syntax.

Big Idea

Effective writers have powerful linguistic moves we can imitate.

Study of the Structure of an Argument

35 minutes

Today's lesson focuses on the structure of an argument as well as the structure of sentences. I begin with a brief discussion of the structure of an argument. I actively try to find repeated opportunities to make students aware of the relationship between topic, author, purpose and audience. This is a good opportunity. I hold a copy of "Stereotyping" and a copy of "The In Group" in my hands and tell students that I am about to tell them something that sounds too basic, but to bear with me. I tell them that every time we encounter a text, we are to assume several things:

  • This text was created by an author
  • This author has a specific topic in mind he/she is interested in exploring in writing
  • This author has access to a toolbox of effective writing strategies he/she uses to construct this piece of writing
  • There is an audience the author has in mind. We are part of this audience. When we read this constructed text, our job is to deconstruct it. Through this process, we perceive the effect of the strategies used and engage with the argument made.

I tell students that they are to engage in the deconstruction of the argument made in "Stereotyping" as well as "The 'In' Group." Students still have their copy of these texts. They need to have these in front of them as well as a clean sheet of paper. I ask students to title the paper "Structure of an Argument." On the first line, I ask students to write a subtitle, "Stereotyping," because this is the first text we are working with. I explain that they are going to use this paper to verbalize what the author did in each paragraph. The difference between what I want them to do today and what they already did in previous lessons, write the central points of each argument, is blurry. Students already explained the central ideas of each argument, paragraph by paragraph. I now want them to tell me the "how." I want them to zoom out and pay attention to the whole structure of these arguments. I am thinking ahead at the essay they will be writing in about a week and am essentially building background knowledge for a challenging task I am going to be pushing on them, to take control of their writing and select whatever essay structure fits their argument best. I begin to send students this message by pointing out that each text is structured differently. One has a typical, five paragraph format. The other only has three paragraphs and the middle one is very short, uncharacteristic of what my students are used to writing. I do let students know that when they write their own essay, which they know is happening soon, they will be given the freedom to choose the number and length of paragraphs they will be writing. 

To help them understand what their paper should look like, we work on the first paragraph together. I read the first body paragraph aloud and ask students to explain what the author is doing. The first attempt at this inevitably results in students verbalizing the author's central idea in this paragraph, which is that most Native Americans the author met in the Corps were called stereotypical names. I point out that this is the author's point in this paragraph and I want them to take it a step further and explain HOW the author makes this point. I tell them that I have been asking them to tell me what the author is DOING, and emphasize the word explaining that to answer this, you need to use a verb. I suggest possible responses, such as that an author sometimes challenges something in a paragraph or confesses something or reveals something or highlights, etc. This begins to guide students in the direction I am interested in taking. Through the discussion, we settle on two statements: introduces the topic of stereotyping, tells us how they discriminated with with racial names. I was hoping for stronger verbs than these, but they are moving in the right direction.

I give students time to work on this. I ask them to initially work alone. This is so they have time to gather their thoughts. After a few minutes, I ask them to collaborate with the partner they sit with. 

After many are done and many are close to being done, I call their attention back and ask different pairs to share what they came up with. During this time, student have the opportunity to clarify what they wrote on their paper. More importantly, we have an opportunity to discuss the texts one more time. Before we go over "The 'In' Group," I address Eve Shalen's tone in "The 'In' Group"by asking students to share what they came up with for homework. We discuss her tone and then move on discuss how she made her argument and continue finishing their study of the structure of these arguments.

Powerful Sentence Structure

20 minutes

I hope that students are now more aware of different ways effective authors structure their arguments and that they will be able to apply this knowledge to the essay they will be writing in about a week. Similarly, I want to help them become aware of powerful sentence structures and appreciate the language of effective writers. I focus on "The 'In'Group" for this activity. I often take quick informal polls in my classroom to get some feedback on my selection of materials. I take one now. I ask students to tell me whether they believe Eve Shalen's argument is more or less effective than Joseph Suina, author of "Stereotyping." I ask students to raise one finger if they believe Suina's was more powerful, two fingers if Shalen's was more powerful and three fingers if both are equally powerful. Most raised three fingers. Now I move on to freely speak of our overwhelming belief in the power of Shalen's speech. I suggest to students that part of what makes her argument powerful is the way she stated her ideas. I tell them that I identified a few sentences from her speech that had a particularly interesting structure and distribute the copies of the worksheet titled "Linguistic Moves (The In Group)" with the samples I selected. In this worksheet, I copied four sentences from the speech and broke down the way each was structured. I wrote a representation of how the sentence was structured by omitting Shalen's content and replacing it with blanks and X/Y variables. The task is for students to use the same sentence structure but with different content, specifically content that they come up with and that is true in their lives. I give them some examples with content from my personal life to illustrate. The task seems complex and confusing to students at first, but they easily get it when they hear an example. I tell students that I found the first example difficult and could not come up with content to fill in. Here are the examples I shared with them that are true in my life.

  • The anger was clear. It came in the form of dirty looks when I asked them to settle down and resistance when I made simple requests. (I explained to students that I am talking about a new set of students who are not happy about being moved to my class a month after the school year began and enjoyable time with a teacher who lost a position at our school. My students giggled over this.)
  • I would like to say that if I was not a full time teacher and a full time mom I would spend my free time exercising more, but I can't honestly be sure.
  • Often eating more greasy food than your body can handle is more satisfying than exercising self control, even though the satisfaction does not last.

My students had a very good time hearing me share these things with them. They were eager to fill in the blanks with their own content. Because I was only able to complete three, I told students to shoot for finishing three and to do a fourth one if they wished. I walked around as they wrote, enjoying what they were coming up with. Some were a bit confused with the first two sentences because they had blanks and variables so I explained it again. After we had several good examples in the room, I asked students to volunteer to share some aloud. They came up with very good things and this was a great time to praise their thinking. See some student samples in this video.


2 minutes

I ask students to finish this at home for homework. I restate that I enjoyed hearing about their lives through the sentences they wrote. I remind them that I want them to be aware of the variety of essay and sentence structures and to keep this in mind, specifically when they are getting ready to write their own argument.