Helping Students Establish A Central, Controlling Idea In Writing

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SWBAT establish a central, controlling idea by engaging in exercises to help them think conceptually.

Big Idea

Stepping into the abstract is new territory for both of us.


We have been working on the organization of an essay for the last couple of days. The main goal is to engage students in a process where they are producing writing that communicates concepts and not just summarizes. This is an important skill they need to develop if they are to gain better control of argumentative writing. It is a challenging process for my students and we are taking it one slow step at a time. Today, we tackle the last step and spend the entire period on it: drafting a thesis statement with a controlling idea.


5 minutes

I let students know that we are taking the next step, drafting a thesis. I use the diagram on the board to summarize what we have been doing, which is following a bottom up process that asks students to begin with the selection of textual evidence, then on to the analysis of evidence by identifying concepts suggested in the evidence and end by drafting topic sentences and thesis stating these concepts.

I tell them that to do the next step successfully, writing a thesis, they have to understand several things that we have already discussed in this class:

            1. The meaning of the word abstract. I want students to understand this word because we are working on formulating sentences that state a conceptual idea and this word will help us discuss this. I have this definition of abstract up on my wall and I use it to explain the meaning to my students in simple terms. I tell them that something abstract exists in the mind and I compare it to the word concrete, which I define as something that exists in the physical world. I go over a few examples. I state that the table in front of me is concrete because it exists in the physical world. I purposely touch the table to demonstrate. I then use the word love as an example of something abstract that exists in the mind, not in the physical worlds. I have to make sure to state that this does not mean it is not real. Love is absolutely real. The point is that it is abstract. I tell them you can’t touch love and this immediately elicits the point that you can touch the person you love. I agree but clarify that they are touching the person and not the idea of love. This makes the point. I have delivered this explanation repeatedly in my years of teaching and did wonder at some point if it is necessary to get this basic. I learned that this is necessary for students who are new to the expectation of writing and thinking conceptually. Also, I know most students will not remember the meaning of abstract next time it comes up and I can quickly use the table and the word love to remind them. As a matter of fact, I can expect to purposely touch that table and to remind them that when they touch the person they love they are still not touching love repeatedly throughout the rest of year. They need repetition in order to remember this.

            2. Once we understand we are in the world of abstract ideas, which can be an intimidating place to explore the first time, I make it more accessible by telling them that we are basically trying to identify ideas that are explored in literature and in important informational texts. I came up with a label a couple of years ago: big ideas that matter to human beings. I want them to see that we are essentially looking for the reason why certain texts are important and survive for generations. One answer I provide is that they address big ideas that matter to human beings. On my wall I have a list of big ideas that are significant to human beings and have introduced it to every class I teach. The list of ideas were contributed by students from different classes. For today’s lesson, I just remind them of this and instruct them to think along this line when they draft their thesis statement.

            3. Nominalization, which I am introducing today.

Direct Instruction

20 minutes

I introduce the term nominalization by asking students to think of naming, and I give them this explanation of nominalization. This idea comes from the Beverly Derewianka book titled Exploring How Texts Work. This explanation I give them is very abstract, but I go on to give them an example to make this more concrete. The example is from Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel familiar to all of us because we read it last semester. I selected two sentences that simply describe something that was directly stated in the novel:  "Janie did not want Nanny to marry her off to Logan. Later, she was forced to do whatever Joe told her to do." I identify these two sentences as examples of level 1 information, which we have already described as information that comes straight out of the text and has not been analyzed. In this video, I give students directions to name the process communicated in these two sentences, which is nominalization. I give them 30 seconds to think. The first thing students are able to come up with is individual words, which is great because we are trying to think of the big idea that these details point to. They come up with: owned, used, controlled, forced, autonomy, oppression. From these, I select the word autonomy to draft the sentence and I collaborate with students to draft this sentence, as shown in this video. This is a brief introduction to this concept. We will revisit this idea later. I am hoping that this brief intro will get the idea across and will help them draft a thesis statement with a strong controlling idea.

Creating A Model

15 minutes

Now we move on to produce another model of a thesis statement using the same sticky notes we have been using in the past few lessons. We have two topic sentences that need a thesis statement. This mirrors what students have at this point, meaning that they have selected textual evidence, which has been written on smaller sized stickies, and they have stuck these to the corresponding topic sentence, which has been written on a medium size sticky, and they have stuck both to a regular piece of paper. They will write their thesis statement directly on the paper. The large white sticky I opened on my desktop is meant to mirror their larger white paper and this is where we will write a thesis statement for the stickies I project. We follow the same process as for the sentence we drafted in the nominalization exercise. Students initially think of the following single-word ideas that connect the two topic sentences: ignorance, insecurity, power, possession, position, and selfishness. From here, we draft the following thesis statement: "Joe Stark’s insecurity pushes him to act in ways that seek power." We get to this point with ease because they got some practice with the nominalization exercise. The last step is to make sure we have cohesion and we do this in this video.

Independent Work

15 minutes

Students now turn to their own topic sentences and work on drafting a thesis statement like the ones we drafted today.