In my more than half century teaching, during a career that progressed from single-copy mimeograph reproductions to digital distributions, one teaching strategy has remained constant — the essay.
I taught it to seventh-graders at Nether Providence Junior High School in the 1960s, and I taught it to honors freshmen at Rowan University in the 2010s. I taught it during the Johnson Administration, and I taught it during the Trump Administration. The politics has survived, and the essay has survived. The essay had academic rigor then; it has academic rigor now.
Some academicians argue that writing an essay is obsolete because it is never an assigned required performance in the real world. But neither is breathing oxygen an assigned required performance; it’s a given and necessity for physical and academic life.
The essay remains a teaching tool and an assessment tool for reading, writing and critical thinking. It remains a model for the thinking and creative process, as well as a model for a finished product. An age-appropriate teaching tool, a successful essay requires reading, planning, organizing, focusing, developing, composing and revising — toolbox skills of an educated person. In addition to an individual skill, writing is also a social skill requiring feedback from multiple sources. The essay remains a successful teaching tool only when the complete writing process is taught. It lacks academic rigor when the essay is merely assigned, graded and returned.
My advice to teachers during workshop presentations has been to teach fewer essays but more revisions of each essay. Revising is the process where professional writers learn the most about writing.
As soon as children become successful writing sentences and paragraphs, they are ready to learn the five-paragraph essay, the building block of multi-paragraph essays and additional complex pieces of writing. Inherent in the five-paragraph essay is an introductory paragraph that engages the reader in the topic and ends with the thesis or focus sentence. The three middle paragraphs each contain one supporting idea developing the focused topic. The last paragraph summarizes the argument, reflects on the topic and leaves the reader with a final-sentence message on the topic.
Prerequisite to writing the essay is a selection from topic options and extensive reading to gain topic insight for writer agreement and disagreement. An essay without required reading usually lacks academic rigor because novice writers usually offer only the current content of the brain’s working memory. Required readings also reduce plagiarism because essays must include engagement references to the teacher’s required sources. Required readings within an essay can begin with age-appropriate references in early elementary grades.
After topic discussions and reading, essays require planning and organizing such as practicing the thesis sentence, listing supporting reasons that develop the focus, identifying insightful reading references and listing specifics that should appear in the essay.
When hours of background information is completed, the essay requires writing a first draft with a clearly defined beginning, middle and ending that support a single-focused idea. After the first draft percolates, the essay requires revising, the most academic demanding process. Revising is required at the organizational level, the sentence level and the editing level. A title requires additional thinking, three or four words that predict the topic and engage the reader.
The essay provides a formidable tool for assessment because it demonstrates performances such as thinking, organizing, analyzing, clarifying, writing, reading, and originality of ideas. But assessment scenarios generally include one assigned essay without process-approach strategies that significantly increase assessment cost and management. A portfolio of essays is a more valid assessment approach but again expensive.
The essay is as basic to education and literacy as oxygen is to life.
Dr. Joe Giampalmi, an assistant professor at Rowan University’s Department of Writing Arts, has been teaching writing for 52 years. Author of five books and dozens of educational articles for national magazines, he has been writing this semi-monthly column since 1985 and has published more than 600 columns. Some past columns are available at DelcoNewsNetwork.com. Giampalmi regularly presents writing workshops for schools and businesses. Please address questions and comments to Giampalmi@Rowan.edu.