In my last post, I made a case against the five paragraph essay as an appropriate analytical structure for high school students. The closed thesis, redundancy, and built-in limitations to critical thinking ultimately hold students back from their best work.
If not the five-paragraph essay, then what? I’m going to take you on a tour of the process I teach for close reading and written analysis. Keep in mind that there are many instructional entry points to these steps, and they should certainly be adapted for longer texts.
1. Set a purpose for reading. Unless a prompt outlines a specific purpose, I tell my students that they are looking at the ways the author uses rhetorical strategies to achieve his or her purpose. Because we have spent time working through prompts, they know that they should always focus on the implicit (abstract) part of the prompt, which is generally stated as a purpose, meaning, or theme. The explicit part (concrete/language-based) will be used as support or commentary.
2. Read and chunk the text. As students read, they should note shifts (usually in tone). After reading, they should draw lines or use brackets to divide the text into 2-4 distinct sections. They should then write a brief note next to each section to identify what is happening in that chunk of the text. I tell my students to keep it to six words.
3. Identify patterns, repetition, and shifts. Instead of sending students on a literary device scavenger hunt, they should focus on language that fits these three categories. Naming the categories this way also help students articulate effect.
4. Ask leveled questions based on the annotations of patterns, repetition, and shifts. The focus should be on level two and level three questions.
5. Write out the PASTA information for the text. PASTA stands for Purpose, Audience, Subject, Tone, and Author’s bias.
Only now are students ready to start writing.
6. Craft a thesis statement that addresses the implicit part of the prompt. The thesis should always be focused on meaning rather than devices.
7. Create a topic sentence (at least one) for each chunk of the text. This will likely be pulled from a level two or three question from the annotations. With a thesis and topic sentences, students now have a quick outline for their writing.
8. Choose textual support for each topic sentence. I urge students to keep their quotations to about six words (that’s my magic number, it seems). They should be pulling the words or phrases that the author said in a way they couldn’t capture through summary or paraphrase.
9. Craft the body paragraphs with attention to the balance between evidence and commentary. Students should develop a pattern of assertions, quotes, and explanations. One key teaching point here is the connection between the quotations. Too often, students are told to find three details to support a point and explain them. In doing so, they don’t discuss how the quotations connect to each other. This should be easier because of #10.
10. Organize the analysis by the chronology of the text chunks. This may look like…
- Before the shift/after the shift
- Beginning, middle, end
11. After writing the body paragraphs, write the introduction and conclusion.
This organizational structure is superior to the five-paragraph essay because it allows the importance and complexity of the student’s thinking to build along with the text being analyzed. Additionally, the introduction and conclusion (I ask students to write these last) become parts of the essay that extend the thinking rather than regurgitate what has been said.
This process requires much more teaching and practice than the five-paragraph essay. The cognitive demands are higher; the safety of a simple structure is gone, but students take bigger risks with their writing that rewards them with a bigger payout. Plus, there’s a bonus for you: you might actually enjoy reading those essays you now have to grade!