Help Your Child Write an Essay (without writing it for them) Part 1

Your child has been asked to write an essay. The first question you need to ask is: “What exactly is the assignment? ” If they are unsure, clarify this with the instructor before moving on.

An essay is a form of expositional writing.  Before taking pen to paper, ask these questions:
What type of essay is it –  Informative, persuasive, or analytical?
Who is the audience? Is it for Mom? A classroom of peers? Or is this a  presentation for an organization or a letter to an editor?
How much time does your child have before they need to turn it in? How long is it supposed to be?

As they are searching for an idea, if it wasn’t assigned, ask open-ended questions to get them thinking.  Discuss the assignment around the dinner table or while driving in the car. Once they have an idea, go to the library and onto the Internet to gather more information.  Once they have seen what other opinions, facts, and evidence exists for their subject matter and have taken short notes on the ones that interest them, they can narrow it down to a single category to write about.

How to Narrow Down a Topic.
Imagine the various topics related to their subject are like toys in a messy room of several categories. It will be like sorting toys into a box that fits each category. Their notes should be sorted (you can even have them physically trim them and sort the sentences by category).  Select a category related to their topic. For instance, if I wanted to write about comics, I could look at the subject from a historical viewpoint such as the development of comic books.  I could also look at how they were used to persuade – such as in political satire or advertisements. I could instead look at styles of comics, or the lives of comic artists. I may also examine what it takes to become a successful comic artist and what opportunities currently exist for them.  So you see, a topic (such as “Comics”) can be as big as a book or an encyclopedia!  This is why narrowing it down is so necessary.

Write the Thesis or Topic Sentence.
A Thesis makes an assertion which you will prove in your paper. A Topic Sentence which appears as the first sentence in the first paragraph, introduces the subject matter in such a way, that the purpose of the entire paper is explained.

Using my Comic example:
“Since the early days of our nation, comic artists have used their talents to persuade the masses toward political and social change. ”  – Jane Clark
You may use a quotation, a surprising fact or a question for an opening topic sentence. If you do, it serves a double purpose. It is a “hook” or attention grabbing device and it says in an encapsulated form, what you are going to talk about.  Even if you don’t use one of those things, if the topic sentence makes an assertion, remember to include a “hook” early on in your first paragraph.

Keeping Your Promises.
What follows in your essay, must be what you promised to talk about in your opening sentence, or thesis.  If you have indicated you will prove a point,  you must do so and show you’ve done so by your conclusion. If you are going to explain a matter, it must be explained throughout your paper, without “rabbit trails” causing your reader to become confused. Keep it simple and orderly. Even if you don’t tend to think or write in an orderly fashion, use the tools available to an essay writer to make it so, for the sake of your readers!

The Voice
This article is written in a casual tone. I am speaking directly to you, my audience, and referring to myself in the first person.  Sometimes I address the parent, and sometimes the student.  The casual voice works well in blogs and when speaking to a live audience.

But, what “voice” does the assignment call for?  Is it a research paper? If so, you will want to use the third person – an authoritative tone. An informative or objective report takes the views of others into consideration. If it is persuasive, write with confidence, showing that the opposing viewpoint is not compelling.  In papers like these, students will not refer to themselves or use the words “I” or “me” unless directly quoting someone, when those pronouns are part of the quotation.

Sometimes a student is asked to write a narrative essay. This can take the form of a story or a journal entry. The casual, friendly tone works well for a narrative. The five-part structure will not apply here, but a short story model will do better.  If the story is about yourself, use the first-person pronouns. If the story is about others, third person pronouns and using their names to refer to them works best.  In an opinion essay, such as a book review, first person usage is also permitted.  A paper that gives directions or instructions will be written in the second person, but this kind of paper does not usually follow the 5 part essay structure (with supporting evidence), and mary more accurately be called an article.

Tomorrow’s article will address the 5 part essay structure.

Negative and Positive Numbers


Negative numbers may seem an obscure concept, until you bring in examples from life. The best one I know of is the example of debt vs. savings.

Use the following method using both a number line and a balance sheet (such as a checkbook log).

It works this way. Explain that if I have no money at all, and owe nothing, I am at zero in my bank account.

If I owe you ten dollars, but have no money in my pocket, the scale would read –  negative 10. It may help to write the negative numbers in red ink, showing that you are “in the red” by so much.  If I have $10, and owe $10,  on a number line would move forward ten, then back ten, showing a total of zero at the end.   Use different values to practice addition and subtraction on the number line.

A negative/positive number exercise  that is  quite effective, uses real money. Having your child physically add or subtract the amount from their own “bank” by earning or spending (keeping their own funds in a shoebox that says “bank account”) and paying you dollar by dollar for purchases, makes quite an impression.  Not only will they understand the concept of positive and negative numbers (and balances), but it may motivate them to become more frugal!

Another way to emphasize this concept is to have them work off a debt (of a reasonable amount) after buying them a small item (on credit). They didn’t have the money to pay for it themselves so they owe it and have a negative balance. After paying it off fully, they may expect to have money in their pocket, but will realize that they have only gotten back to zero, and need to work more without spending it, to have a positive balance!

This is a hard math lesson. Not because the numbers are difficult to compute, but because reality is hard!

Understanding Number

Very young children, learning to count, haven’t yet associated the spoken number with a written one. They also haven’t made the connection between numeral and number of objects.
You may find a child counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… while looking at three items. This is to be expected as really understanding a number is a process.

A preschool child will associate number with the numeral.
A first grader will begin learning “fact families” to add the numbers or items of things, together. One way to solidify this skill and help a child to internalize the number, understanding it fully, is to play a guessing game with items in a fact family. I put together an easy game when my own children were small, called “Math Beans.” (It works well with M&M’s too.)

Let’s say you want to teach a combination of facts for the number 7. Take 7 beans (or M&M’s or other item of interest to your child that you can easily hide in your hand). Ask them first, to count the beans.

Once counted, put the beans behind your back and take some of them out of one hand, putting them in the other hand. Bring out both hands and show them what is in one, leaving the other hand closed. Ask them to figure out how many “beans” are in the closed hand. This is a fun game, and after playing with the 7 beans, using several combinations – they should begin to answer more quickly, or know immediately. Once they have mastered all the facts of 7, show them what these facts look like on paper.

7 + 0 = 7
6 + 1 = 7
5 + 2 = 7
4 + 3 = 7
3 + 4 = 7
2 + 5 = 7
1 + 6 = 7
and 0 + 7 = 7.

This would also be a good time to explain the Commutative Law for Addition (though you don’t need to name it yet). It doesn’t matter what order you add the numbers.
2 + 5 will give you the same number of beans as 5 + 2.

By playing interactive math games with your children, they will not only master the material, but enjoy doing it. Learning that is enjoyed is remembered.

Knowledge and Understanding

Isn’t it frustrating when knowledge is barricaded by complex systems of learning that don’t seem to make sense? That was my story. Moving from state to state frequently as a child, I missed some crucial building blocks of understanding. No measure of desire to know would help me when what was being taught was already too far ahead.

As an adult, I found tools to facilitate learning what I missed in the public school system.  Home educating my own children, I not only filled in the missing blanks for myself but also learned techniques to help other frustrated learners understand and master the material.

I hope this site will become a valuable resource; a bridge to understanding difficult concepts for elementary grades through junior high school. Please let me know if there is a particular concept you want me to cover.

You can follow my educational video posts and shares on Youtube by searching for GettingDialectic.

May God bless you on your journey from knowledge to understanding!

– Jane Clark