“So….what problems do your students have in writing?” I ask middle school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”
“So….what problems do your students have writing?” I ask high school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”
One might conclude that students in grades 7-12 have a thesis statement problem…or maybe not.
Maybe the problem of writing a thesis statement is that so many teachers in middle and high school expect that students must have a well-written thesis statement before they can write an essay.
Maybe the emphasis on a well-developed thesis as the start to the essay is misplaced.
After all, according to Webster’s Online Dictionary, an essay (noun) has another meaning beyond “a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject”. The word essay also means a “trial, test; an effort, attempt.” An essay is literally “an initial tentative effort; the result or product of an attempt” and a thesis statement is a student’s position in such an effort or attempt….a “test drive” of sorts.
Instead of expecting well-developed thesis statements, teachers could have student test drive a thesis statement by using one of several online tools known as “thesis generators.” These online tools are free and allow students the opportunity to practice with different ideas as they prepare to write an essay.
My favorite, and easiest to use, is the Tom March Thesis Builder
- What’s the topic you want to write about?
- What’s your main opinion on this topic?
- What’s the strongest argument supporting your opinion?
- What’s a second good argument that supports your opinion?
- What’s the main argument against your opinion?
As they use this thesis generator, students are instructed to:
- Answer questions in short phrases (not full sentences).
- Do not use periods / full stops (.) at the end or capital letters at the beginning of the phrases you write.
- Click the “Build a Thesis” button when you’re finished.
- A window will pop open with your Built Thesis.
- Go back and adjust your answers to smooth out the thesis until it makes sense and expresses your beliefs. Clicking on the “Build a Thesis” button again will update your thesis to show your changes.
- Once you’ve got a thesis statement, use the Make an Online Outline button to generate the framework for your essay.
Once students use a generator, such as the Tom March thesis generator, they may recognize a sentence “pattern” used in creating a thesis that acknowledges a counter argument. These sentence patterns might start with a qualifier such as “even though”, “because”, “despite”.
Acknowledging the counter arguments is specifically addressed in the thesis builder on John Garvey’s Thesis Builder site. The generator on this site asks students:
- Is what you say always true always?
- Are there exceptions?
- Are there good reasons why your position may have a down side?
- How can you make your position have a reality check?
- What general reasons why your position may have problems can you admit up front? To make absolute statements usually causes your essay’s thesis to seem foolishly simplistic. Get real!.
- Here’s a trick: begin your qualification with a word like “although” or “It is true that. . .” Don’t worry if it’s not a complete sentence.
Finally, the thesis builder on the Ashford University website provides different levels of complexity as a student creates a thesis. Once a student enters information into this generator, a series of different thesis statement models on the same idea is offered for students to choose:
Model #1: Thesis Statement
Model #2: Thesis with Concession
Model #3: Thesis with Reasons
Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons
There is also an outline generated on this site that can be used by students in writing the essay.
If teachers and students use these thesis generators, the emphasis on the thesis statement as a starting point might be shifted to another, often overlooked, important part of the essay…the conclusion. The conclusion is where the student’s “test drive” ends, and where the student ends up should matter even more than where the student started.