Teachers' Essay Comments Decoded

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Updated on Jul 14, 2008

Your child has an essay splattered with red scribbles. What do they mean? Many comments from a teacher, like “writing is illegible” or “sentence is a run-on,” are straightforward. Feedback on your child’s ideas, however, may be less clear. It’s beneficial, then, to learn to interpret a teacher’s notes to help your child identify what areas need improvement. Here’s a sampling of frequent feedback, particularly for an expository paper, personal narrative, persuasive essay, or short story:

  • Show, don’t tell: If your child is writing an expository essay, he must use examples to prove his thesis. For instance, in a paper on Young Fu, a novel about a Chinese boy who comes of age in the 1920s, your child must discuss specific moments to illustrate Young Fu’s mental growth. Saying, “Young Fu felt left out” tells us he faced hostility, but describing how Young Fu was teased because he was a countryboy, and detailing one of his dangerous encounters in bustling Chungking, shows this isolation.

Tips: In an expository essay, explain every important idea with details. Never assume the reader knows about the topic or the book.

  • Too vague or lacks descriptive details: “Show, don’t tell” translates to fiction and personal narrative, too. If your child is recounting a vacation to Hawaii, she must describe this setting, from the height of the waves on the North Shore, to the colors of fish near Molokini Crater. “Grounding the reader in the physicality of your past experience is important to get them to care about what happened,” says Lauren Hamlin, an instructor in the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Program. “Vivid details give a story its texture and make it more believable.”

Tips: In a short story, a personal narrative, or reflective piece on a childhood event, evoke smells, tastes, and sounds. Transport the reader to an entire world of your creation, or from your memory. You are the expert.

  • Information-heavy: It’s possible to drown an expository or persuasive essay in too much detail. If your child is writing a paper on King Tut – but sidetracked by details about pyramid grave robbers for half a page – his work loses focus. Many middle schoolers think more is better, which leads to rambling information. Moreover, when developing an argument, your child may toss in as many facts and figures as possible, including bizarre and jaw-dropping – yet irrelevant – statistics. “It feels like you’re showing your knowledge, but oftentimes the reader gets lost or bored,” says Hamlin.

Tips: In a research paper or argumentative essay, spread out numbers or statistics. Cite the most significant ones, and then describe, in your own words, why they support your argument.

  • Avoid retelling the plot: Penning an expository paper on literature requires more than regurgitating the plot. If your child must prove how Koly, the protagonist in Homeless Bird, changes as she copes in her hostile, male-dominated society in India, he can’t simply discuss the story’s events in chronological order. He must focus on character traits and concrete examples to illustrate Koly’s change. He could easily write an essay recounting every plot point, but if it doesn’t address the prompt, it’s wasted effort.
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