Teachers' Essay Comments Decoded (page 2)

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Updated on Jul 14, 2008

Tips: In the editing stage, read each sentence and ask: Does this prove my thesis? Expository writing also requires a balance of exposition (description from the text) and analysis (dissection of this text).

  • Too narrative-driven: Personal narrative demands storytelling as well as contemplation. If your child is writing about a grandparent’s death, his account will be stronger if he reflects on the event. “A personal essay tells a story, but it’s not a ‘this is what I did last summer’ essay,” says Hamlin. “Those tend to be summaries of events – ‘and then this happened and then this happened.’ Personal essays have a reflexive quality, which guides the reader toward a purpose.”

Tips: “Don’t just summarize what happened to you. Think about the significance of each step and consciously craft your essay,” says Hamlin. Consider two “voices” for such an assignment: the voice of your former self – curious and perhaps naïve – and the current one pondering the past, which may be more mature.

  • Fails to identify conflict or lacks purpose: Addressing the central problem in a book, or the protagonist’s primary desire or need, is the key to a successful paper. In a discussion of the dystopian world of Uglies, for example, where sixteen-year-olds are operated on to make them pretty, your child may not identify under-the-surface conflicts or themes of conformity and inner beauty. Likewise, when writing a personal essay, he may not grasp why he wants to recount a certain event, or “what it all means.” His purpose, then, may be unclear.

Tips: When analyzing a book, ask yourself: How did the main character change? What did he or she learn? What larger opposing forces -- aside from human characters -- hinder the protagonist from reaching a goal? When crafting a personal narrative, questions are similar: What does this event say about who I am?  How has it affected my life?

  • Transitions needed: Student writing doesn’t always “flow.” Your child’s sentences may end abruptly, the rhythm of the piece may be “choppy,” or language and content are repetitive. Sentences may begin the same -- “This means that,” “This is important because,” “That means” -- or repeatedly start with the name of a main character: “Harry fought Voldemort,” “Harry saved Hermione,” “Harry went here,” or “Harry flew there.”   

Tips: Read work aloud. Pay attention to where periods are placed, and pause at each one to figure out if an idea can be better connected to the next. Use transitions such as “next” and “however,” or phrases like “in the second example” or “on the other hand.” But don’t go overboard: The key is to sound natural. Creating varied sentence beginnings may be an advanced task, but it’s never too early to practice.

  • Character is flat: Developing authentic characters takes time, even for celebrated novelists. For middle schoolers, this involves giving a character a name, describing the person with physical traits – “tall with blond hair” – or crafting dialogue that may not be “true to character.” If your child takes a stab at fiction, he should think about favorite characters with whom he identifies. For instance, why was Liz, the protagonist in the supernatural world of Elsewhere, three-dimensional? What fears and challenges do your child and Liz share?

Tips: Every character, even a “good guy,” has flaws. “Show personality contradictions and quirks,” says Hamlin. “Vivid physical description will also help round the character out and make the person more believable.”

  • No counter argument: When tackling a persuasive piece, your child may explain her stance thoroughly, but may not anticipate the remarks of her opposition. If she’s writing a paper for a high school civics course on abolishing the dress code on campus, but doesn’t consider what parents or administrators will say, her argument is weak.

Tips: Envision yourself on a stage during a debate. How does the person – or group – behind the opposite podium refute your argument? What will you respond?

It may take practice learning to decode a teacher's comments, but the more you review your child's work, the more you'll be able to assist her with revisions and future assignments.


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