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Writing with Purpose

"The grass is green." My beginning writers often make the mistake of stating a fact instead of staking a claim, and inexperienced writing instructors often let them get by with it. In the process, both the writer and instructor end up frustrated and don't know how to get themselves out of the cycle of ineffective writing.

Writing must have a purpose, and that purpose is to support and prove claims through evidence.

This probably seems obvious, but to the beginning writer, and the poor mom trying to help that writer, it's a starting point that can either set them on a path toward success or failure.

The purpose statement, thesis statement, or claim for an essay should need to be developed. In other words, if everyone would agree with it without argument, it doesn't need to be written. No one would argue the color of grass, and though that may seem a silly point, a simple glance through a stack of middle school papers will tell you it's not that silly after all.

In my classroom, I often refer to this problem, having topic sentences and thesis statements too narrow, as painting ourselves into a corner. We have given ourselves nowhere to go in our essays or paragraphs if the main point is so narrow it needs no developing. Let's look at a few examples...

Painted into a corner:

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Puritanism in New England.

Broad with room to move:

Nathaniel Hawthorne uses symbolism and imagery to expose Puritan hypocrisy in The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown."

Beyond the thesis statement, students need solid topic sentences in the body paragraphs, and again, these sentences must make claims that need to be developed. Students often write an event as a topic sentence, when the event represents a larger issue in the topic and should be used as an example instead.

Painted into a corner:

Hester Prynne wore a red A on her clothing because of her sin.

Broad with room to move:

Puritans in Hawthorne's work used public humiliation to expose the sin of others while harboring their own secret sin.

Notice that now the scarlet A serves as a piece of evidence about a public symbol meant to humiliate, but the writer can also use the scaffolding in the town center as another example. The letter is one element of the broader issue of public humiliation.

How can I teach my child to see this problem? Ask questions!

Who would disagree with your topic or thesis statement?

If no one could reasonably disagree, he or she has made a statement, not a claim.

Can you give me three examples to support your topic or thesis statement?

If there are no examples, the student has made a statement, not a claim.

Most importantly, if you're a home school mom slogging through teaching your child to write, seek out help. In my house, we had the math monster. He crept out from under the bed every morning and haunted us all day. We hired a good friend who excelled in math to come exorcise that beast once a week, and we survived math with our relationships intact.

For many families, that's the writing monster. He robs you of peace and of your relationships with your children. Drop me an email at, and we'll lament together, and just maybe, we can get your child writing with purpose.

...and that's how we help them Over the Bar.

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