Essays in 6th Grade: A Basic Format that Elevates the Standard 5-Paragraph Structure
6th grade is such a funny year. Funny haha and funny weird. Student writing levels are all over the map. You will have students coming to you writing on a very elementary level, still needing loads of help with grammar and paragraph formation. Then, you will have students ready to write critique pieces and analyses. How do you navigate this? Read to find out more!
Give Them a Format...to Start
I've learned that 6th graders still need format. They still need structure. They still need checklists. As much as I loathe limiting them in this way, I think it is very reassuring to them. That's not to say you can't tweak for the strong writers, but I do still feel they need it.
For my students in particular, I like to let them dabble in looser formats of non-fiction writing in other ways. They do book reviews, a debate, podcasting, etc. They are offered choices in reading responses to non-fiction reading and analysis, too. My classes actually write digital eBooks, too. But on the whole, they are expected to write two essays with a very similar format twice a year.
Bye-Bye 5-Paragraph Essay
Alright, so this is kind of not totally true. My students do end up writing 5 paragraphs, but that typical structure we all commonly know, I navigate away from. I think it's a fine format, but as they get into middle school they are expected to compare a LOT more and not focus on one specific topic. They are expected to follow through on a thread, a claim, a theme, an idea and how it is shown in various sources. And this is super new for them, analyzing various sources on the same concept. They really need a structure for this.
So, the typical essay, before they get to me, goes like this, and it is a good precursor:
Introduction that states your thesis and 3 major reasons to support your claim.
Conclusion that looks a whole lot like the introduction.
This format does not allow analysis of multiple sources and if you throw in other sources, it gets messy. Instead, I gear my students to focus on each source separately, then comparing them all.
The Format that Works (Research and Literary Analysis)
First of all, it's important to know what essays I actually do with my kiddos. I do a research unit. This changes almost every year, but typically they choose some kind of topic, I group them based on their topic choice. First, they do research (non-fiction skills) using a book, article, and video. They then use those sources to write an essay on a claim they make based on their topic. Later, they make eBooks in groups based on their topic.
The other essay I do is Literary Analysis. This follows a dystopian unit. They read a dystopian book in book clubs. Then, I have them choose from a short list of short stories that are dystopian. Lastly, we watch the movie The Truman Show. (This year I had them watch "The Scarecrow" on YouTube since we were hybrid due to the pandemic). They then determine a theme that is true for all three sources and write an essay based on that theme.
This essay format works for both of these essays. So here it goes!
Introductory and Conclusion Statements
In a traditional essay, students have to write a hook, their claim/thesis, and essentially ANOTHER three sentences that state what their essays will be about. In my opinion, all of this is completely unnecessary. How many times do you read introductions in books? Okay, real avid readers do, but in reality many people don't. So for these, I tell my students to get right to the point.
Here's what should be in their introductory and conclusion statements:
A statement that introduces the topic. (This is a hook of some kind. I sometimes tell them to start it with "in our world..." or "in our lives..." and something that relates to their topic. Or just starting it with their topic and explaining what it is.)
A statement that references there are differences and similarities in the sources. (For example: "[Title of sources] support this claim in different and similar ways." That's it.)
This all ends up being 2-3 sentences.
I have my students start their essay prep with topic sentences. This helps them get a sense of where their essays will go.
The big thing to understand here is how the paragraphs are set up.
Body #1: Focus on source #1 and how it shows claim/thesis.
Body #2: Focus on source #2 and how it shows claim/thesis.
Body #3: Focus on source #3 and how it shows claim/thesis.
Body #4: Focus on how ALL SOURCES show the claim/thesis in the same way.
So they start with creating topic sentences for those paragraphs. Each topic sentence is set up like this. The last topic sentence would start with "all sources..." instead of "source title".:
Body Paragraph Format
In the picture you see below, I have specific colors for specific aspects of body paragraphs. ALL body paragraphs follow this format in that exact sequence/order. I will be completely honest, I don't give them a ton of wiggle room since this is pretty new to them. However, my stronger writers dabble in mixing evidence stems and elaboration stems around.
Their paragraph starts with the topic sentence they already prepared. From there, the next sentence begins with an evidence stem. Here are a few examples of evidence stems:
According to the text,
The author states,
Right after the evidence stem, in the same sentence, they add their text detail to support their topic sentence. I encourage them to quote exactly from the text for most text details. They can paraphrase, too, but should really try to get exact lines.
In regards to quoting, I also mention to them not to quote plop. I made this up. I plan on making a product for this at some point. A quote plop is bad. It's when students take a line from the text and just plop it in their essay. I show them how to break up the quote from the text with their own words.
So, a first sentence may look like this: According to the text [evidence stem, highlighted green], when Luke was hiding due to being a third child, "they took the woods away" , [text detail with context, a.k.a. not just plopping the quote in the sentence, highlighted yellow].
Directly after that sentence should be an elaboration stem with an elaboration explaining how the text detail shows their claim/thesis. Students highlight this entire sentence in blue and their claim within it dark blue. Here are some elaboration stems:
This proves [claim] because...
This shows [claim] because ...
After that they do the same process two more times; two more text details with elaborations. Lastly they do a closing sentence.
Comparison Paragraph: This is set up almost exactly the same, except the focus is on how ALL the sources show the claim in the same way. They then provide a NEW text detail from each source to prove how the claim is being shown similarly in each.
Once all their body paragraphs are written, I have them go review their introductory and conclusion statements, put everything into a final draft and leave the highlights in the essay. This helps them visualize all the components and helps me grade!
For revision, the focus is on not quote plopping, being sure their details support their thesis, changing up the wording of claims/theses, and rearranging for strong writers.
While this is very limiting for some, it is super helpful for struggling writers. Having that checklist and having the highlights helps students visualize what they need to compare sources in an essay format.
I'd say it'd be great to introduce this in 6th and by 8th, they can certainly make these more interpretive, creative, and unique.
You can find a lot more detail about this in the product below. What you see here is only a taste. This contains a full sample essay, checklists, tips, and more. You can also edit it to meet your needs.
Want a CUSTOM BUNDLE from me? Click below!