Teaching writing to students is a major challenge for every teacher. One of the hardest parts for students is writing a cohesive essay. They might have great introductions and solid body paragraphs, but their essays can often lack unity and flow.
As teachers, we harp on about the importance of having a strong thesis statement. Usually, we teach students to list their three main points in their thesis statement. This is an easy way to show students that their main points should relate to the essay topic.
But then the body paragraphs fall flat. They cover each of the main points, but the students haven’t shown how those points relate to the entire topic of the essay. They are little more than fact dumps, and they don’t tie back to the thesis statement or the prompt of the paper.
Teachers live for light bulb moments. And that light bulb moment for cohesive essays might be as simple as a terminology change.
The DBQ Project has two unique terms for their writing process. First, they refer to the major points in an essay as “buckets.” They also changed the term from topic sentence to “baby thesis.”
What Is the DBQ Project?
The DBQ Project is a program for social studies teachers to encourage writing across the curriculum and historical thinking skills. DBQs, or document-based questions, are a type of history essay that provide a series of primary and secondary sources that relate to an overall prompt. AP history tests include DBQs, but these skills are adaptable for all levels.
DBQ essay prompts are not just explanations of a historical topic. They ask students to defend a particular argument using primary and secondary sources and prior knowledge. The DBQ Project makes teaching this writing skill accessible for every level of learner.
The lessons that come from the DBQ Project are not just for social studies. How DBQs are taught can help students write stronger arguments in a more cohesive essay across all subjects.
A good scholar lets the evidence inform their argument, not the other way around. This requires two major steps: analysis and categorization.
Categorization is not a skill that comes naturally to many students. It’s considered one of the highest-level activities in both Bloom’s and Marzano’s levels of thinking. But it’s the skill that is necessary for creating strong body paragraphs.
DBQs are a great way to teach this skill because the documents are provided to the students. However, if you’re writing in English or science class, you’ll need to help teach this skill differently.
For higher-performing students, encourage them to research a topic, write down facts or quotes on notecards or a graphic organizer, and then practice putting this information into “buckets.” For lower-level students, provide excerpts of research for them to categorize. If necessary, you can even provide them with the categories and have them sort the research into those specific categories.
Visual aids are helpful for this step. Teach that “like goes with like.” You can even model with actual plastic buckets or a bucket template if you want. Use kinesthetic learning to have students physically place their research in different groups.
The Baby Thesis
Once their research is divided into buckets, it’s time to take a look at the prompt again. This is where you’ll teach writing a strong thesis statement for the whole paper. After that, introduce the concept of a “baby thesis.”
Students are likely familiar with the phrase “topic sentence.” But a topic sentence can miss the entire point of strong body paragraphs. A topic sentence can tell you what a paragraph is about, but it might not tie in to the overall thesis of the paper. This is where cohesion begins to drop off.
I’m arguing semantics here, but how we phrase things in the classroom can trigger those light bulb moments for students.
The Purpose of a Baby Thesis
A strong topic sentence should do two things:
- Tell what the paragraph is about, and
- Tie back to the thesis of the whole essay.
Students can fairly easily give you a simple sentence that explains what the paragraph is about, but they struggle to relate it back to the overall thesis of the paper. Calling it a “baby thesis” reminds the students that this sentence should support their thesis.
When I modeled pre-writing, I drew a lot of arrows back to my thesis statement to really hammer home the idea that they relate back to their thesis. Let’s look at an example of a thesis statement along with weak and strong topic sentences.
Thesis: The New Deal programs had long-lasting effects on the political, social, and economic systems in American, many of which are still present today.
Weak Topic Sentence: There were also many economic programs in the New Deal.
Strong Topic Sentence: The New Deal also established many economic programs that affect Americans every day.
The first topic sentence is structurally sound. It has a clear transition and lets us know that the paragraph is about economic programs of the New Deal. However, it doesn’t show that the paragraph is specifically about long-lasting or present-day programs that are still in place. With this topic sentence, students might put in examples of economic programs that only lasted a few years.
The stronger topic sentence is a “baby thesis.” Not only does it tell us that the paragraph is about New Deal economic programs, it reminds us that we are only looking at those programs which are still in place. This ensures that your student puts only information that is relevant to the thesis in the paragraph.
A “baby thesis” also reminds students that they need to relate every fact or bit of research back to the thesis. Too often, students write a basic topic sentence and deliver several facts, but they don’t provide any analysis. In the above example, a weak paragraph would list the FDIC and US Employment Service as examples of economic programs without explaining how they affect Americans today. The “baby thesis” reminds students to provide the analysis needed for a cohesive essay.
Baby Thesis as Pre-Writing
When we teach pre-writing, we start with a thesis statement and an outline. We always tell students to decide what their major points are before they write.
The DBQ Project takes this one step further. To ensure an essay that flows well and stays on topic, include the baby thesis as a pre-writing step. Have them write these strong topic sentences before they write the essay as a whole. It will help them organize their thoughts and create a more solid outline.
You can also use this pre-writing step to provide feedback on their baby thesis statements. Offer suggestions to improve these before they begin writing the essay. Strong baby theses will help your students stay on-topic and write an essay that flows well.
Teachers and writers know that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. Teachers especially know that you can explain something a dozen times to a student who doesn’t understand, but as soon as you explain it differently, they get it.
If you’re struggling to get your students’ essays to be well-organized and cohesive with a strong argument, take a note from the DBQ Project. Change your word choice and how you explain the parts of an essay. It might just be the light bulb you’ve been waiting for.
What is the hardest part about teaching essay-writing? Let us know in the comments.