If your bookshelf looks anything like mine, it holds an assortment of curricula you’ve stopped and started at various times along the way. Some we couldn’t get into for various reasons and ended up finding alternatives. But there are others we fully intended to use—we just never got around to them.

When my son was in high school, he needed some foreign language credits to meet college admissions requirements. Time and again we’d start over and then stop. Spanish kept sliding to the back burner because of everything else that vied for his time. Then one day I nearly had a stroke when I realized Ben would never finish the course in time for graduation. He paid for my lack of perseverance by having to spend some college electives on foreign language.

Is writing one of those subjects you keep starting and stopping? Does your teen drag his feet, fail to finish assignments, or complain night and day? Or are you the one who has trouble following through with lesson planning or editing? Whatever the reason, it’s important that you start afresh, make a plan, stick to your guns, and don’t let your student whine, wheedle, cajole, or otherwise manipulate you into letting him lapse!

Teach Key Essay Writing Skills

Prepare your child for college-level writing by providing him with the tools necessary to conquer the blank page and learn to write articulate, persuasive essays. He needs to learn about the style, form, and structure of essay writing, including narrowing a topic; developing a thesis; brainstorming, organizing, and outlining; and editing and revising.

To help your student develop writing and critical thinking skills, make sure he learns to write various types of essays such as argumentative/persuasive, expository (such as compare/contrast and cause/effect), review of literature, and reflection essays. Furthermore, he should know how to summarize a written work, evaluate and analyze evidence, and develop his own opinions into reasoned arguments.

He will also need to learn to write a research paper, including making an outline, using reference materials, gathering note cards, writing the report, and citing sources. (I like to teach this skill in tenth grade, requiring one paper in tenth grade, one or two in eleventh grade, and two or three in twelfth grade.)

Essays and research papers are often the bane of a high schooler’s existence. These foundational tips will set him off on the right foot and save hours of red-penciling later on.

Write a clear thesis statement.

The thesis statement presents in one or two sentences the central controlling argument. It explicitly identifies the purpose of the paper and previews its main ideas.

Plan and organize.

Essays and research papers need structure, or the paper will fall apart. Your student must avoid diving into writing without first thinking the argument through and organizing his thoughts. Instead of trying to rope together scattered ideas, he must herd them into formation before beginning to write.

Stay on track.

As he writes, he must continually support his thesis statement with facts, logic, and examples. By staying on track and avoiding details that don’t directly support the thesis, he’ll produce a much stronger essay.

Don’t rehash ideas.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying the same thing over again in different ways. Outlining the paper from beginning to end helps avert that problem. If your student outlines the body of the paper by listing key points and major supporting details, he will find it easier to write a more focused paper. If necessary, encourage a little more research so he can support his claims with fresh facts and examples.

Use transition words.

Students can get into trouble when moving between ideas. Teach your child to use transition words, which:

  • Act as signals to alert the reader.
  • Connect important thoughts.
  • Provide transitions between opposing ideas.
  • Provide logical organization that makes for smoother reading.

Words like in addition and furthermore indicate that a point is about to be expanded or explained. On the other hand and conversely suggest that the writer will explore an opposite idea. Therefore and finally signal that a train of thought is coming to an end.

Reading through the paper paragraph by paragraph provides a good test of fluency. If each paragraph makes sense on its own, the writer probably made wise use of transitions. If not, he can look for places to insert transition words.

Focus on clarity and simplicity.

It’s not uncommon for students to try to impress their instructors by overwriting (like using too many big words, piling on too much or unnecessary detail, or taking rabbit trails). The content of a research paper or essay must always point back to and support the thesis statement. If it fails to do so, eliminate it.

Don’t plagiarize.

Plagiarism—copying another person’s written work and calling it your own—is the same as stealing. What has been stolen is the author’s unique way of formulating ideas into his own words. Teach your student the proper way to credit the sources he uses in his research paper or essay.

Teach Timed Writing

Years ago, at the close of one of my writing workshops, an anxious father approached me:

Dad: How can I prepare my daughter for the SAT?
Me: When is her exam?
Dad: Saturday.


Let me say it up front: this is not a skill quickly learned! To prepare for the SAT (and other college essay situations), students must practice timed essays throughout high school to gain training in time management, planning, and writing. With practice, the process becomes more intuitive, greatly reducing the fear factor produced by timed writing.

In reality, students do worry about the questions they’ll face and whether they’ll be able to answer them intelligently and in the allotted time. Frequent practice with timed essays helps make their responses as close to automatic as possible. Sure, they’ll still have unfamiliar questions challenging them on test day, but they won’t be reduced to a bowl of jelly at the sight of the clock ticking away. All that practice teaches them to pace themselves, and that’s half the battle. Therefore, don’t put off teaching this important skill till the last minute.

College Board states that a top-scoring SAT essay:

  • Clearly develops a point of view and offers strong supporting details.
  • Is well organized in structure and flow.
  • Uses appropriate, mature vocabulary.
  • Varies structure by using different kinds of sentences.
  • Contains few grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors.

With this in mind, you can better prepare your student by focusing on the following elements of an essay:

Content and organization

At first, teach essay writing using a widely accepted model: introduction, body with three main points, and conclusion. Once your teen feels comfortable developing a simple essay and supporting each point with details, his own style will begin to emerge.


Students can improve their essay’s vocabulary by avoiding weak, vague words and finding synonyms for overly repeated words. Though they can’t use a thesaurus in a timed setting, they’ll learn to apply new vocabulary they’ve gained through other assignments.

Sentence structure

SAT scorers favor essays that break free from the dull subject-verb sentence mold. Introduce your student to sentence variations, which add interest and a more mature voice to compositions. For instance, he can start sentences with participial phrases, “-ly” adverbs, subordinating conjunctions, or paired adjectives. He can also spice up sentences with figurative language—metaphors, similes, and personification. Once he’s learned to use more interesting sentence variations, require repeated practice until they flow naturally from his pen.


Errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation can distract from an otherwise articulate essay, so students need to pay close attention to these important aspects of their writing. The most common errors include these:

  • Omission or misuse of apostrophes
  • Misplaced quotation marks
  • Comma splices
  • Run-on sentences
  • Sentence fragments
  • Misplaced modifiers
  • Homophone confusion


Once students know how to develop essays in a pressure-free setting, they’re ready to begin writing against the clock. Teach them to divide essay writing into smaller chunks, devoting a certain number of minutes to each segment. At first, walk your teen through the process with (1) verbal prompting, (2) a guide sheet that breaks down the steps, and (3) a clock. As he practices writing timed essays, slowly remove these “crutches” until he can pace himself with the aid of the clock alone.


Beginning in ninth grade, assign timed writing regularly to keep skills sharp. By tenth grade, and definitely in eleventh and twelfth, teens should be writing timed essays almost weekly. Since no prep time is required, you only need to carve a half-hour time slot out of the week. Find practice questions online by searching for terms such as “timed essay questions” and “SAT essay prompts.”

Teach Grammar and Punctuation

Finally, lay a solid foundation in grammar and punctuation. While the difference between its and it’s may not seem like a big deal to some, using these two tiny words incorrectly can make a person seem ignorant and uneducated. Whether or not they mean to, people often form first impressions simply by reading our writing. Isn’t this why our shelves brim with English references and spelling books? Avoiding grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors can help students avoid lower grades, lost job opportunities, and potential embarrassment.

It’s not too late to teach the rules to your teens. And if you didn’t quite grasp these concepts during your own school days, it’s time to learn or relearn the rules yourself. Buy a second student workbook and do grammar lessons along with your children. Or use a resource like The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation to read up on rules, and then practice with a few simple exercises.

Make the Commitment

I once asked my two college grads what best prepared them for the rigors of university-level work. Independently, each one answered, “All the writing you made me do in high school.” Writing is simply one of those non-negotiable subjects that forms a basis for academic success.

Start fresh.  

Vow to see your writing program through. If you’re not using a formal curriculum, you must still commit to assigning writing on a regular basis. Has time been the culprit? Perhaps you need to give up another subject or extracurricular activity in order to devote time to writing. Your child will not survive college without sound writing skills.

Develop a plan.

Grab your writing program and a calendar. Begin planning assignments to help both you and your student stay on track. If you’re concerned about the upcoming SAT, for example, your student will need to learn those timed essay skills now, so that he has time to practice this new skill. No matter what, arm yourself with a plan—and stick to it—or he’ll slip into old habits of not completing his work. This means:

  • Sticking with the schedule,
  • Supervising your teen’s work, and
  • Commenting on and returning papers on time so he doesn’t fall behind.

Once your student has learned the basics of essay writing—both timed and untimed—don’t let up. Devote the rest of high school to more advanced writing, including longer essays, literary analysis, and research papers.

Stick to your guns.

Now for the hard part! Help your teen develop self-discipline. See that he follows the schedule. If he’s used to giving excuses for why he didn’t get around to doing his writing assignment, make him write first thing each morning. Hold him accountable and don’t let him off the hook!

Follow through.

Likewise, if follow-through hasn’t been your strong suit, recommit yourself to helping prepare your student for college by teaching and overseeing writing assignments and adhering to deadlines. If he knows you won’t check up on him, he’ll continue to fritter away his time. But if he realizes you’re going to hold his feet to the fire and impose consequences for incomplete work, he’ll improve his performance.

You’ll both be much happier in the end, and just imagine the joy of being able to say you reached your goal!

Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Winter 2009/10. Used with permission.

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