No matter what your students are writing, the most important piece of any essay is a strong, well-defined thesis.

But for many students, this can also be the most challenging part of the essay–how can they even start a paper if they don’t even know what they’re writing about?

Lucky for your students, then, that you’re here to guide them through the writing process. If you’ve had students struggling with writing a strong thesis, here are some easy-to-use tips for helping them improve.

Students can use a thesis statement to narrow their topic.

Define the Writing Style

Before we get into the how of writing a thesis, we need to make sure our students understand what they’re writing. Different types of writing require different approaches to the thesis.

If it’s informative, make sure their thesis introduces the topic of the paper.

For example:

“This paper is about the common warthog” tells the reader the paper is providing information about warthogs.

If it’s persuasive or argumentative, their thesis should take a stance on their topic. What is their opinion on the topic? Can they use evidence to back up that opinion?

For example:

“The warthog is the most majestic animal in Africa” is an opinion. It requires evidence to convince the reader that warthogs are, in fact, the most majestic animals in Africa.

If it’s narrative, their thesis should set up the main focus of their story. You as the reader should have an idea of what the focus of the plot will be.

For example:

“Last summer, my family learned just how great a warthog can be as a pet” tells the reader that the focus of the story will be on the narrator’s experience with a pet warthog.

Narrow the Focus

A common problem students might have is that their thesis is too general.

A broad concept works when they initially start gathering information, but it leads to a paper that is too shallow to be engaging.

This is usually a problem that can be fixed by researching the topic more. Ask your students to dig deep into their topic to find their thesis.

If a student decides to write a paper about wildlife in Africa, this topic is too broad.

But, asking questions will help them narrow their focus.

  1. What wildlife are they going to write about? Warthogs.
  2. What about warthogs are they going to talk about? Keeping a warthog as a pet.
  3. What’s their opinion on pet warthogs? They’re great, and everyone should have one.

Why this works:

By going deeper into their initial idea, the student is able to find a topic that is more engaging, and it will be easier for them to write a full paper.

Encourage your students to get as deep into their topic as possible. This will allow them to not only come up with a stronger thesis, but they’ll be more invested and excited about what they’re writing.

Try this:

Use the 5 W’s and 1 H to direct students to narrow their topics. This is also an excellent prewriting strategy.

Narrowing the focus with a thesis statement.

Teacher Check in: Check the thesis

At this point, it’s a good idea to check in with your students. Make sure their thesis is well defined, and that they have enough to discuss.

There’s a balance that we want their thesis to have. If it’s too broad, ask them to be more specific. What is it about the topic that interests them?

On the other hand, if their thesis ends up too hyper focused, they might not have enough to write about. If this happens, have them take a step back. It’s often the case that an overly focused thesis can be repurposed into the topic sentence for one paragraph.

For example, if a student is struggling to write a paper about the diet of the common warthog, suggest that they look a bit more broadly. Instead, they can write a general informative paper about warthogs, with their diet being one paragraph under a slightly more broad thesis.

It can be difficult to find the balance between too broad and too specific at first, but there are ways to make this process easier.

Outline, Outline, Outline

No matter how experienced a writer might be, one of the hardest parts of writing can be keeping control of the narrative.

Your student might start off with a good thesis, but their paper starts to meander, putting too much focus on ideas that don’t really connect back to their main topic.

The end result is a whole lot of bloat and filler. This happens when students are excited about their topic, but haven’t defined their focus enough.

To help with countering this, have your students outline their papers before they start writing.

How to outline:

The outline can be very simple.

The topic sentence and then three (or more) main points. Each main point is going to be developed into a paragraph.

Why Outlines Work:

There are several advantages to having your students outline their paper before they start writing.

First, it allows us a chance to check in with our students early on in their writing process. If a student needs to adjust their thesis or topic sentences, it’s much easier to fix in the outline stage, rather than after they’ve written a first draft.

Second, an outline helps them to remember what they’re writing about. By sticking to the outline, a student is less likely to lose the plot, and they’re less likely to go off the rails.

Third, it makes the first draft so much easier for them. A strong outline will do a huge amount of the work for a student. And if a student is struggling with their thesis, outlining the rest of their paper can help them come up with the thesis.

Use The Topic Sentences to reverse engineer the thesis

This is a super easy trick that your students can use to write their thesis.

Each paragraph they write for a paper has a topic sentence that covers what that paragraph is about.

This is where the outline pays off. Each of the main ideas they wrote in their outline can be the topic sentence for each body paragraph.

But, it can also be rolled into the thesis.

For example:

If the topics for each paragraph are:

  1. the common warthog’s habitat
  2. the diet of the common warthog
  3. the social behavior of the common warthog

Then a thesis could look something like: “The common warthog makes a wonderful pet due to its wide habitat, simple diet, and friendly nature.”

Not only does this method make writing the thesis easy, it also encourages student to use their outlines, and this helps them stay focused and organized.

Pair ‘N Share

I’m a big fan of any sort of group activities.

Here’s how it works:

Have your students pair off to go over their outlines.

  1. Student A reads their thesis to Student B.
  2. Based on that thesis, Student B tries to guess Student A’s topic sentences.
  3. Student A writes down Student B’s guesses and compares them to their actual topic sentences.
  4. Repeat the activity, with Student A and B switching places.
  5. After both students have gone, have them write a short reflection on their partner’s guesses.

Why this helps your students:

This activity helps in several ways.

First, it helps us see who is ready to move on in the writing process.

If Student A’s thesis is “There are many interesting animals that live in Africa,” how many potential topic sentences could their partner come up with from that? If Student B is able to guess Student A’s topic sentences, then their thesis is clearly defined.

Second, it can help students consider new ideas in their writing process.

For example, Student A’s thesis is about why warthogs make great pets. Student B’s guesses that topic sentences might be:

  • The warthog’s simple diet
  • The warthog’s wide habitat
  • The warthog’s small number of predators

The first two guesses are on Student A’s list of topic sentences, but the third isn’t.

Maybe Student A hadn’t considered warthogs’ predators as a topic, but now they realize that it would be a much better paragraph than their original third option.

Now Student A has a new topic to consider and incorporate into their thesis.

It’s a win for the student writer!

The thesis statement as a math problem

If students are still struggling, have them boil down thesis writing to a math equation:

  • the topic + your opinion = a thesis

For example:

warthogs (topic) + great pets (opinion) = Warthogs make great pets (thesis).

This is a big oversimplification, but it can be a helpful reminder when students are having trouble understanding the elements.

It’s a Process

If your students are struggling with pinning down their thesis, that’s not a bad thing. Remind them that coming up with their thesis, just like every other part of their writing, is a process.

They might need multiple drafts before they get there, so be sure to give them that time. Check in with them periodically and make sure they’re on the “write” track.

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