The Ultimate Guide to Scaffolding Killer Thesis Statements
February 11, 2021
If there’s any literacy skill I would want my English Language Arts students to nail in my classroom, it’d have to be writing a thesis statement. And not just your average, run-of-the-mill thesis: I want to teach my students how to write powerful, eloquent, and exceptionally captivating thesis statements – the kind that make you want to read on, regardless of whether or not you’re doing so to grade.
You already know the key to a good essay: aside from credible research and a proof-read or two, it’s is a killer thesis statement. A killer thesis statement sets the tone and cuts to the chase: it tells you the writer’s opinion, along with the level of thought and criticism that has gone into formulating it. And with that killer thesis statement comes an alluring introduction, making each paper in your grading pile a whole lot more inviting.
But how do you get students to write a thesis statement that is enticing enough to make you want to read on? Here are 7 easy ways to scaffold how to write a good thesis statement for high school students:
Differentiate Between Good and Bad Thesis Statements
Let’s not forget that writing a thesis statement is a relatively new skill for most of our high school students. They probably learned how to write a thesis statement in middle school, but this concept may have been less of a deep-dive and more of just a stepping stone to writing a persuasive essay. Either way, many students might still see the thesis statement as this hazy hybrid between a topic sentence and their “whole essay boiled down into one sentence” (daunting for a kid, isn’t it?).
Regardless of how you introduce the thesis statement, there will still be a healthy dose of trial and error before your students really get the hang of writing them. A good way to surpass this learning curve is to have a discussion about the differences between a good thesis statement and a bad one. Turn this into a collaborative lesson by brainstorming what a thesis is and isn’t to offer students a set of differentiation statements; for example: “A proper thesis statement is written in one sentence,” or “a proper thesis statement is directly related to the rest of the essay.” This is your opportunity to remind students that a thesis statement is more than just a fancy word for “hook.”
If you’d like to provide a graphic organizer for your students with every important differentiation between a proper thesis and an improper one, check out this worksheet.
Clarify with a “Golden Compass”
Now that students have offered their input on what they think a thesis statement is and isn’t, provide them with a thesis statement definition. But don’t call it a “definition” – “definitions” are boring, and your students have grown wearisome from the thousands they’ve encountered over the course of their school career. Call it a “golden compass,” or something to that effect – something that they will actually return to when they write their thesis statement, each and every time. The “golden compass” is a small self-assessment tool that students can turn to in order to determine whether or not they are on the right track; in combination with differentiation statements, a “golden compass” ensures smooth sailing to a great thesis statement.
Evaluate Thesis Statement Examples
Now that students have plenty of guidelines, put their understanding into practice by evaluating some examples. You can use student samples from past essays, or even write your own examples based on the differentiation statements you create with your class. If you’re open to your students receiving constructive, anonymous criticism, you can even have students formulate a thesis statement and collectively evaluate each one. I’ve had success in the past with providing students with a topic, allowing them to write a thesis statement, and then prompting them to swap with their elbow partner or member of the class in order to offer some feedback. If you’d rather provide a curated selection of thesis statements that reflect the common errors you typically see with high school writing, there are several student examples in this introductory lesson – this is one of my favorite thesis statement activities!
Provide a Thesis Statement Template
One of the easiest ways to scaffold thesis statement writing is to break the process down to a formula. Try offering students a thesis statement outline – students love a good template, and I love offering one to my students who insist they are “just not good at writing.” There are a variety of thesis statement formats that students can use as a framework for their essays. I start with a basic template that involves a topic, position, and evidence. I then demonstrate to students how they can create variations of this template, depending on which order they introduce each part (you can find a breakdown with graphic organizers and examples for each template in this handout). To up the ante, I also introduce a few fancy sentence styles to my students. Not only do these templates scaffold eloquent thesis statements – but they also offer students the space to articulate their thoughts without exceeding the one-sentence limit. Here are a few sentence styles I use with my classes (along with examples from past students):
Style A: “Subject + Verb; Subject + Verb; Subject + Verb – Dependent Clause” Example: “The promotion of hygiene; the presence of medical professionals; the prevention of death – these are all reasons why supervised injection services are an important facet of public health.”
Style B: If (subject + verb), if (subject + verb), if (subject + verb), then (independent clause) Example: “If taxpayers do not wish to have their money allocated to cruelty, if more than 100 million animals die from animal testing a year, if alternatives to animal testing exist, then governments should ban the practice of testing on animals.”
Style C: Independent clause: subject + verb, subject + verb, subject + verb Example: “College education should be entirely funded by the government: student debt would be eliminated, education would not be commodified, and access to education would not be exclusive to privileged people.”
All of these sentence styles are provided in these practice worksheets, with writing prompts to reinforce each style through repeated practice.
Run Daily Practice Drills
Remember earlier when we addressed the trials and errors involved in mastering the thesis statement? This is where “practice drills” come in. My best essay writing tip for high school students is to practice every day using daily bell ringers, which I incorporate into our persuasive writing unit. I do this by providing them with three topics to choose from, and prompt them to develop an opinion and formulate a thesis statement for one. I’ll also include bell ringers that provide a thesis statement that students need to evaluate. Students really enjoy these drills – they get the opportunity to develop opinions on interesting topics, many of which they choose to explore deeper as the subject of their final research paper.
If you’re looking for premade worksheets with thesis practice activities, these Daily Thesis Statement Bell Ringers include one month’s worth of thesis statement prompts, graphic organizers, and templates in both digital and ready-to-print format.
Utilize a Self-Assessment Anchor Chart
After exploring the do’s and don’ts of thesis statements, be sure to provide students with an anchor chart to reference these differentiating statements and rules they’ve learned. A personalized anchor chart is best – like this FREE Thesis Statement Checklist Bookmark – so that students can have it on hand while they are reading and writing. I usually distribute the anchor chart at the beginning of our research paper unit so that students can refer to it when we evaluate thesis statement examples and run our daily practice drills. A thesis statement anchor chart has been a complete gamechanger in my classroom, and I’m pleased to learn that many of my students have held on to these, even for their college papers!
Leave them with Engaging Topics
One last tip I’d like to share with you is to give your students good research paper topics to write about. Generate a list of topics that would make a great persuasive essay. Then, narrow it down to avoid those broad, far-reaching thesis statements that lead to a watered-down essay. I find that when I make this list with my students, not only do we end up with topics that are truly engaging for them, but I also have the opportunity to clarify to students why topics might be a little too vague or broad for an exceptional essay. For example, students often suggest topics like “racism” or “the problem with school.” These are learning opportunities to demonstrate to students that a great topic is the essential starting point for an even greater essay. For example, a topic like racism has different implications all over the world and is far too complex to explore in a single, 750-word essay. Instead, we work together to narrow this topic down to something like “racism in the media,” or even better, “representation in Hollywood.” Additionally, a topic like “the problem with school” is more of a conclusion, so we work backward to identify some of the aspects of our school that make it an obstacle – uniforms, early starts, or cell phone policies. This process leads students to a more concise topic, like “cell phone policies in twenty-first-century schools.”
If you’re looking for engaging persuasive essay topics to inspire your students, I’ve included a list of 75 argumentative essay topics as a bonus file in my Thesis Statement Practice Bundle.
Tying it All Together
There are plenty of fun thesis statement activities and practice lessons that you can incorporate into your curriculum. Give thesis statements the love and attention they deserve in the classroom – after all, they truly are the most important part of a research essay.
All of the worksheets, lessons, and activities referenced in this blog post are included in Mondays Made Easy’s Thesis Statement Bundle. This bundle has everything you need to teach your students how to master their thesis statements and apply these essential literacy skills to their writing.