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Rethinking the Thesis Statement

Updated: Jun 5

The thesis statement: the holy grail of the English classroom. I once had a professor tell my classmates and me to tape our thesis statements to the bottom of the computer screen to keep the essay cohesive, as a way of avoiding digression. But the main problem I see with student writing is the thesis statement. They think the thesis statement is the final and only thing their essay needs to say.

In their essays, many students will recycle the ideas in the thesis over and over again and get stuck bouncing around inside a thesis box of their own creation. They’ll even return to it in the conclusion and restate it, instead of writing something meaningful and relevant. The conclusion should be the moment when the reader walks away inspired and enlightened. They shouldn’t merely be reminded of what they already learned in the introduction.

When I teach the thesis statement, I try to focus on the fact that the thesis statement is just the beginning. A great essay should contain sentences that move in a logical progression from one idea to the next. It should develop in complexity, and not stay in one place. The reader should feel as if they are walking to a meaningful destination without any pauses or retreats. Or better yet, the thesis statement should feel like the lighting of a firecracker. When we read one, we should be excited about what comes next. It should give the writer the chance to elaborate, enhance, expand, and extend.

The primary function of the thesis is to answer a question. But to really answer a question, a writer must explore as many ideas related to that question or topic as possible. It goes way beyond one sentence. Simplifying our expectations for the thesis will hopefully eliminate any stress, fear, and worry. Putting too much emphasis on the thesis might lead our students to write a safe, but unexciting thesis statement.

Most students want to find the easy answer that they think their teacher will like, so we must ask a simple, yet challenging question that forces students to consider the topic in its entirety. By simple, I mean that all of the students in our class, regardless of their ability level, should get excited by the question. They should feel comfortable and excited about the question because they have plenty of evidence from class discussion and classwork to be confident and ready. By challenging, I mean the question should require the writer to think independently and do some mental work. The question should not be so complicated that it already contains part of the answer we’re looking for; it should allow for many types of answers.

We want to give our students the opportunity to tell us what they think is the most important thing about a novel, poem, story, or topic. The question and the thesis should not limit our students or confine them to one narrow view of the topic. It should open them up to many ideas, not just one.

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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