The CCSS asks students in third grade and up to write opinion essays. It’s a difficult task for nine-year olds because developmentally, they haven’t yet learned to reason. They are concrete thinkers. Let’s look at what can help students in writing opinion essays: topics, prewriting, and essay structure.
GOOD TOPICS FOR OPINION ESSAYS
Let’s take a typical topic: I think we need a longer recess.
It’s a difficult topic because it just seems logical to kids that recess should be longer! They find it hard to develop concrete reasons around this. It’s an emotional response, with no concrete reasons. They have no criteria that help them decide among alternatives. Research to expand this topic is difficult to find. Essays on this topic tend to be generalized:
- Kids need more exercise.
- A longer recess would be more fun.
Instead, good essay topics have logical, easily-identified alternatives. When employees are faced with a situation that demands persuasion, there are usually alternatives. For example, should we keep our store open until 10 pm. Alternatives might be opening earlier, staying open until midnight, or closing at 8 pm. Among those alternatives, you could develop criteria:
- which would bring the greatest sales?
- which would be better for employees?
- which would be better for customers?
I Want a Dog: My Opinion Essay and I Want a Cat: My Opinion Essay might seem to take a tired subject of what kind of pet should a kid get. But if you look at the topic closer, you’ll see that it’s a gem. First, the American Kennel Club recognizes 167 breeds, and the information on them is readily available. The Cat Fancier’s Association lists cat breeds. Each breed is a distinct alternative; each would make a different kind of pet. This is a real topic that allows students to think through issues and develop an opinion. It’s not a canned opinion: Of course, you know you want a longer recess. Instead, it’s a rich topic for discussion.
RICH PREWRITING MAKES FOR STRONG ESSAYS
Students need a rich pre-writing environment with many activities. Most important is a discussion that leads to developing their own opinions.
Reading through the book, I WANT A DOG: My Opinion Essay, students are exposed to the 20 most favorite dog breeds in the U.S. This helps to narrow the choices, while still allowing students to choose an alternate dog, as Dennis does. Because there are many choices here, they need something to help them narrow the field. They use ten broad criteria: size, energy level, exercise needs, play needs, level of affection, getting along with other pets, easy to train, guard dog, and grooming needs.
These criteria mirror those used in Animal Planet’s Breed Selection Tool, (Also see the Cat Breed Selector Tool.) so it makes a great internet activity to add to the class discussion. But there are additional criteria such as allergies, weather related issues, family traditions, price, male or female, availability in your area, and specific needs such as a dog trained in duck hunting.
The book presents the discussion of cousins, Dennis and Mellie, as they decide on dogs. It presents two distinct opinions and demonstrates that opinions can differ. In discussion, students can easily apply the criteria to their own family. Here’s how a pre-writing class discussion might go:
Question: Do you think a big dog or little dog is better for your family?
- Response: I want a big dog because we already have two big dogs and it needs to get along with them.
Discussion: This puts together the criteria of big and getting along with other pets. To extend the discussion, you might ask, “Do you think that any small dog would get along with the big ones?” The Breed Selection Tool might help answer that question, or perhaps someone has personal experience one way or another.
- Response: I want a big dog because my Dad has a bad back and can’t bend over to pet a small dog.
Discussion: Considering the health needs of a family is often crucial in choosing a dog. What are some other health reasons for a certain dog? Allergies and blindness are two simple answers.
- Response: I want a big dog because they are better guard dogs.
Discussion: This makes an interesting assumption that size equals aggression. You could use the Animal Planet tool to test this assumption by choosing a small, guard dogs as your criteria.
The most important thing here is the discussion because it gives students a rich prewriting environment in which to DEVELOP an opinion. We must give students the opportunity to learn about a topic before we ask them to give an opinion.
The topic of recess is dull because there are no viable alternatives. Of course, a child’s opinion is that they want more recess time. Why? Because it’s fun. It’s an automatic emotional response from a kid. If you ask them to manufacture reasons, the essays turn out dull and uninteresting.
Instead, engage them in a topic that has real alternatives. Give them criteria to use as they consider alternatives. Listen and discuss the alternatives and help them to find the real reasons for an opinions. Help form an opinion.
If you take time to read and discuss I WANT A CAT: My Opinion Essay, you’ll experience the process of forming an opinion in a different but related context.
STRUCTURE OF THE ESSAY
The model essays in I Want a Dog: My Opinion Essay and I Want a Cat: My Opinion Essay follow a simple structure. It begins by stating the problem.
I want a dog. Here are some things I thought about.
Then, the essay develops reasons based on criteria. In the first paragraph, Dennis wants a big dog that likes some exercise and loves to play. These criteria (size, exercise, play) all fall into the category of how Dennis will interact with the dog. That paragraph topic is implied instead of stated outright, as is typical in professional writing. Notice however, that paragraphs two and three DO have topic sentences. It’s acceptable to include or imply the topic sentence; of course, your lesson plan might require it.
Learn to Write Multiple Paragraphs. If students are at the stage of writing multiple paragraphs, a great exercise is to pre-group criteria for use in essays. Students will need to look at the criteria and decide on some sort of grouping. Discussions are the crucial element here, because there are no rights or wrongs.
For example, size, affection, exercise needs, play needs and training might be grouped into How I Interact With My Dog. Other criteria groups could be How My Dog Acts at Home, How My Dog Acts with Other People or Pets, How My Dog Stays Healthy. Some might argue that exercise needs are in the group How My Dog Stays Healthy, while others will emphasize that exercise is how you interact with a dog. Either grouping is fine. The point is to have some reason for where you put the criteria and ideas. Allowing students to create their own groupings means you’ll have a wide variety of essays!
Dennis’s essay has this structure:
State the problem.
Criteria 1: How I interact with my dog.
Criteria 2: I want a dog that’s easily trained.
Criteria 3: How my dog acts at home.
Give my opinion and summarize reasons.
Some opinion essay lesson plans suggest an OREO approach:
O – State your opinion
R – give a reason
E – expand or elaborate on the reason
O – Restate your opinion
While that approach works, it doesn’t show the reasoning process behind the opinion. I think a stronger approach is to start by stating the problem or issue. Then develop criteria that help narrow the choices. Next, elaborate on the choices. This builds the tension in the essay until the opinion is revealed in the last paragraph. The reasoning process is clear because it’s based on criteria that narrow the choices. The big reveal at the end is exciting and makes a better conclusion.
The topic of choosing a dog or cat is a rich environment for kids to write in. Out of 167 dog breeds or 43 cat breeds, there’s a dog or cat for each child. Clear, definite criteria help narrow the fields. Students immediately have an opinion about multiple criteria, often combining a couple (as we saw when big equals aggressive). To help teach multiple paragraphs, you can pre-sort the criteria into topics. The student writes a paragraph about each broader topic, thus breaking the task into manageable parts.
Opinion essays require students to have an opinion. Often, children haven’t had enough life experience to develop opinions based on anything other than emotion. Giving them a rich topic with real choices provides a time for them to develop an opinion.
It’s not just learning to WRITE an opinion that students need. They also need to learn to think through the ideas, to experience the process of FORMING an opinion. This book provides all of that, and it’s wrapped in a fun story.