The Weekly Text, April 21, 2017: Six Definitions of the Word and Concept Essay

By high school, teachers hope, students have mastered the form of the grammatically complete sentence, even if those sentences are only passingly meaningful. Where there is structure, one can assume, there can be style. High school is the place, I think, where those well-structured sentences can gain meaning and be forged into longer forms of writing, particularly the essay. At the school in which I serve, teachers assign students multiple essay assignments, and the midterms, finals, and especially the New York State Regents Examinations in humanities subjects all require students to compose essays.

And all of this takes place, as far as I can tell, in an instructional environment in which students are never really told, with any appreciable degree of clarity or completeness, what exactly it is that makes an essay. This is difficult enough for students for whom school work comes naturally; for students who struggle, this is arguably educational malpractice.

So, this year, I finally began work on an essay-writing unit that begins with an elucidation of the essay as a form of writing, and continues with a series of short, two-lesson unit that seeks to introduce students to the essay and assist them in developing their own understanding of the this “most flexible and adaptable of all literary forms,” in the words of J.A. Cuddon, the author of  The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (New York: Penguin, 1992).

In the first lesson, which is this week’s Text, I guide students through this vocabulary building worksheet with six words related to essay (to wit: essay as a verb, essay as a noun twice, the adjective essayistic, the noun essayist, and the compound noun essay question). As with all of these kinds of context clues worksheets, I assign a class linguist (for more on the procedures you might consider using for this worksheet see the About Weekly Texts page above the picture at the top of the page, and find your way to the Focus on One Word Worksheets Users’ Manual), who will need the lexicon that provides the dictionary definitions of these words.

One thing I am particularly interested in when using this worksheet–and as of this writing, I’ve used these materials three times, but each time they worked well with my students–is if students can make the connotative connections between the three definitions of the word essay included in this worksheet. As a verb, essay means attempt or trial (which is what the French word whence it comes, essai, means), and one of its meanings as a noun is the result or product of an attempt. The third meaning, of course, is the one students must most clearly understand,  an analytic or interpretive literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view or something resembling such a composition <a photographic ~>. Can students see their essays as both an attempt at making sense of a topic, and as the outcome of that attempt? For struggling learners, this small act of semantic synthesis may well represent some fairly deep learning.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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