How to Write Essays That Define

The instruction in this essay helps students move beyond the scaffolds and apply the procedures they have learned to create their own extended definition of a concept.

Stage 1: Building Interest and Engagement

It is important to pique students’ interest when you ask them to write an extended definition essay on their own. Begin by helping students identify a concept they are interested in defining.

Start by introducing a situation currently in the news or evident in your school that suggests the need for an extended definition. For example, recently there was a controversy in a Chicago-area high school about whether a student could wear a T-shirt with an antigay message (“Be Happy, Not Gay”). The student in question argued that not allowing her to wear the shirt infringed on her right to free speech. School officials disagreed, arguing that students do not have the right to wear something to school that potentially would negatively affect the learning environment.

In order to discuss this situation, your students need an extended definition of the concept of freedom of speech, especially within a school setting. To help them develop one, ask questions such as:

  • What is freedom of speech?
  • What is and is not allowed in school?
  • What criteria should be used to determine what is and is not allowed?
  • School attendance is required. Students can turn off a television or radio program if they are offended by it, but they can’t stay home from school. What effect does this situation have on freedom of speech?

Ask the class to brainstorm other situations and concepts that might have potential as the topic of an essay to define. Add your own ideas, especially if students are struggling. Possibilities include:

  • friendship
  • maturity
  • leadership
  • loyalty (or misguided or misplaced loyalty)
  • integrity
  • patriotism
  • responsibility
  • terrorism
  • progress
  • cruelty to animals
  • success
  • sportsmanship
  • what equal opportunity means in a school setting

Work with each student until everyone has selected a complex
concept to define.

If the essay that defines is part of an instructional unit focusing on a particular concept such as coming-of-age, the American Dream, or integrity, create a “hook” to generate student interest in defining that concept. For instance, give students a list of some well-known people (or characters) and ask who they believe have or have not achieved the American Dream and why. Or provide a situation such as the following in relation to integrity:

A person running for the United States Senate says in a campaign ad that he received an award as Intelligence Officer of the Year. It is later discovered that it was his military unit, not he alone, that won an award for outstanding service. Does running this ad show a lack of integrity by the candidate for office? Why or why not?

Providing a hook helps students see the need for creating an extended definition of the unit concept.

Stage 2: Modeling Processes as Students Generate Ideas for Writing

As students are developing their essays, support them by modeling parts of the process in class.

Model the process by asking the class as a whole to brainstorm ideas for writing scenarios for a given concept (cruelty to animals is a good one to use). You might begin by piquing student interest in cruelty to animals with something in the news.

For example, in 2009, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, was criticized by some animal rights groups for swatting and killing a fly during a television interview. The critics said he should have simply brushed the fly away, not killed it. One group sent the President a Katcha Bug device, which traps bugs and allows their safe release. Ask students whether President Obama was guilty of cruelty to animals.

Now have students write their own set of scenarios related to the concept they have chosen. Give them a scenario planning sheet and remind them to include some scenarios that represent borderline, debatable cases. (You could have students who have chosen the same concept work together in small groups.)

Have students use the scenarios they have developed to create a set of defining criteria. To remind them of what the task involves, you might have students together generate a couple of clear and effectively worded criterion statements that define cruelty to animals.

For instance, “hunting and killing animals is cruelty when it is done in a way that causes unnecessary suffering to the animal or endangers the survival of a species.” Some students may feel that causing an animal pain by changing its appearance for aesthetic purposes, such as clipping a boxer’s ears, is cruelty; others may not. In this case, their criteria may differ.

Groups of students working on the same concept can share their ideas. Alternatively, after they have drafted their criteria individually they can, in small groups, read one another’s criteria, determine whether they are worded clearly and are understandable, and suggest possible revisions.

Stage 3: Organizing and Drafting

Once students have developed scenarios and criteria, they are ready to organize their ideas in preparation for writing a draft of an extended definition essay.

The sheet should have space for four criterion statements, but tell students they may have more or fewer criteria, depending on their concept and the way they have framed the criteria. They should probably have at least three criteria in order to produce an effective essay. (Students sometimes combine two or more criteria into a single statement. They may need your help or that of their peers to recognize that they’ve done this.) They can draw their examples and contrasting examples from the scenarios they have created in the previous activity or think of additional or different examples.

It can be amended as necessary to match the consensus your class reaches during its discussions. Or students can suggest revisions that will improve it. After they have examined and discussed this planning sheet, have them develop a planning sheet for their own topic.

Once students have completed a planning sheet, they are ready to begin drafting their compositions. You may want to collect the planning sheets and check whether students are on the right track. You can return the sheets with brief comments on strengths as well as suggestions for improvement. (Meet individually with students who are struggling to talk through their ideas and help them improve weak spots.)

At this point, it’s helpful for students to examine an essay that defines and discuss its strengths and weakness as they think about creating their own compositions. Ask students, in small groups, to read the essay and answer the questions. Then have each group share its work with the whole class, perhaps projecting some of the students’ answers and discussing them at length. Alternatively, or in addition, use writing that students have produced earlier in the unit.

When students have completed their drafts, have them, in groups of three, read one another’s work and suggest revisions based on these questions:

  1. Does the essay have an introduction that catches the reader’s interest and presents the concept that will be defined? How does it establish the need for or importance of a definition of the concept?
  2. Does the introduction present a set of criteria for defining the concept? What are the criteria presented?
  3. For each criterion, what example and contrasting example does the writer provide to clarify the criterion?
  4. Which criteria and/or examples are difficult to understand or confusing? Explain.
  5. What ways can you suggest to improve any of the criteria or examples and contrasting examples?
  6. Has the writer employed a warrant to explain how each example and contrasting example does or does not illustrate the criterion? If warrants are missing or unconvincing, how could the writer provide or improve them?
  7. How does the writer conclude the essay?
  8. What part of the composition is clearest or best explained? Why?
  9. What suggestions do you have for the writer?

Have students work on a final draft of their essays, either in class or on their own (depending on how much support you think they need). Evaluate the essays in terms of the qualities discussed and elaborated on in class: introduction of the concept; definition of the concept in terms of criteria, examples, contrasting examples, and warrants; and a conclusion discussing what the term means in relation to human conduct. Also consider whether the language and mechanics exhibited in the essays communicate ideas clearly and appropriately.

Return the essays. Have students make final revisions and post final versions of their essays on a class bulletin board or website so they can read one another’s definitions and perhaps reach a wider audience as well