Teaching Students to Write Essays That Define

Writing to define is fairly common in magazines, newspapers, and blogs, as well as in academic settings. A recent example appeared in the Chicago Tribune after a man set his home on fire and intentionally crashed a single-engine plane into a building in Austin, Texas, where Internal Revenue Service (IRS) offices were located. His lengthy suicide note complained about the U.S. government, the IRS, and government taxation.

After the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that the man’s actions did not constitute a terrorist act, Thomas F. Schaller wrote “A Double Standard in What We Define as ‘Terrorism’” (2010; see box). In his commentary, Schaller presents the definition of terrorism provided by the USA Patriot Act and argues that the man’s actions meet all the criteria. He compares the Austin incident to other acts that have and have not been labeled terrorist, analyzing their similarities and differences. The essay discusses a number of examples to clarify the defining criteria and set their limits. Without a working definition of what terrorism is—and is not—Schaller’s argument would have been impossible to make.

What Do We Mean by Essays That Define?

Definition writing, which we find an essential part of the English language arts curriculum, doesn’t always get the attention we believe it should. By essays that define we mean the kind of composition, such as the essay on terrorism (see boxed text on pp. 1–2), that defines a complex term or concept and uses examples to clarify what the term or concept’s definition does and does not include.

Usually when people talk about “writing definitions,” what comes to mind is a brief dictionary definition. Teaching students to define or write definitions is often seen as a vocabulary lesson or a method of paragraph development. This is not what we mean here. Defining complex concepts usually requires much more explanation and clarification than a simple one-sentence or even a one-paragraph definition provides.

A chapter on definition writing is sometimes included in college composition texts and in a few secondary-level textbooks. At the high school and middle school level, however, definition is often treated simply as a method of paragraph development. Although teaching essays that define is not always emphasized at the middle and high school level, we believe it is vital to do so, because much of the writing secondary students are asked to do has definition at its foundation. This kind of thinking and writing is also an excellent way to develop and hone students’ critical thinking skills.

How Are Essays That Define Essential?

Consider some common thematic units in English language arts, humanities, and social studies classes: the tragic hero, the American Dream, equality and civil rights, Impressionism, coming-of-age, courage, industrialization and urbanization, feminism and human rights, the antihero, and so forth. These kinds of units are intended to help students build, illustrate, explain, and clarify definitions:

  • What is a tragic hero?
  • What is the American Dream?
  • What are one’s civil rights?
  • What are human rights?
  • What does it mean to be free?
  • What does it mean to have equal rights?
  • What is Impressionism?
  • What does it mean to come of age?
  • What is industrialization, what is urbanization, and how are they related?
  • What is maturity?

For students to be successful in much of the writing and thinking they are asked to do in school, they need to know how to develop effective definitions. If we ask students to write an essay about how Macbeth is a tragic hero, they will have to provide a definition of a tragic hero—a complex concept—and analyze the extent to which the character fulfills the defining criteria. If students do not know how to do this, their essays will be weak at best.

Definition is key even in cases in which it may not be as directly evident. If students are asked to write about whether Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby is a success, they will need to develop a definition of success. They will need to address issues such as whether going from rags to riches makes a person a success, whether wealth is necessary or sufficient for success, whether attaining one’s goals makes someone a success, whether the nature of the goals one attains makes a difference, whether personal happiness is necessary for success, and so on. Then they will need to analyze Gatsby’s character and actions in light of the definition.

If students are writing a composition arguing whether Atticus Finch is an ideal father, they will need to determine the criteria for defining what it means to be an ideal father. Their writing will not be effective if they do not provide a definition of the concept and then analyze whether the character fulfills the defining criteria.

In social studies classes, students frequently encounter essay test questions or writing prompts that ask them to define concepts: What is an absolute monarchy as opposed to a constitutional monarchy? Which country had a successful mercantile economy, England or Spain? What is a filibuster and should it be eliminated?

In science classes, students are asked to define more concrete concepts such as photosynthesis, natural selection, and respiration. Students need to be able to write essays that define—and do the critical thinking this requires—to succeed in school and in life. We have found that using a structured process approach to writing extended definitions is a particularly effective way to teach them how.