Building Better Thesis Statements

A lot of students write their papers like this – they have a general idea of where they want to go, but no clear direction about how to get there. This is why a good thesis statement is important – it’s a road map for where your thoughts are headed as a reader. Not only does a good thesis statement give your reader direction, but it also clarifies your thoughts as a writer.

Imagine going on a car trip to somewhere far away from home. You have a general idea of where to go – let’s say you’re headed east, for instance. And with enough driving around you might find yourself there eventually. But you certainly wasted a lot of time by not knowing exactly where you were headed. And you certainly can’t tell anyone else the route you took just by wandering around.

And the tricky thing about thesis statements is they aren’t like multiplication tables that you can completely master. Students get better at thesis statements every year as their writing and thinking become more sophisticated. You won’t ever truly master a thesis statement because, like writing, it’s a lifelong process that you can continue to perfect.

So how do we get good thesis statements from our students?

First off, students need to know the four things that thesis statements do. 

  1. A thesis statement tells what the essay will be about.
  2. A thesis statement is one declarative sentence. It cannot be a question.
  3. A thesis statement must present a specific position on an argument with more than one side. 
  4. A thesis statement’s argument matches the content of the rest of the paper. 

A good way to help students understand the function of a good thesis statement is to show them examples of some that don’t work. Let’s say a student wants to write a paper on homelessness. Here’s their first thesis:

What are some reasons why homelessness exists? 

This isn’t a sentence; it’s a question. It also doesn’t present a position. This will end up being an informative essay, not a persuasive one. This one isn’t much better:

What are some reasons why homelessness exists? In this essay I will tell you three reasons why.

The thesis isn’t a question, and we do have an explanation of what the paper will do, but this will still be an informative essay, and it also isn’t specific. So here’s the next attempt:

Homelessness is a serious problem in many cities. 

On the surface, this seems like a position. But is anyone actually for homelessness? Therefore, this isn’t a thesis that has more than one side. Last try:

The best way to solve the problem of homelessness is through programs like rapid rehousing. 

Now the student has an arguable claim, and a specific one at that. Others may disagree that this is the best way to end homelessness; there are other solutions that approach the problem differently. 

A Thesis Statement Activity

One way to introduce the concept of thesis statements is to pick a simple topic that students will have no problem supporting with evidence without doing any research. My go-to question is: what is the best place to get ice cream around here? Frequently students will just start naming places without giving evidence. At this point, I ask them to support what they say with facts. Not “Graeter’s is better than Dairy Queen because it tastes better” which is an opinion. I’m looking for things like “you can walk to Graeter’s” or “Dairy Queen is less expensive” (sometimes we get into another topic altogether, such as whether or not Whit’s Frozen Custard counts as ice cream.)

One they’ve gathered facts that support their opinion, they can write a thesis statement. They’ll come up with something like this: 

Graeter’s is the best place to get ice cream because of the number of flavors, the location, and the reasonable price. 

This is a great opportunity to teach students the importance of parallel structure. Notice that we have parallel structure in the thesis above: the list of three reasons all follow the same pattern. But students are likely to do something like this: 

Graeter’s is the best place to get ice cream because of the number of flavors, it is easy to get to, and you don’t spend a lot of money there.

(Want a great comic lessons on parallel structure? Check out my Parallel Structure Comic.)

Many teachers in the upper grades may not be fond of the thesis format above because it is obviously a five-paragraph essay. However, for the lower grades and struggling writers the five-paragraph essay is an effective way for emerging writers to understand how composition is structured. 

Be Their Coach

If you’re like me, you have a decent number of papers under your belt and probably got pretty good at writing thesis statements even if you haven’t written one recently. I have no problems helping my students craft their thesis statements for clarity and accuracy. I want them to be able to do it on their own, but this is an area where students benefit from watching you do some “smithing” (as a former teacher called it.)

I like to call them up to my podium (and you absolutely need one of these) and show them my thought process for getting a thesis statement that has some serious rocket fuel. Eventually, I’ll want them to do it on their own, but this quick one-on-one time is valuable.

A Visual Guide to Thesis Statements

To help my students with their thesis statements, I created a Visual Guide to Thesis Statements with Teaching Ideas. I find my students remember things a lot better with visuals, and this helps them understand this difficult concept. Students can put this visual guide in their writer’s notebooks or in their binders for easy reference. I also included a poster of the same image that you can print off and hang in your classroom.

Click here to check out A Visual Guide to Thesis Statements With Teaching Ideas. And while you’re at it, you might like my other visual guides, like the one for Works Cited Pages. Or if you teach APA, my visual guide to the Reference Page.

I know you’re the kind of teacher that makes their classroom a fun, engaging learning environment. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which will make your students glad they came to class that day. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!

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