Sunday, July 17, 2005

How to Answer an Essay Question

How to Answer an Essay Question

Essay questions require special care. Before you try to write a good answer for one, you must be careful to decide exactly what information the question is looking for.
Does the question need:

1. An explanation of something?
2. Your opinion about something?
3. A definition of something?
4. An analysis of something perhaps asking why something happened or how it happened?
5. A restatement of facts or information you should know?
6. Something else?

Once you have decided what the question is asking, you need to decide how to frame your answer.
1. What do the directions say?
2. Should you write a one sentence answer, a paragraph answer, or a short essay of several paragraphs?
3. Does the question have more than one part? You need to answer all parts of a question.
4. For example, here is an essay question:

In the story, John solved a mystery. How did he solve the mystery and why did he solve the mystery?

There are two parts to this question.

One part asks “How?” and the other part asks “Why?” If your answer just explains how John solved the mystery but does not tell why he solved it, you have only completed half of the question. (On the HSPA, an open ended question half answered earns no points at all.)


Look at the following essay questions.
In a short sentence tell whether the essay answer should be an explanation, an opinion, a definition, an analysis, or a restatement of facts you should know.

1. What are five details about George Washington’s life that make him a famous American?
2. What is a right triangle?
3. What happens when water and oil are mixed together?
4. Why do you think Hamlet took so long to get revenge?
5. Why did the Confederate States finally decided to secede from the Union?

The Opening Sentence

The easiest way to start your essay answer is to make a statement clearly telling exactly what question you are answering.

This is especially true if your essay answer is a short answer of just a sentence or two. The reader of your answer should be able to figure out what the question was by reading your answer. This is a good skill to practice.

For example:
Question :
Why did the water in the lake look turquoise?
The lake water looked turquoise because the stirred up sediment reflected and refracted the rays of light from the sky.

Write one sentence answers for each of these questions making sure your answer clearly shows the question.

1. What is your favorite food?
2. What is one place you might use math in real life?
3. How many stripes are on the United States flag?
4. What is the chemical formula for water?
5. What ocean lies on the East Coast of the United States?

To see how well you can answer a basic essay question partner up with a classmate for this exercise.


1. Write 5 essay questions of your own.
2. In a separate file, write an answer for each question you have written.
3. Give the file to your classmate.
4. Have your classmate check your answers by writing the question being answered.


Go on with the exercises below to learn more about paragraphs and essay answers.

Friday, June 10, 2005

What is a Paragraph?

A paragraph is a group of related sentences all about the same main topic.

A good paragraph has unity.

  • All sentences relate to the same main idea.
  • All sentences support each other

A good paragraph has organization.

  • Ideas follow some kind of logical pattern.
  • Ideas might be set in time order.
  • Ideas might be set in spatial order.
  • Ideas might be set in order of importance.
  • Ideas might be set to logically follow one after another.

Three Kinds of Paragraphs

There are three main kinds of paragraphs.

  1. Narrative Paragraph: this paragraph tells a story, a part of a story, or tells something that happened.
  2. Descriptive Paragraph: this paragraph uses words to create a picture of something and often appeals to the senses.
  3. Explanatory Paragraph: this paragraph might tell how something is done, how to do something, or it might explain exactly what something is.

Exercise #1

Read the following opening and closing sentences that belong to different paragraphs. Decide what kind of paragraph each would fit.

  1. 1. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich has several layers.........As you can see, it's easy to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  2. 2. The wind blew ice cold against his face......Shivering uncontrollably, Jon was sorry he had forgotten to fill the gas tank in his car.
  3. 3. On Monday, several students got lost on the way to school.....The rest of the school would always remember how long those hours had been.
  4. 4. Baseball is a sport requiring both good hitting, throwing and running skills....Clearly baseballs players must be good athletes.
  5. 5. Crisp, hot, cheesy pizza is the most mouth watering food in the world....Pizza sets my stomach into a happy frenzy.

Exercise #2

Add details in between each opening and closing sentence above to write five paragraphs showing different methods of development.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Stand Alone Paragraph

One of the most common short writing assignments you may see in school is one that begins with “Answer the following question in a good paragraph….”

Learning to write an effective stand alone paragraph to answer such questions is a valuable tool. Once you learn the basic framework, you can expand your paragraph to include more information or to become more “sophisticated” as circumstances require.

For now, we’ll stick to the basics.

You may have heard that a good paragraph needs at least five sentences. While that is a minimum, five sentences do not really do much explaining. So, let’s expand that to eight sentences instead.

Here is a list:

An opening sentence

  • This sentence either restates the question or offers an answer to the question. The reader should be able to figure out what question is being answered from this sentence without seeing the question itself. (This is sentence #1)

Body sentences

  • These sentences list at least three supporting ideas to back up the opening sentence.
  • Each of these three sentences needs another sentence offering proof such as an example, a quote, or an explanation. (These are sentences #2-7)


  • This sentence summarizes the idea of the paragraph and ties it all together like a finishing bow on your sneakers. (This is sentence #8)

The Practice Exercises below will help you develop some good paragraphs to answer some simple essay questions.

Exercise #1
Practice on Opening, Topic Sentences
Remember: Your reader should be able to figure out the question you are answering by reading the opening sentence of your paragraph.

Write a good opening/topic sentence for each of these four questions:

1. What kind or style of music is the best?
2. Should the voting age be lowered to 15?
3. Are insurance premiums too high for teenage drivers?
4. Is it a good idea for a student hold a job while still in high school?

Exercise #2
The Body Sentences
Every idea should have at least three reasons to support it.


  1. For each of the opening sentences in Exercise #1, write at least three reasons the answer you gave is true.
  2. First, copy and paste each of your opening sentences, and then list three supporting reasons below each of those sentences.

Exercise #3
The Evidence or Supporting Details
Each of the three reasons you listed in Exercise #2 now needs at least one piece of evidence—an example, a fact or figure, further description, a quotation from research, or more explanation—to back it up and give it proof.


  1. Copy and paste each of your body sentences and follow each one with a supporting detail

Exercise #4
The Conclusion
The easiest way to write a concluding sentence is to simply restate the opening sentence using new words or phrases.

  • You might also write an interesting sentence that makes some kind of comment that summarizes all the ideas you have presented in the rest of the paragraph.
  • Make sure your conclusion does not bring in any new ideas but rather brings your paragraph all together as a finished piece.


  1. Copy and paste each of the opening sentences you wrote.
  2. Below each one, write a good concluding sentence to finish a paragraph about that topic.

Exercise #5
The Whole Paragraph


  • Using Copy and Paste, select the sentences you have written for each of the four topics in Exercise #1 and create four good paragraphs to be handed in for grading.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A Series of Exercises on Paragraphing and Dialogue

The following Writing Exercises are designed to teach you about correct paragraphing, dialogue and punctuation.

Writing Exercise #1
Read the following passage. Notice how it is divided into paragraphs. Decide why a new paragraph is started each time. Make a list of the reasons each new paragraph begins. (Hint: There are at least 6 different reasons.)

Sunshine broke into the room from the small crack between the shutters, slapping Jamus on the cheek, startling him awake. His eyes flew open at the first touch of light, eager to escape the darkness of his dreams.

Norwin had been tormented by nightmares--old memories stirred anew by the presence of the little girl who somehow seemed always hiding in the shadows. She was a magician, that was certain, but the color of the magic she used was something he could not understand.

To Jamus, Master of Magiskeep, Magic was infused in the bright golden waters of the River flowing far beneath the earth of Turan. It shimmered and lit the world with light, revealing everything a man could ever want to see.

But this Jiana's power hid things, obsuring them behind veils of darkness, keeping even him blind to the patterns of her weavings.

"She's just a child," Salene, his wife, insisted. "She doesn't know what she's doing. She's never had any training in using Magic. Teach her a little, and you'll see."

"Impossible," Jamus replied. "I can't teach her when I don't understand myself. I've searched the Eldentexts for some kind of clue, but there's nothing there. It's as if no one like her has ever existed before."

"Nonsense. She's just a child."

But in his heart, Jamus shuddered, knowing this time even Salene was wrong.

And in the night, he had been assured of it. When the lights had faded and he had drifted off to sleep, the dark coils of shadows groped their way into his thoughts and finally, to seal the torment, visited him in old nightmares...

He was in the cave again, listening to the screams of his parents as the rockslide took their lives.

And then, he was alone, cold and shivering on a windy ridge in the enchanted mountains of the Rim, an orphan with no hope. He wept until his eyes could weep no more, his heart aching.

A moment more, and the same darkness that had so cruelly murdered his parents reached out its tentacles to grab him, and he cried out... wake up in a cold sweat, once more the little boy instead of the man he had become.

Morning brought relief. The sunlight drowned out the shadows and warmed the chill in his heart. Somewhere, there was an answer to the little girl, and he intended to find it.

In the dusty shelves of the Great Library, Jamus found, stuffed behind a pile of old scrolls, a thin, leather bound volume, "Wayards in the Mirrors." He pulled it from its niche and frowned. "Jessa? Have you ever seen this before?"

The dark-haired Mistress of Ancient Texts looked over from her desk. "I don't think so. Where did you find it?"

Writing Exercise #2
Punctuating Dialogue

Notice the correct punctuation in the following dialogue. As each different person speaks, a new paragraph begins.

“The book was tucked away behind those scrolls,” Jamus explained.

Jessa frowned and said, “Master Seneth is usually more careful about where things are stored. I wonder if he knows about this?”

“It was almost as if it were hidden there on purpose,” Jamus said. “I only found it because I moved most of the scrolls to find the stylus I dropped.”

“Strange,” Jessa said, shaking her head. “The Master is so careful.”

“Then,” Jamus suggested, “perhaps it was intentional?”


Notice the commas when sentences do not end, and periods when they do. Notice when punctuation is inside the quotation marks. Notice the use of capital letters.

Copy the following dialogue into MS Word. Then punctuate it correctly.

But why would he hide it in the first place Jamus asked. Jessa looked at the book and said it doesn’t look unusual. Could it be the mention of mirrors? Or Wayards? Jamus replied, asking the question at the same time. Could it be we aren’t supposed to connect those not disciplined in Magic’s Art with reflections? Jessa shivered. Then she said quietly is any Magician supposed to consider either, My Lord? The Way of Mirrors and the Magic Unrestrained would be a dangerous combination. It chills me to think of them working together. Jamus thought for a moment, his brow furrowed. Then he replied as quietly reflections are all around us, Jessa. Each time we look in a mirror one of our own might be captured by the Way. And each of them Jessa said wants its own life, even if it means killing us to get it. And a Wayard Jamus replied would have no scruples about helping. No scruples at all.

Writing Exercise #3

The following passage has no paragraphs and no punctuation in the dialogue.

  1. Copy and paste it into MS Word and correctly format it into paragraphs, adding the required punctuation.
  2. Then, write a short section of your own telling what you think happened next.

Jamus closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep, but the wind outside seemed to be whispering his name. Usually, his imagination did not get the best of him, but this time, he actually began to believe a voice was calling him from the skies. Slowly, he rose from his bed, pulled on a blue robe and made his way to the window. Though the shutters were closed, patterns of moonlight traced themselves along the rug at his feet, drawing a shining pathway to the casement. He stood a moment in silence, listening. Rivermaster, a voice whispered softly. Do you hear me. Jamus pulled back startled by the clarity of the words. It was not his imagination after all. There was someone, or something out there calling to him. I am here, he answered, keeping his own voice low so as not to awaken Salene. What do you want. To talk of mirrors, the voice replied. Have you not seen your reflection enough times to know me? What are you talking about, he asked. Open the shutters. Perhaps you will see. Cautiously, Jamus pushed one of the wooden shutters aside. He peered out into the moonlit night. Down here, the voice called, in the pool. I am caught in a web of moonbeams. Come down. I want to talk to you. For a hundred reasons, Jamus knew he should not go, but he was Master of Magiskeep and the safety of his kingdom was no one’s responsibility but his. If the creature attached to the alluring voice was a danger, he needed to find out. I’ll be right there, he called back. Quickly he pulled on his soft leather breeches, boots, and a leather tunic. With Magic as his guardian, he needed no weapons. The hallway outside his room was deserted, for it was late in Norwin’s spans and the rest of the Keep was asleep. The soft soles of his boots made no sound as he went down the wide marble staircase into the massive front hall. Then he turned left, and headed for the conservatory and the doors out into the garden. The pool lay some thirty paces from the walls of the palace, set in bluestone and surrounded by a bed of sofferns and daylilies. It was not until he was almost at its rim that he could see into the still surface of the water. A face, not unlike his own shimmered there, its mouth quivering, its eyes wide with what appeared to be fear. I’m here, Jamus said. What is it you want to tell me? Don’t you recognize me? The face said. Have you not looked in the mirror of late? If you are my reflection, Jamus replied, I don’t recognize you. I am not afraid. I told Tamor that the last time he tried to conquer me. Then look in the mirror tomorrow, or the day after, the face said quietly. I will be there.

Writing Exercise #4
This passage tells more about Jamus and the reflection in the pool.

Read it and then do the assignment below.

Jamus frowned.

The reflection did not react. Its face, despite being the mirror of his own, kept its expression hard and steady.

“What do you want of me?” the Master of Magiskeep asked.

“I am what you are,” the image answered. “Look into your own heart and you will find my purpose.”

“Stop playing games. I’m tired of riddles. I’ve already met and reconciled the worst of myself. I’ve learned to live with my own faults.”

“All of them?” the reflection asked, its teeth gleaming white in a mocking grin.

“The ones that matter.”

“What about your fear?”

“I told you. I’m not afraid of you, your dark lord, or any of the shadows following his footfalls.”

“Fear your secrets, Jamus of Magiskeep. You are a fool who swears himself to goodness. But what use is that? Goodness is a weak and frail master. Has goodness ever conquered a nation? Has goodness ever won a war? Men fight in the name of goodness, but what evils do they perform in that name, eh? Pah! Goodness has no strength in the world of men. Don’t try to hide behind its righteous name. In the end, you are no better than the shadows you pretend to hate.”

Jamus shook his head. “I am not afraid. No matter what you say, I won’t give in to fear. It’s what you want, and for that reason alone I’ll refuse. You and your kind feed on fear, rage, and hatred. You find strength in an argument between friends, power in the cruel words of a bully, and might in the anguish of grief. That’s what you want from me and from my Magic. But I won’t give anything to you. I will not be afraid.”

The reflection smiled again, its dark eyes glittering in the moonlight. “Perhaps then, we should try to frighten your wife and child instead.”


Write a good paragraph to answer each question below.

In order to prove your answer to the question, you must provide specific evidence from the story as part of your explanation.

Use quotes from the passage or details to support whatever answer you give. Remember the “Watergate Rule.” Three supporting arguments are needed to give and answer value.

Here are the questions: (Remember to write a good paragraph to answer each one.)

1. What does the reflection seem to want from Jamus?

2. Why does the reflection call goodness “weak and frail?” Do you think it’s right?

3. What does Jamus say the reflection wants from him? Why?

4. How do you think the reflection plans on getting what it wants from Jamus? How do you know? Do you think it will succeed?

Writing Exercise #5
So the story continues.

Jamus sighed heavily, his own grey eyes hardening as he glared back into the pond. "Threatening my family will do little, Shadow. Who I am and the journey I take already threatens everyone and everything I love. Can one more danger be any greater than what I face already? You're a fool if you think I'm afraid."

"And you are fool if you aren't," the reflection returned, twisting its mouth into a menacing leer. "There are thousands of us, and only one of you. How will you stand against an army?"

Jamus flexed his hand slightly, the liquid flow of Magic coursing through his blood, reaching for his fingertips. "I have the River in my hand," he answered quietly.

The reflection's eyes widened as a streak of pure white Spellfire exploded from the Rivermaster's hand. The creature's face contorted, first as the fire hit the water, ripping its surface, and then as the dreadful pain of the blast struck its eyes. A scream rent the air, tearing the night's peace to tatters.

Above, a light flared in Jamus' room, and beyond, across the courtyard, other windows flew to light as well.

Jamus wrenched back, pain searing into his eyes, unexpected and startling. He fell to his knees at the pool's edge, gripping hard on its marble rim. "Idiot," he groaned aloud. "It was your own of them. By the Blood, what part of yourself have you murdered now?"

"Jamus!" Salene cried from above. "What's wrong? Are you all right?"

For now, he had no answer. Until he knew exactly what part of his soul had lived in the now burnt and smoking pool, there was no answer to her question.

Write a section of an original story of your own illustrating the correct use of dialogue, punctuation and paragraphing.

Your story may be fantasy, mystery, reality, adventure, or any topic you choose. Make sure you have at least two characters who can talk to each other and use their dialogue to make your story come alive.

This will count as a test grade.