How CSI Helps Students Organize their Paragraphs

A couple weeks ago I wrote a guest post for Cult of Pedagogy called “Delaying the Grade”, and since then I’ve had several questions through comments, emails, Tweets, etc. about what I do about feedback while students write, what CSI means, and how I conference with students.  

In order to respond to all of this, I’m going to write three separate posts, detailing each of these things.  

For me, nothing beats observing a student grow as a writer.  From their first diagnostic essay (mess!) in August to their final exam essay in May, the change is heart-warming.  I love that all of my students can grow as writers, no matter where they started.  Obviously, some will grow more than others; some will even find that they kinda like writing or that they’re kinda good at it.  

(Win: This year, a student wrote a note explaining that she learned she is a good writer, which excited me because that confidence is going to help her grow into an even better writer in the future.)

Have you noticed that many of our kids are scared to write? They’ll sit with a blank paper for ages and ages because they “don’t know what to write” as though there is only one right answer.  When kids feel that they are just going to be “judged” on their writing, they seize up.  And, really, can we blame them?  Too many red pens have bled all over their writing, and they believe the standards are too high for them to reach.  

It’s frustrating and sad.  And it’s a pretty big barrier to overcome.  

But wow, when the kids do overcome the fear, they can really grow and produce!  For me, it was about finding a starting place to help them gain confidence as writers. 

Before I could really start to help my students, I had to overcome some of the obstacles of teaching writing, most of which I’m still working on.

I constantly struggle with a few little English teacher demons when I teach writing:

  • What should we focus on?  When ten kids don’t make claims about anything, and four kids don’t have topic sentences but have great grammar, and seven kids have terrible grammar but actually say some pretty deep stuff, I sit and ponder about where to start.  How can I meet the needs of all of these students and keep my sanity? Is that even possible?  (Yes according to my research, but in all honesty, it’s a work in progress in my classroom).
  • How often should we write? How do I manage it all? Now, I 100% believe in not grading everything students write. This allows for a LOT more writing; however, it can still get messy and overwhelming at times.  Another work in progress.
  • How do I make it connect and seem authentic? I love Writing with Mentors (and their blog, but for some reason I constantly get bogged down with making writing connect to whatever else we’re doing in class? But why?  Do I even need to worry about this really?  As I start to plan for next year, I’m going to try to worry less about it.  Kids need to write.  All. The. Time.  End of story.
  • How much structure is too much? When I get those first diagnostic essays that are written in blobs (no paragraphs—eeek), or contain no claims, arguments, or details (what do they contain, exactly?), I get overwhelmed.  My heart tells me to let them learn to write through examples and mentors, which I am all for and will talk about more at another time, but my head tells me that first they need some structure.  (Kelly Gallagher, if you ever read this, I love all of your work and I’m trying to be more like you, I swear!!!)

Over the years, I’ve decided that I needed to start with the biggest obstacle: organization. So, even though it pains me to say it, my kids need some structure. At least at first.

Or maybe I need the structure.  As terrible as it sounds, I need a starting point, too. Something clearly defined to help my kids organize their thoughts into something readable.  

Either way, we all needed some structure, so that’s where I started.

I encourage my struggling writers to cling to the structure like a life raft (for now) and I encourage my more advanced writers to experiment a bit.  So far it has worked. Kids have come back to say they use the structure in their essays for 12th grade–a few have even said they continued to use it in college!

Understand that this method is used for literary analysis and argument essays (with some obvious changes for both as necessary).  We also explore other genres and play with structure within those, but for organizing coherent thoughts for academic essays (which, arguably, aren’t even the most necessary kind of writing nowadays, but that’s a philosophical post for another day…), this method has proven to be the most helpful.

Using CSI to Organize Body Paragraphs

What is CSI?  It’s not Crime Scene Investigators, but the commonness of the acronym does help kids remember how to organize a paragraph.  CSI stands for Claim, Support, Insight.  A colleague of mine came up with it or found it somewhere, and now there are several of us in our department and especially our 11th grade PLC who use the terminology.  

After students write diagnostic essays, usually about the summer reading book, we revise.  This is when I introduce the idea that writing is never really “finished”.  They all want to turn in their essays, get a grade, and just be done with them, but that process doesn’t teach them how to be better writers.  They don’t grow.  Instead, I encourage them to revise, edit, rewrite as much as they want (more on this someday).  

During the revision process, I introduce the basics of CSI and quote integration using this powerpoint (and I leave it on Canvas for them to reference all year–and they do!):

This one was later changed to fit with what we were doing for The Great Gatsby, but it has the same general ideas.  (Sidenote: I do not claim any of these ideas as my own. I have gathered resources, talked to colleagues, and made these things mine, but I never just designed anything from scratch–I’m not smart or creative enough for that!  That being said, feel free to take anything you need/want from this post and make it your own.) I also have a CSI poster hanging on the wall to point to when kids get that I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about look.  

One of my colleagues, Lesa, does an excellent job of referencing CSI with almost everything they read.  She always comes back to “what is the author’s claim?” to reinforce the idea that writers don’t just write for the sake of writing, they’re making a statement of some sort.  She then has them find how the author supports their claims.  All of this helps the idea of CSI stick in their brains.  I am striving to be more like her in this regard!!

In the beginning, especially for my strugglers, I give them an actual outline of what every sentence should be about (don’t hate me, okay??).  My juniors still think a good paragraph is five sentences.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I know good paragraphs can be five sentences, when it is written intentionally; however, my kids think when you get to five sentences you’re done, just stop there.  (Y’all, they kill me, seriously).  This superstructure (which I’m sure you’re thinking is killing all of their creativity) gives them a format to follow, which helps them feel more comfortable and makes what they’re writing more readable.  

As we move on, we explore mentor texts, play with the structure, and make it our own, but I’m telling you, when they are struggling to organize their thoughts, this really helps.

We reference CSI throughout the year when we’re organizing our thoughts.  I remind kids that they have to support any claims they make (which I plan to tie in more closely with Erik Palmer’s Good Thinking this year).  We talk about how authors use evidence to support their claims, and how they explain it and tie it all together.  So while, yes, this is a rigid structure, it seeps into all aspects of English: Non-fiction reading, essay writing, argument, etc.  It also ties in with the standards as students need to be able to find the main ideas, author’s arguments, and supporting details.

How do you help your students organize their body paragraphs?  What is most important for you as a writing teacher?  I’d love to hear how you handle the struggles!  Also, feel free to ask me questions (or tell me how terrible this all is and how I’m killing my students’ creativity–or not). 🙂



2 thoughts on “How CSI Helps Students Organize their Paragraphs

  1. Hi Kristy!
    Great post- writing in indeed ‘never finished’! We use a format similar to yours from A+College Ready. AEC for assertion, evidence, commentary- I added ‘T’ for transitions, as 8th graders struggle with the transition phrases needed to introduce the evidence- so I call it an ATEC format. I am all about the structure as well, and I do think the structure helps students with the writing process.


  2. Pingback: Best of Writing Instruction from Loudenclear Blog | Louden Clear Blog

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