Best Purchases Educator Resources Writing

My Best Purchases for Homeschooling High School: They Say/I Say

I’ve spent more money on essay writing resources than I care to acknowledge. All in the spirit of turning out articulate and proficient teen writers by the end of this homeschooling gig, right? Still, though. I’ve wasted money on products that didn’t help all that much, and no one likes wasting money. So I’m sharing what I’ve purchased that has actually worked for us at the high school level.

So let’s get back to turning out those competent teen writers. Do you know what I’ve noticed about teen writers? They have a lot of opinions. Some stronger than others. But instead of eloquent ideas coming from teenagers, it’s more like…

Example from a teenager rough draft

Yeah, it’s what they do – they start forming opinions about the world, sometimes not all that positive. Criticism is one of the first signs of a teen’s new complex thinking skills, so we want to see this evidence of growth. It’s a stage we home educators have to wade through, yet we also want to balance our responsibility to train our high schoolers in academic writing.

We need to coach them towards academic-toned insights in essays, not teen-toned opinions. It’s been a challenge in our homeschool, particularly paraphrasing a source without inserting their own judgment. Sure, they can disagree with a point of view, but they can’t say the point of view is stupid in a formal paper. Our goal is to grow beyond such black and white critiques.

It’s the high school tightrope: accepting who and where our teens are while also stretching them to grow.  

So how do you get a teenager to ratchet down the intensity of their opinion without discouraging critical thinking skills? 

Enter They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.  

You guys, this book has saved us countless hours and effort in figuring out how to word teenage ideas into academic style.

How do you disagree without being a jerk? In the book.

How do you agree with someone but still add something to the conversation? In the book.

How do you frame and introduce a quote in your paper? In the book.

How do you articulate the significance of your point? In the book. 

They Say/I Say provides sentence templates to help students new to academic writing set up their ideas and commentary on their topic.

…the templates offered here are learning tools to get you started, not structures set in stone. Once you get used to using them, you can even dispense with them altogether, for the rhetorical moves they model will be at your fingertips in an unconscious, instinctive way.

(Graff and Birkenstein 14)

The book is a lifesaver and worth every penny I paid for it. I purchased the high school edition in the picture, and we use it every time we write an essay. Not only do we pull it out for our essays, we also use it for mini-lessons and skill building in between essay projects. Most chapters come with exercises to practice the particular skill addressed, and the book also includes sample readings for you to use to practice responding to what They Say, along with crafting commentary for subject-specific papers (sciences, literature, etc.).

Teen writers don’t automatically know how to write academically or in response to another author’s point of view. We have to coach them. They will possibly form strong and critical opinions, especially if we’ve created a safe environment for risks in our home (one way risk shows up in teens is through controversial opinions), and then they may struggle with appropriately framing their opinions in formal papers. Our high schoolers need tools to learn these new writing skills and They Say/I Say has been a useful one for us.




  • Michelle
    4 months ago

    This is great! So true about everything being stupid. 🤣 I bought a copy of this book this year, but got a little overwhelmed with implementation and haven’t used it yet. 🤦‍♀️

    I have a few questions for you: Do you use it for instruction before an essay assignment? Or to illustrate an idea you have for how to improve a drafted essay? How does it fit with BW’s Help for High School? How many essays do you write with the boys in a year? In a previous post, you said you freewrite weekly from the Boomerang books, and I’m assuming that they write an essay that answers the TP question they picked from the guide at the end of the book?

    I seem to oscillate – requiring too much of my kids so they get frustrated and burnt out, and then not asking them to write formally for a while and feeling like a complete failure. 🤷‍♀️ But I like the idea of using essays to practice specific techniques. This summer I was hoping to revisit the 180 Days book, and think about a different topic to use each week during the school year to explore through essays, song lyrics, poems, articles, infographics, etc. In addition to being a way to introduce current events or wellness topics I’d like to cover anyways, my hope is that this would give us lots of fodder to practice writing summaries or opinions without committing to the whole essay writing process. They Say/I Say seems like it would be a good compliment for that strategy. But I wonder if I’m setting expectations too high and this will just turn out to be a whole lot of work and frustration for me and my kids?

    I guess I’m struggling with figuring out how to piece together high school writing instruction without following one specific curriculum. I’m planning to continue using the Boomerang discussion guides and Rita’s books to help with reading comprehension and literary elements. I don’t feel like I need to purchase more curriculum, but can’t quite see how to piece it all together. We have not had much luck with online courses to day, so I’d really like to make a plan so I’ve thought through our options and we are building specific skills throughout the year.

    • admin
      4 months ago

      Hey Michelle! Awesome questions, as usual. I’ll tackle them individually…

      Do you use it for instruction before an essay assignment?
      Sorta kinda. For my freshman last year – the one who was my reluctant writer. We only did part 1 of H4HS that year. Saved part two for sophomore year. But along with part 1 in 9th grade, I also included reading other essays and discussing/breaking down their construction, along with They Say/I Say mini lessons. So a weekly routine would look like 2-3 days of H4Hs, 1 day of either essay reading OR practicing with They Say (rotated weeks), and the one day of literature freewrite. So he was writing 3-4(ish) days a week, but with low-stakes assignments his freshman year.

      With They Say/I Say, we only used lessons within the introduction through the first part of chapter 4. The quotation chapter we used quite a bit. Say we would read an essay from Breakfast on Mars. We would find a line, take the templates in the quoting chapter and practice, as if we were setting up a quote in a paper. If he happened to have a commentary on it, we’d then look to chapter four and pick one of those templates for framing his response. These weren’t necessarily polished & put together. They were a bit clunky. But he was learning a new skill of pulling out a quote and then explaining his perspective on it. Smoothing it out with transition words and such can come later. And he actually did quite well smoothing everything out in his first expository essay.

      Or to illustrate an idea you have for how to improve a drafted essay?
      Once we got into actual essay writing, we pulled out the book during the revision stage, yes. If he was getting frustrated with how to word something, or I saw an area that needed tweaking, we’d pull out the book. I do this with my older teen who has more experience with essays too. Sometimes figuring out how to say something is aggravating and the book usually gives us some idea, even if we tweak the template words quite a bit. It get us unstuck.

      How does it fit with BW’s Help for High School?
      Three ways. In the revision stage, the chapter on paraphrasing and summarizing, and including quotes in the final essay assignment. Paraphrasing and summarizing are hard skills to learn and teens need a lot of practice & help. The sentence templates saved us time and gave us additional practice.

      How many essays do you write with the boys in a year?
      My 10th grader did 2 polished essays. I think my 11th grader did 3. There’s a TpT account I follow; she teaches high school English in CA. She uploaded her 180 day lesson plan for both her 9/10th grade and 11th grade classes. Each wrote 3 full essays over the year. If that helps give a frame of reference.

      you said you freewrite weekly from the Boomerang books, and I’m assuming that they write an essay that answers the TP question they picked from the guide at the end of the book?
      No, not yet. A full lit analysis essay is on the list for 2019-20 school year. My purpose of having them do the weekly freewrite response to literature up to now has been to get them used to collecting their thoughts and reactions to novels in bits and pieces (as they call it at Rooted in Language.)

      Lit analysis essay writing is not a high priority for me because, unless they major in English in college, they will take two classes where that type of essay is needed. The majority of their other college essays will be research essays, not literature analysis. So I try to keep that perspective when it comes to lit essays. We’ll get to it & I want them to have experience with it, but I’m not repeating a lit essay over and over. What’s more important is learning to articulate their own viewpoints in response to something or someone else. Putting them into a format is the easy part.

      One thing I would do differently if I had more kids is once we finished the exploratory essay in H4HS, I would hit pause on H4HS and do an easier essay in between it and the persuasive/expository, such as informational or how-to/process essay. Maybe a personal narrative. Something to reinforce the essay but without jumping into cited research just yet. To shore up confidence and practice the process of producing a polished essay, but not have to deal with pulling/sorting/quoting/citing research yet. The jump from exploratory to cited research was stressful for my boys, and I see now that a bit more scaffolding in between would have been helpful.


    • admin
      4 months ago

      I should add that for his sophomore year, our weekly routine was more like daily work through H4HS part 2 and the weekly lit freewrite one day a week (and we would not work on H4HS on lit discussion/freewrite day). He finished part two *just* a smidgen longer than first semester. His final essay spilled a little past Xmas holidays & into January.

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