01/31/2014 01:56 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

Want Better Essays? Ask Narrower Questions

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Anyone who has raised or spent much time with teenagers knows that they can argue. Passionately, effectively, and tirelessly. Ask them what their favorite band is, whether a certain team will win a championship this year, or why they should be allowed to go to a party, and they can craft persuasive, nuanced arguments supported by evidence that they meticulously analyze to prove their point.

Yet these same skills seem to abandon many high school students when the topic is not personal but academic. In my work as an English teacher and writing tutor, I have seen countless examples of essays that suffer from some form of the same malady: the main argument is vague (sometimes nonexistent) and poorly supported.

What explains this discrepancy? Why do students seemingly lose the ability to construct a coherent, well-reasoned argument when the text is not a chapter from their lives but rather one from a book? I believe the answer stems from the thing that should, in theory, provide the parameters of their response: the essay question itself.

Although English teachers seek focused essays, they often ask broad, open-ended questions that use vague verbs (e.g., "Examine," "Analyze" or "Consider"). Making matters more confusing, English teachers will often pose not one question but many -- a paragraph's worth, at times -- that hover around a topic. As a result, students are left wondering what, exactly, their teacher is even asking.

Imagine you are an English student attempting to answer the following essay prompt, which is a composite of many I've seen: "Consider the role of heroism in The Odyssey. Be sure to examine the relationship between Telemachus and Penelope as it relates to the suitors' pursuit of the latter. What is Homer trying to tell us about Telemachus? And how does it inform our understanding of Odysseus's actions?" Faced with those questions, you might first try to use part of the question stem in your answer (a technique we unfortunately reinforce up through middle school). In other words, your thesis would begin with, "The role of heroism in The Odyssey is..." While many solid arguments could start this way, it can be tough, particularly for students already struggling in English, to formulate a coherent argument about the function of an abstract noun. From there, you might attempt to answer each question in succession, which would lead to a fragmented thesis, or several smaller arguments somehow contained in a single essay. And from there, you might well take a break to text your friends, watch something online and possibly pull your hair out.

Now imagine you are responding to the following question instead: "Is Telemachus a hero?" For starters, you know what your thesis is going to be, broadly speaking. Yes he's a hero or no he's not. From there, you might define what it means to be a hero and then explain (hopefully with some layered evidence just begging to be analyzed) how he does or does not fit that definition.

Many English teachers I've spoken to have balked at the limitations of "Yes or No" questions (or similarly narrow "Why" questions). Some contend that there is value in making students ponder a general area of inquiry before figuring out what they're trying to say. I don't entirely disagree. That kind of intellectual winnowing can be beneficial, but only if students know how to do it. Unfortunately, many teenagers struggle mightily to make the transition from broad question to focused answer and thus lose the value of the endeavor altogether.

Other teachers simply do not like the idea of, in their opinion, telling their students what to write. Again, although I understand their point, I believe the benefits of a narrower prompt outweigh the costs. "Yes or No" questions are valuable precisely because of their strict parameters. And it's not as if this approach precludes the possibility of a broader focus. If advanced students want to expand the scope of such a topic to consider more complex issues, all the better.

For the majority of students I've worked with, however, the clarity inherent in this type of inquiry would represent a welcome and beneficial change, and not just in high school. Much of the reasoning that students will do as adults will be in response to narrow, focused questions. To take one example, as adults they're much more likely to ask themselves Should I vote for Senator X? than What is the role of democracy in America? There is nothing wrong with the latter type of question, of course, but it won't come up in their lives nearly as often.

Students need to see the link between their innate abilities of argumentation and their English essays. That's why, in high school classes and summer seminars, I've always started by having my students turn an argument from their actual lives into an outline for a hypothetical essay. No matter what the topic -- from the fairness of a curfew to the cuteness of a boy or girl -- the structure remains consistent: they have a main argument, they back it up with reasons, they support those reasons with evidence, and they analyze the evidence to prove their point. When I explain that that structure should not change even if they're making a point about a novel, short story, play or poem, there is often genuine amazement. There shouldn't be.