The first time I encountered the synthesis essay was when I started teaching AP English Language and Composition. At the time, I figured it was simply an alternate form of a research paper that could be written quickly. Students don’t have the time to conduct research and report their findings in the 40-minute window given to them on the AP exam.
However, I soon learned that the synthesis essay is so much more than that! Though the traditional research paper and the synthesis have similarities, the purposes for each are different and therefore so are the goals and outcomes. In this post, I’m going to explain how to teach a synthesis essay to boost students’ writing skills.
Step 1: Understanding Synthesis
First and most importantly, students need to understand what synthesis means. As a general definition, synthesis means to take pieces of something and bring them together in a way that forms a whole. In terms of writing an essay, synthesis means to take information from sources and bring them together to create a whole new argument.
This step goes hand-in-hand with understanding the synthesis task. For a synthesis essay, students are given an argumentative prompt and a series of curated sources that share various perspectives on that topic. Then, they must choose information from several of the sources to support an original argument about the topic.
Since most students are familiar with finding their own sources for a research paper or an argumentative paper, this might be surprising to them at first. Therefore, it’s important for them understand that they can only use the sources given. Their challenge is to use the pieces of the given sources to support their new argument.
The goals for this assignment are to create an argument and support the argument with given sources.
Step 2: Review the Sources
To meet these goals, students must take inventory of the sources. This is an important step to do before deciding on their stance. Depending on the topic, students might not be informed or have a perspective on it. This is why it’s so important for students to review the sources. They may find compelling evidence to shape their argument.
Creating a short annotated bibliography is a great activity to get them started. An annotated bibliography is a review of the sources that summarizes the purpose or argument in the source. I ask students to take it one step further and provide their impressions of the source as well. This process ensures that students have read each source. Similarly, if you use it as a checkpoint for student work, you can make sure that students understand the content in the sources before they start to write their essays.
Step 3: Get Organized
Now that students understand the topic and have read the sources, they should form their stance. Because this essay is an argument, they need to have a strong stance and reasoning to support their stance. Their reasoning should function as major points that will argue their stance AND that can be supported by the sources.
This is how students will create a line of reasoning in their essays. A line of reasoning works from the thesis statement to the points in the body paragraphs to the evidence from the sources which all should be connected back to the thesis argument. Once students have these plans, their organization for the essay is organized, and they can begin taking notes.
Step 4: Note Taking
Note taking is an important step to ensure that each point in the essay is supported by evidence from the sources. First, they start by writing down the topic for the body paragraph. Then, they go through all the sources and write either a paraphrase or a direct quotation of the information from the source that relates to that point. They can repeat this step for each body paragraph.
I found that this step really helps students understand how to use varied and substantial evidence to support each point. For example, if they can’t find evidence for the point, they will realize it is a weak point and replace it before they start writing their essays. I like using a note table for organizational purposes.
Step 5: Integrating Sources Into Their Essays
Now that students are ready to write, it’s important to teach them how to integrate sources into their essays. I use APA formatting to teach synthesis, but there are other more general documentation styles that would work. For example, in AP English Language and Composition, students can use the identifying information given in the prompt. The main objective is consistency. Check out this blog post to learn about which documentation style should be used for each discipline.
They can use in-text citations and parenthetical citations to vary their structure. In-text citation means that they are introducing the source with their own words in the sentence, such as “According to Smith (2021).” Parenthetical citations are citations that are used at the end of a paragraph. For practice, I use an engaging digital activity that encourages students to apply their resources to practice documentation and integration. You can download my APA Race or MLA Race resource for free below:
For More Information
Teaching students synthesis skills empowers them to use sources wisely. It eliminates the struggle of finding credible sources and focuses more on using sources appropriately. It also helps them understand how to make an argument and support it using varied, substantial, and credible research.
If you’d like more information on how I teach the synthesis essay, check out my synthesis essay workbook. This workbook walks students step-by-step through the synthesis writing process.
For more information, check out the following sources: