“Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Many of us recall our teachers drilling this writer’s mantra into us and our fellow students.
This is as true for a good essay as it is for a good story.
An essay needs a coherent structure to successfully articulate its arguments, and strong preparation and planning is crucial to providing that structure.
So, how do we go about this?
After all, essay writing can be challenging for the ESL student. Not only does the student writer have to contend with the challenges of ordering their thoughts and constructing their arguments, they have to do this in their second language.
Navigating the rocky bluffs of syntax and idiomatic expressions isn’t easy at the best of times! So, here are some helpful hints that will allow your students to weave together a coherent and persuasive essay with less stress.
The 7 Helpful Habits of ESL Essay Writing
1. Build the essay around a central question
Encourage your students to build all their writing around one central question of the essay.
That central question is the engine of the writing, it should drive everything!
If a word or sentence is not assisting that forward motion toward the explication of that question and its possible answers, then it needs to be reworded, rephrased or just plain cut out and discarded.
Lean writing is merciless. Focusing on that central question throughout the prewriting, writing and rewriting stages helps develop the critical faculties required to discern what to keep and what to throw away.
2. Use the traditional 5-paragraph essay structure
Providing a clear structure for the student to approach essay writing can do much to build their confidence. The 5-paragraph essay, or “hamburger” essay, provides that clear structure for emergent ESL writers.
Generally, this structure employs five separate paragraphs for the entire essay. Each paragraph serves a specific purpose, melding together to form a coherent whole.
Paragraph 1: The introductory paragraph. It makes the thesis statement, orientating the reader to the purpose of the essay.
Paragraphs 2 to 4: The body paragraphs. These make individual points that are further backed up by the various forms of evidence.
Paragraph 5: The conclusion paragraph. This provides a summation of the arguments and a final statement of the thesis.
While they do not need to follow it rigidly forever, this simple structure outlined above can serve as excellent training wheels for your students.
3. Work from a plan
Using the 5-paragraph structure as outlined above makes planning clear cut.
Once they have their theses and are planning their paragraphs, share with the students the ridiculously useful acronym P.E.E. This stands for point, explanation, evidence.
Each body paragraph should make a point, or argument, in favor of the central thesis, followed by an explanation of this point and relevant evidence to back it up.
Extol the necessity for students to constantly refer to their planning. The mind-mapping techniques popularized by Tony Buzan can be useful at the planning stage and make for easy reference points to ensure focus is maintained throughout the essay. Having a visual reference such as this can help ensure that your student-writers see each piece of the whole as well as that elusive “bigger picture,” so it become a case of seeing the forest and the trees!
4. Do the homework
Just as the planning is crucial, so too is the research.
Often ideas or connections do not occur until the writing process has begun. This is a good thing. Essay writing is a creative act, so they can have more ideas along the way and work them in. The key is to always be able to back up these ideas.
Students who have done their homework on their subject will be much more confident and articulate in expressing their arguments.
Even with thorough planning and research, writing oneself into a linguistic cul-de-sac is a common error. Once the plan is completed and the student embarks on the choppy seas of essay writing, it may or may not be plain sailing. Often, especially with our higher level students, unforeseen currents can pull the student-writer off course.
Sometimes just abandoning the sentence helps. Going back to the drawing board and rewriting it is often best.
Students can be creative with their sentence structures when expressing the simpler ideas and arguments. However, when it comes to expressing the more complex concepts, help them learn to use shorter sentences to break down their arguments into smaller, more digestible chunks.
5. Repeat, repeat, repeat
Essay writing falls firmly in the camp of non-fiction. That is a given. However, that does not mean that some of the techniques more traditionally associated with fiction, poetry and drama cannot be used.
One technique that is particularly useful in essay writing is repetition. Just as poetry relies heavily on rhythm, so too does argument. Repetition can provide that sense of rhythm. Written language has its origins in the oral language. Think of the great orators and demagogues and their use of repetition. Speech-writers are well aware of the power of repetition.
The writing principle of the “rule of 3” states that ideas expressed in these terms are more convincing and memorable. This is true of words and the ideas they are expressing.
The very structure of the 5-paragraph essay lends itself to planning for this repetition. Each idea that is explored in a body paragraph should be outlined first in the introductory paragraph. The single body paragraph devoted to the idea will explore it at greater length, supported by evidence. The third rap of the hammer occurs in the summation of the concluding paragraph, driving the point securely and convincingly home.
6. Close the circle
As mentioned at the start of this post, every good essay has a beginning, middle and an end.
Each point made, explained and supported by evidence is a step toward what the writing teacher Roy Peter Clark calls closing the circle of meaning.
In planning for the conclusion of the essay, the students should take the opportunity to reaffirm their position. By making reference to the points outlined in the introduction, driving them home one last time, the student-writer is bringing the essay to a satisfying full circle.
This may be accomplished by employing various strategies: an apt quotation, referring to future consequences or attempting to inspire and mobilize the reader.
Ending with a succinct quotation has the double benefit of lending some authoritative weight to the argument while also allowing the student to select a well-written, distilled expression of their central thesis. This can make for a strong ending, particularly for ESL students.
Often the essay thesis will suggest its own ending. If the essay is structured around a problem, it is frequently appropriate to end the essay by offering solutions to that problem and outlining potential consequences if those solutions are not followed.
In the more polemical type essay, the student may end with a call to arms, a plea for action on the part of the reader.
The strategy chosen by the student will depend largely on what fits the central thesis of their essay best.
7. Edit to the end
For the ESL student, the final edit is very important.
It is one final chance to check form and meaning. For all writers this process can be daunting, but for language students especially.
Often ESL students will use the same words over and over again due to a limited vocabulary, encourage your students to employ a thesaurus in the final drafting before submission. This will freshen up their work, making it more readable. This will also increase their active vocabulary in the long run!
Another useful strategy to use at this stage of the process is to encourage students to read their work aloud before handing it in. This can be good pronunciation practice, and allows for an opportunity to listen for grammatical errors. It also helps the students to hear where punctuation is required in the text, helping the overall rhythm and readability of the writing.
Essays are a great way not only for students to learn how the language works, but also to learn about themselves.
Formulating thoughts and arguments about various subjects is good exercise for not only the students’ linguistic faculties, but also for understanding who they are and how they see the world.
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The only way to get better at anything is to do it—over and over again. In addition to practicing your English conversational skills, you should also practice your writing skills on a regular basis.
The good news is that writing in English doesn’t need to be a painful experience. By choosing topics that you’re passionate about or focusing on prompts that will put different grammar lessons into practice, you can ensure that writing is an engaging and enjoyable experience.
Here are twenty-two potential essay topics to get you started, but don’t be afraid to branch out and come up with your own topics, as well.
- Describe your favorite place in as much detail as possible.
- What do you do outside of school and work? Describe any hobbies you have, sports you participate in, or other activities you regularly enjoy.
- If you could invite five people to a dinner party, who would they be? What is each guest like?
- Describe your favorite fictional character in as much detail as possible.
- If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? Describe it and explain why you’d choose it.
- Give directions for getting from one point to another. Explain what landmarks someone might see along the way.
- Explain how to entertain guests who unexpectedly arrive at your home.
Verb tense practice
- What’s one thing you could never live without and why?
- Describe your ideal town or city, why you would want to live there, and what you would do there.
- Write about a time in the past when you had to make a difficult decision, and explain what you did.
- Talk about five specific goals you want to accomplish this year, and explain how you are going to accomplish them.
- Imagine you’re babysitting a child who breaks the kitchen table. Explain to the child how they could have avoided doing this if they had behaved differently.
Practical vocabulary practice
- Write a review of a new restaurant (either fictional or real) in your area.
- Describe the best party or large-scale event you’ve ever attended.
- If you could get one gift for everyone in your family, regardless of the cost, what would you get them and why?
- Choose a form of transportation (such as cars, trains, boats, planes, or subways) and explain how it has changed people’s lives.
- Write a pitch for a new blockbuster movie. Explain what will happen in the movie and why it will draw crowds to the theater.
Persuasive writing practice
- Do you think our society is too dependent on technology like smartphones? Why or why not?
- Imagine that a big new department store is being built in your hometown. Do you support this development or not?
- Do you think it’s better for students to have a long summer break or be in a year-round school system with more breaks throughout the year? Explain your position.
- Should employers set aside time during the day for their employees to exercise? What might be some of the advantages or disadvantages of this?
- What is your favorite book or movie, and why should people read or watch it?
What are some great ESL essay topics you've encountered? Let us know in the comments.