Breaking out of the Mold: 3 Times You Shouldn’t Just Do Things the Same Old Ways

Breaking out of the Mold
3 Times You Shouldn’t Just Do Things the Same Old Ways

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 4,053 views |

Five paragraphs.

Anyone who has taken a high school English class knows what five paragraphs means: an introduction, three examples, and a conclusion. The form is great for writers who are just starting out. It has organization, flow, and fulfills the reader’s expectation. That’s why it’s taught in just about every high school English class and every intermediate ESL writing class. But five paragraphs after five paragraphs after five paragraphs gets boring. And this formula is not always the best way to answer a question for a writing assignment. That’s why the best ESL writing teachers show their students how to structure their writing to fit the question at hand. And the best students learn and use these writing plans. If you are ready to go beyond five paragraphs with your students so they are really ready for the academic world beyond your class, here some writing plans you can try.

Beware of 3 Times You Shouldn’t Just Do Things the Same Old Ways

  1. 1

    The Compare and Contrast Composition

    Believe it or not, four paragraphs may be better than five when it comes to writing about comparisons and contrasts. Students should use this strategy when they are comparing and contrasting two or more elements and/or giving a value judgment. This structure also works for assignments that ask which of two items is better, want the writer to explain something unknown by comparing it to something that is known, or want the writer to show how something has changed over time. The following questions all lead themselves to using the compare and contrast structure in a writing assignment.

    • Is it harder to love or hate?
    • How are your parents different now than when they were children?
    • What is the difference between being a follower or a leader?

    When students compare two different items, they should look at the same criteria for each of the objects. There are two different types of compare and contrast organization your students can use for this type of writing assignment. The first is called block organization. In one paragraph, students write about one item giving information on all the criteria in that paragraph. In the following paragraph, students then examine the all the criteria for the other item. Including an introduction and a conclusion, this structure yields a four paragraph essay, and it’s most useful when there are not a lot of criteria being examined. Point by point organization is the other compare and contrast structure. Each criteria gets its own paragraph, and both objects are discussed at one time in each paragraph. This type of organization can have four, five, or more paragraphs depending on the number of criteria which are being examined.

  2. 2

    The Process Composition

    More than likely your students, if they are at the intermediate level or higher, have read and used process writing perhaps without even knowing they did. Anytime someone reads directions on how to do something, they are reading process organization. This structure is great for explaining a process, explaining how something works, or telling about something that happened. (Narrative writing usually uses this form.) Following are some examples of questions that use this type of organization.

    • Explain how a person receives his or her driver’s license in your home country.
    • How did you decide to study English?
    • Write an essay describing your trip from your home country to the U.S.

    When writing a process composition, it is best to have your students brainstorm all the steps in the process and list them in chronological order. Then, have students group those steps into three or four logical sections. For example, if you were explaining how to make a certain kind of soup, you might divide the steps into getting the proper ingredients and equipment, preparing the food, the cooking process, and how to serve the finished product. If you do, your students’ composition will have five or six paragraphs including the introduction and conclusion, and it will clearly go through the steps in the process they are writing about.

  3. 3

    The Cause and Effect Composition

    ESL students talk about cause and effect very early on in grammar class when they are learning subordinating conjunctions like because and since. We use cause and effect thinking every day when we try to determine why something happened or when we try to predict the results of a possible course of action. In every case, we are looking at the relationship between events. The following are examples of questions that lend themselves to a cause and effect style analysis.

    • How has technology impacted the environment in the last fifty years?
    • What benefits will learning English give you in the future?
    • What factors contributed to the start of World War II?

    Often, one simple cause or effect takes an unrealistic or overly simplified view of a given situation. For example, if you asked a dentist what caused tooth decay, he or she would likely list several contributing factors. If your students are writing such a composition, they will need to examine each cause in a separate paragraph. Sometimes one event has multiple consequences. If your students were answering a question such as the second example above, they would write about the multiple effects of an event, and each effect would need its own paragraph in the composition. Sometimes, one event cause another event which causes another event and so on. This is called a causal chain. If your students are writing on such a topic, they would write one paragraph about the relationship between each of the events (one paragraph on how A led to B, one on how B led to C, etc.). For cause and effect compositions, the number of paragraphs depends on the type of organization students are using and how many causes and effects they are discussing.

These are just a few of the ways to encourage writing beyond the five paragraphs traditionally taught in ESL programs. When your students can tailor their organizational style and content to the questions they are answering, they will truly be ready for success at the academic writing in their futures.

How do you know when students are ready to move beyond the five paragraphs?

What strategies do you teach?

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