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How to Teach Essay Writing

A guide on how to teach essay writing skills from the ground up

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As ESL students become more fluent, it's time to focus on how to use that fluency in specific tasks such as making a presentation or writing an essay. The advanced topics you choose should depend upon what your students have planned for the future. In classes with mixed objectives, there's a need for balance to make sure that students who don't necessarily need the task at hand still profit from the lesson. This is never more true than when teaching essay writing skills. Classes which are preparing for academic English objectives require the skills while "business English", or English for specific purposes classes, might find the entire exercise a waste of their time. Chances are you have a mixed class, so I highly recommend tying essay writing skills to other important skills such as using equivalencies, the proper use of linking language and sequencing in writing. Students not interested in essay writing skills will gain valuable experience in developing these skills regardless of the task.

Build Toward Essay Writing Skills

Start by Modeling Clear Writing at the Sentence Level

The best way to approach essay writing skills is to start at the sentence level. Once students have learned to compose simple, compound and complex sentences, they will have the tools necessary to write longer documents such as essays, business reports, formal emails, and so on. All students will find this help invaluable.

Focus on Equivalencies

I find the best place to start is with equivalencies. Before moving on, make sure students understand sentence types by writing a simple, compound and complex sentence on the board.

Simple Sentence: Mr. Smith visited Washington three years ago.
Compound Sentence: Anna advised him against the idea, but he decided to go nonetheless.
Complex Sentence: Since he was in Washington, he took the time to visit the Smithsonian.

Build up students' knowledge of equivalencies by beginning with FANBOYS (coordinating conjunctions), moving on to subordinating conjunctions, and finishing with other equivalencies such as preposition and conjunctive adverbs.

Focus on Linking Language

Next, students will need to link their language, creating organization through the use of linking language including sequencing. It helps to write out processes at this point. Ask students to think of some process, then use sequencing language to connect the dots. It's a good idea to ask students to use both numbering in a sequence of steps and linking through time words.

Writing Essay Practice

Explaining Essay Writing on the Board

Now that students understand how to combine sentences into larger structures, it's time to move on to writing essays. Provide a simple essay to students and ask them to identify various structures / written objectives:

  • Underline linking language
  • Find examples of FANBOYS, subordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, etc.
  • What is the main idea of the essay?
  • How does the essay seem to be organized?
  • Essays generally contain an introduction, body and conclusion. Can you identify each?

I like to help students by first explaining that an essay is like a hamburger. It's certainly a crude analogy, but students seem to get the idea of the intro and conclusion being like the buns, while the content is the good stuff.

Essay Writing Lesson Plans

There are a number of lesson plans and resources on this site that help out with the many steps involved in developing the necessary writing skills. To focus on combing simple sentences into more compound structures, use this simple to compound sentence worksheet. Once students are comfortable at the sentence level, use the essay writing workshop - a total of four lessons - to proceed from brainstorming, through outlining to final essay production.

Challenges with Teaching Essay Writing

As stated at the beginning of this introduction, the main issue with essay writing is that it is not really necessary for every student. Another issue is that traditional five paragraph essays are certainly a little old school. However, I still feel that understanding the structure of your basic hamburger essay will serve students well when putting together future written work.

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