What approaches to teaching essay writing are there and what is useful to know when planning a writing lesson?
Process and product approaches are two of the most well-known, but more recently the genre approach has also gained credence. The product approach focuses on linguistic knowledge such as vocabulary, syntax and cohesive devices (Badger & White 2000). In other words, ‘what’ goes into an essay. The process approach is more concerned with facilitating the stages a writer must go through (Badger & White 2000). This could be referred to as the ‘how’ of essay writing. The third approach – genre – is similar to the product approach but also incorporates social aspects such as the purpose of writing or the ‘why’.
As these approaches have their own distinct features there is an argument for the synthesis of all three (Badger & White 2000). Raising awareness of the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of essay writing are all useful in developing ability and confidence in tackling what is a challenging yet vital skill for second language learners.
Product: What goes into an essay?
Let’s imagine how these three approaches might look in terms of an essay title, for example, ‘Which has greater influence on a person’s personality: nature or nurture?’. A typical product approach has four stages: familiarization, controlled writing, guided writing and free writing. Familiarization might involve categorizing words or phrases or noticing linguistic features of a model text. At the controlled stage, learners can attempt to produce their own sentences using some of the language highlighted. A guided task could involve ordering ideas or producing one of the arguments in groups. The idea is that the learners are then sufficiently equipped with enough knowledge of the language features to attempt the free writing stage.
Process: How do you write an essay?
Exposure to the typical linguistic features of an essay could be helpful, particularly to learners who lack a range of vocabulary or awareness of the features of a particular essay type (in this case a compare and contrast essay). But what about the process of writing the essay? A typical process approach consists of four stages: pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing (Badger & White 2000). Learners can begin by brainstorming ideas for and against nature or nurture. They can then create a plan using their ideas, which would be used as the basis for producing a first draft. Learners can work in pairs or groups to improve the draft which they then edit. It is a non-linear approach so that learners can return to any stage if necessary (Hyland 2003).
Genre: What is the purpose of writing an essay?
It is the purpose of the essay that is central to the genre approach. When arguing nature over nurture for example, the writer may wish to persuade their audience that nature has far more influence on personality. Learners are exposed to model compare and contrast essays and analyse them for their linguistic features, such as language that is used to persuade. Learners might perform a task using the phrases in order to become familiar with this particular genre. They can be encouraged to evaluate who the writer is trying to persuade and why. It imitates the product approach by using a model text but also raises awareness of the social purpose of writing (Badger & White 2000). Therefore, when approaching an essay type such as discursive, opinion, advantages v disadvantages or cause and effect, learners should know the purpose of what they are writing and reflect on who their audience is.
Is it possible to combine these three approaches in the classroom? Do they complement each other? Which input is needed is perhaps better judged by the teacher. Each group of learners has different needs, so the different approaches are available to be drawn upon if and when required. Do your learners need more knowledge about the language, the context or do they need more practice of the skills required to become successful essay writers? If your learners are not used to planning before they write, then they might find elements of brainstorming and planning activities useful, or if they seem unaware of how texts actually work as communication, then a discussion about the purpose of writing could be incorporated. If further exposure to language or grammar is required, then noticing the features of a model text may prove more worthwhile.
1. An argumentative essay: A process approach
Novice writers often have difficulty selecting and generating ideas for arguments to use in their essay writing (Couzjin, M. & Rilaarsdam, G. 2005). An argumentative statement such as ‘Do cats or dogs make better pets? Why?’ can be presented to learners to hone this skill. Choose a topic that doesn’t require any complex conceptual understanding so that they can focus solely on the experience of the process of preparing to write the essay.
Begin by asking for a show of hands so you can arrange learners into groups of those who agree and those who disagree with the statement. Facilitate a brainstorming activity whereby learners write reasons for their chosen argument on sticky notes. The groups can present their arguments to the class. Display the sticky notes and encourage learners to select the argument they believe is the most convincing. In smaller groups learners can practise discussing the sub-arguments of this main argument. Elicit an example of a main argument, e.g. ‘Cats are cleaner than dogs.’ and a sub argument, ‘They spend about 50% of their time grooming themselves.’, then elicit a counter argument ‘However, dogs can be easily hosed down after a walk.’
Each group can prepare and present their sub arguments and counter arguments and the class can take notes in a table. Learners can select the most convincing arguments and evaluate why they chose them. This activity provides an opportunity to practise ‘how’ to write an essay and the learners can use their notes to prepare a first draft. They can then use the same process to attempt more challenging essay titles depending on their level and needs.
2. An opinion essay: A genre approach
Learners sometimes lack enthusiasm for writing because they are unclear what the purpose of writing is. Everything we write has a communicative purpose and raising awareness of this can lead to increasing confidence and enjoyment of writing. There are various ways of highlighting genre: matching essay titles or extracts of model texts and discussing the different features in style, language and syntax as well as reflecting on the different purposes of each genre. For example, the title ‘There are more challenges than risks than benefits to new technology.’ is an opinion essay written to persuade and warn an audience of the dangers posed by modern technology rather than provide an unbiased or balanced view.
Another way to instill the concept of writing with a clear purpose, which also aids low level learners with greater fluency and reduces anxiety associated with writing, is by using learning logs. Learning logs are diaries where students write their reflections on what they are learning, how they are studying and any challenges they face. Linda Blanton recommends these are written at home on a weekly basis, the teacher is the sole audience and the topic is their writing class. This activity creates a purpose and highlights a specific audience to the writers (Blanton 1987). The teacher can limit the task to a paragraph or a page depending on the level of the learners. Blanton does not recommend correction of the writing but rather adding a comment either congratulating them on their progress or encouraging them with challenges they are facing. She also writes a weekly log to the whole class with observations regarding their writing and congratulating them on their achievements (Blanton 1987). This activity can also be very revealing for the teacher and any discoveries can be used to inform their teaching practice.
3. A compare and contrast essay: A product approach
If your learners need more help improving their linguistic writing ability, you can take a product approach focusing on topic related vocabulary, phrases relating to the specific genre as well as academic vocabulary. Using the example of a compare and contrast essay such as ‘Which is more important, emotional intelligence or intellectual intelligence?’ you can use extracts from model texts and analyse them for their specific features. Encourage learners to notice generic phrases that are characteristic of that genre, for example, on the contrary, similarly and discuss changes in meaning. They can practise topic and academic vocabulary using matching exercises that test they have understood the meaning and gap fills that check they can use the language in context.
Even after a comprehensive analysis, discussion and practice of the language features, when it comes to the freer writing task learners may abandon this new found linguistic knowledge in favour of more familiar vocabulary. So how can we ensure they have the ability and confidence to use what they have learnt effectively?
Keeping a record of the new language is key and there are various methods you can employ. Quizlet is an online learning tool that can be used in class by the learners themselves if they have internet access and laptops, or if you want to encourage more autonomy you could set it as a homework task. You can also prepare a set of flashcards and share this with your class. They can practise matching definitions and testing themselves online and print sets of flashcards. You can also set your learners the challenge of selecting some of the new language to incorporate into their free writing essay task. Recording and further practice of the new language will enable your learners to assimilate it and make it more accessible when producing the final essay.
The three approaches discussed offer distinct features and an assortment of all three is at the teacher’s disposal depending on the learners’ needs and wants. The use of learning logs as well as a needs analysis can inform the teacher at which point during the course each approach could be best employed to unleash their learners’ full writing potential.
Badger, R. & White, G. 2000 A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal 54/2, p.153-160. Oxford University Press.
Blanton, L. 1987 Reshaping ESL students’ perceptions of writing. ELT Journal Volume 41/2, p. 112-118. Oxford University Press
Couzjin, M. & Rilaarsdam, G. 2005 Learning to Read and Write Argumentative Text by Observation of Peer Learners. Effective Learning and Teaching of Writing: A Handbook of Writing in Education. Second Edition. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Hyland, K. 2003 Second Language Writing. Chapter 1. Cambridge University Press.
About the author
Kerry Boakes is a CELTA and DELTA qualified English Language teacher currently working for the British Council in Oman. Before becoming a teacher she worked for NGOs in a range of educational and campaign roles. She has experience of teaching in Kenya, South Korea and Japan and has taught academic English at Sheffield International College and Sheffield University. She has also worked as a teacher trainer in refugee camps on the Thai Burmese border and managed a literacy project in partnership with Save the Children.