Teaching ESL students to write essays can be frustrating for both teachers and students.
Students need to be able to write more than a sentence or two, and the additional effort necessary for writing an essay can lead to a lot of unclear and confusing sentences.
Those same sentences can give teachers a headache when correcting the writing exercises.
Luckily, there’s a secret to dramatically improving the clarity in ESL essays.
The problems of clarity can almost always be traced back to one element: the thesis statement. If students aren’t taught to write a coherent thesis statement, the rest of their essays will remain unclear.
So below we’ll look at four simple ways to impressively improve clarity in your students’ writing – just by focusing on the thesis statement. But before we get there, let’s consider the ins and outs of a thesis statement, plus some common problems you’ll encounter in ESL writing exercises.
What Is a Thesis Statement?
To improve clarity in ESL writing exercises, you must first teach students what a thesis statement is. Students who do not understand what it is will not be able to effectively follow any instruction on improving that all-important sentence in their essays.
Because most ESL teachers now instruct students how to write five-paragraph essays, the thesis statement is easier to identify and write. In such essays, the thesis statement can be formulaic; students answer the essay question and provide three reasons/points of discussion related to the topic in a parallel construction.
Example: People should learn a foreign language because it improves career prospects, develops creative thinking and decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Once the students have their answer to the question, they can see that this sentence is directly related to their three body paragraphs. Teachers should explain that the students can write their topic sentences to the body paragraphs using the ideas in the thesis statement. This will keep the students focused on the topic throughout the essay.
When students understand what the thesis statement is and how to use it in their essays, they will have an easier time writing essays for future courses. They will also be able to more easily identify main ideas when reading.
Common Problems in ESL Writing Exercises
When it comes to the thesis statement, the majority of problems are related to grammar. Many students will write an unclear thesis statement because they don’t know what to write about and just continue writing until they get to what they believe to be an idea for their essay.
Teachers must make it a priority to instruct students in ways to write clear, concise sentences. I used to tell my students the same thing my graduate professor told me, “Write as though words cost money.” When students use more precise vocabulary, they eliminate wordiness and improve clarity. Teaching students to write in this manner takes a lot of time and effort, but can be achieved.
With those five-paragraph essays that most ESL students learn to write, parallel construction is important. When students write the reasons for their answer to an essay question, they don’t think about parallelism.
Many students have a difficult time understanding parallel construction, but if it is reviewed often throughout a course, the students will have a better understanding of it. Combined with brief lessons on concise writing, the problems of parallelism in thesis statements can be minimized.
So here are four simple ways to address these common problems in ESL writing exercises to dramatically improve clarity in your students’ writing.
4 Simple Ways to Dramatically Improve Clarity in ESL Writing Exercises
1. Provide Clear Writing Examples to Your ESL Students
The best method for getting students to write with more clarity is to provide them with clear examples of good thesis statements.
Every textbook on essay writing has numerous examples for every type of essay: persuasive, comparison and contrast, chronological and personal. Some textbooks will have better examples than others; it’s your responsibility to focus on the ones that are most effective.
There are also plenty of university writing tutorial websites that provide additional examples for use in class, such as the Purdue OWL.
However, there is no substitute for in-class examples on the board. Using possible essay topic questions suitable for your class’s level, you can show the class how to write a clear, concise thesis statement – including the process and word choice.
And while it’s important to show students how to write an effective thesis statement, it is also helpful to provide them with examples of ineffective thesis statements. Show students thesis statements that are vague, confusing and wordy so they understand what you mean by vague, confusing and wordy. When students understand what those terms mean, they will have an easier time identifying and correcting the problems.
2. Dissect the ESL Writing Examples with Your Students
After providing examples to your students, be sure to review why these examples work. Ask the class what they see in the example – Does it answer a question? Does it provide reasons for the answer? Point outhow the thesis statement addresses a question. If their example mirrors the standard five-paragraph essay thesis statement, show the students how parallel construction is used.
Since ESL students should recognize the need to directly address the essay prompt, provide sample questions/topics in class to help demonstrate. If the essay question is, “Should every citizen be required to vote?,” then the students’ thesis should begin with, “Every citizen should/shouldn’t be required to vote.” From this phrase, the students can explain why they agree or disagree with the idea. Based on this model, students should be able to identify whether or not an example in class fits this formula.
Some ESL students learn to write better by correcting others’ mistakes. Use examples that have common mistakes and have the students identify and correct those mistakes. Teachers can also write an essay prompt on the board and then write a thesis statement, including some errors, based on that prompt. This activity will give students an opportunity to understand the thesis statement and improve their editing skills. Be sure to include mistakes involving parallelism and wordiness, as well as examples that don’t actually answer the writing prompt.
3. Practice Writing Thesis Statements
Students will get bored of the examples unless they’re broken up throughout the course. As teachers, we need to offer more hands-on activities to give students the opportunity to show that they have learned the process of writing thesis statements.
Depending on the type of essay that your students are learning to write, provide a sample essay prompt and have the students write a thesis statement. This can be done with handouts of multiple essay prompts or with the prompts written on the board.
You can walk around the room and see how the students are doing with the writing prompts. This may help with suggestions during the review period.
When the class has completed the exercise of writing multiple thesis statements, you can review using volunteers who want to share their answers. Take examples from at least two students for each practice writing prompt. When doing so, have the students write their thesis statements on the board and review them with the entire class. The other students should be able to provide feedback and corrections for their classmates. You should provide further feedback after the class has finished evaluating their classmates.
After completing an evaluation of the answers to the first writing prompt, have the class go back and proofread their other thesis statements and then review their writing the same way as before.
4. Write Theses in Small Groups
Another form of practice to review students’ thesis writing abilities is to write theses as a group. After students have learned the basic structure of a thesis statement for each type of essay, they should be able to help each other out when working together. For this exercise, it’s best to pair students with weaker writing skills with ones who better understand the structure.
As with the previous exercise, provide your students with multiple essay prompts, and the groups will write a thesis statement for each. So in groups of three or four students, they all have to agree on what to include in the thesis statement. This will not only improve students’ ability to write a clear thesis, but may also improve their logical division of ideas in essays.
Adding exercises like these to an ESL writing course will greatly improve the quality of student essays over the course of a semester.
Students and teachers need to realize that these writing exercises are not a quick fix for the problems of unclear writing, but rather a tool for gradually improving. Some students may need a reminder of this as they may become frustrated with their mistakes, but the ability to write a clear and concise thesis statement is the first step towards writing a clear essay.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.
Bring English immersion to your classroom!
What is the hamburger essay and why is it a great main course when serving up ESL writing lessons?
With over 700 million people speaking English as a second language, along with the status of English as the international lingua franca, there are many reasons students flock to English. So, what in particular does the essay form have to offer all these students?
As economic reasons are a prime motivator for many ESL students, essays can be a great format for delving into non-fiction topics and can offer an opportunity to develop coveted skills, such as organizing factual information, undertaking research and coherently presenting one’s own opinions. Essays afford the student-writer a format in which these aims can be achieved.
In this article we will offer some useful guidelines for helping your students to structure their essays using the hamburger model, as well as some handy hints and useful exercises to get your students started on the road to essay excellence!
ESL Essay Writing: The 5 Ingredients of the Classic Hamburger Essay
1. Top Topic Tips for Teachers and Students
This is a great opportunity to really engage your students. You need to give tips from the get-go, though, so your students do not end up totally overwhelmed.
Essay writing can place great challenges on the ESL student, as they work through the research, drafting and editing stages of essay production, so it is important to get them engaged right from the start. Fortunately, the essay form handily lends itself to the idiosyncrasies of each student.
Here are some tips for you and your students to get off on the right foot with essay writing:
- Encourage students to select topics that really interest them. This is important to sustain their interest throughout the process.
- Remember, the focus is on acquiring essay writing skills. Do not be afraid to suggest some off-the-wall topics to students struggling to find something of interest. A well-structured essay on the merits of Indonesian Gamelan music is better than a disorganized one in more traditional ESL territory.
- Get an angle. Ensure your students do not pick a topic that is too unwieldy. If they do, help them find some perspective on it by narrowing the focus. For example, an essay with the topic of “video games” lacks direction. However, an essay on the benefits of video games in the modern age may offer the necessary refining to focus the student on the task at hand.
- As essays convey opinion it is often helpful to set the topic in a quasi-debate style. For example, keeping with the topic of video games, the title might be something like, “Video games often have a bad reputation, despite offering some very tangible benefits. Do you agree with this statement? Give reasons for your answer.”
- With topic firmly in hand, have students brainstorm ideas and write them down. Their best ideas will form the basis of their research, where they will gather data, facts, statistics and more information, as appropriate, to illustrate their ideas.
The Main Course
In writing, regardless of the genre, structure is crucial. Here we will look at essay writing in terms of the hamburger model, which offers a very clear structure with which to approach writing an essay.
2. The Introductory Paragraph
It is time to lay out your essay’s main purpose and get the ball rolling! As with most writing genre, the introduction serves a number of purposes:
- It orientates your reader to the central premise of the piece.
- It briefly outlines the points the body paragraphs will address.
Top tip: The “hook” or “grabber” is important in securing your reader’s attention from the outset. Some examples of successful grabbers include:
- Opening with a relevant quotation from a relevant source. Tons of quotation collections are available online providing inspirational quotes for any imaginable essay topic. A well-chosen quotation can secure the attention of even the most fickle of readers.
- Stating an interesting and surprising fact can intrigue readers into wishing to find out more. Can the students’ research reveal one?
- A joke. Dependent on the topic, a joke may be an appropriate way to grab the reader’s attention. The student needs to weigh up whether the tone of the essay is suitable.
3. The Body Paragraphs
If the essay is a hamburger, then these are the beef patties—and it is a triple-decker! As stated above, the main points should be briefly outlined in the introduction.
Each of the three body paragraphs will explore a single point. In structuring each paragraph the somewhat unfortunate acronym P.E.E. proves useful.
Point: Each paragraph begins with making a point in support of the central thesis. Students should endeavor to state each point in strong, clear language.
Explain: A good rule of thumb here is that the simpler the point, the more complex the sentence structure that can be employed. A more complex point can be expressed with greater clarity by employing several shorter sentences which break it down into more digestible, bite-sized chunks.
Evidence: Ensure every point is supported by evidence. Remind the students there are many types of evidence. From quoting from authorities on the subject to book references, statistics and anecdotes, convincing evidence is dependent upon effective research in the pre-writing stage.
4. The Conclusion
Hard to eat a burger without the bottom bun. You would need a knife and fork and, well, that is not how a burger is meant to be devoured. The conclusion is where you seal in all that delicious flavor. A students should strive to give a reminder of the main flavors of the essay. A chance for the student to drive those main points home one last time.
It is important to remember that at this stage of the essay no new points should be introduced. The student can, however, revisit a point with an added insight or two to leave the lingering taste in the reader’s mind. A good essay will leave a thought or two to chew over!
So, there we have it. Well-fed students. We’ve given them a mouthwatering appetizer and a filling main course, but where would we be without the icing on the cake, the dessert?
Essay writing is as much about craft as it is about inspiration. And as with an apprentice baker’s first soufflé, first attempts are likely to be a little flat. So what should the ESL writer be looking to tweak in their final draft?
5. Revisions and Polishing
- As any writer worth their ink will tell you, sometimes you just need to step away from the pen. After the traumatic struggle of midwifing an infant essay, give baby a chance to breathe before taking stock of fingers and toes. A fresh perspective can often only be attained after a good night’s sleep or two.
- It is time for a spellcheck and a grammar check. Fortunately, if word-processed, technology will be there to help, but it is important to encourage students to employ their own critical faculties. Peer review is a good technique to encourage this, and it encourages students to benefit from each others’ strengths.
- Next, it is time to check the essay for its structural integrity. Have the students refer again to the criteria as listed above. you may wish to provide them with a checklist with which they can go through their work to identify missing elements or weak areas.
And there it is. The hamburger essay, quick, convenient and filling. Like its namesake, more complex versions can be built according to the refinement of the appetite.
With plenty of practice and encouragement, your students will be building gourmet versions in no time!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these tips, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.
Bring English immersion to your classroom!