By Teachers, For Teachers
The progression of melody in Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The opening moves of Bobby Fischer’s championship chess games. The rhymes of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The strategy of the Patriots’ football plays.
A surprising number of elements in our world follow an established, predetermined structure. Each structure is different, yet each subscribes to an important and set pattern of predictable behavior that lays the foundation for masterful artistry.
Yet when we use teaching strategies to teach writing to our English students, sometimes we err by either limiting the scope of how they structure their compositions or ignore structure altogether. It’s essential that as we teach students how to write, we help them organize their thoughts into well-established models and give them the confidence to use those models as foundations from which they can add variety, creativity, and originality.
Typically, I have found that students have engrained in their minds from an early age a particular structure of writing. That structure goes something like this:
Body Paragraph 1
Body Paragraph 2
Body Paragraph 3
The introduction contains some general information about their topic and leads up to a bluntly stated thesis. Each body paragraph contains a separate reason that supports their thesis, and the conclusion restates the main ideas that preceded it.
So for example, a thesis might say: “The purpose of this essay is to tell you why I should have a dozen friends over for my birthday party.” Then each body paragraph shares a different reason:
Each paragraph then goes on to explain the initial idea, often with a prerequisite number of sentences that must be fulfilled for an explanation to be “complete.”
This structure serves students well, to an extent. They have a big idea; they support that idea with at least three valid reasons; they explain their thinking. Voila – a solid composition is completed. There is not a problem with this structure when teaching writing to students. However, the problem arises when students get older and still strictly adhere to the five-paragraph essay that rigidly conforms to a structure that is suitable for some modes of composition, but not all.
As adult readers scan any newspaper, online article, book, published essay, or other professional composition, they might notice rather quickly that practically every single thing they read does NOT follow this formula. So while the five-paragraph structure serves well as an introduction to structure and argumentation, a rigid adherence to it throughout a senior’s graduation would likely mean that they attempt to express themselves using this structure for all their purposes.
Ultimately, we want to expose students to a variety of modes and structures of writing that allow them to articulate themselves in multiple ways.
There are certain key ingredients that comprise the essence of any good persuasive composition. What matters most is not that they appear in one specific order, but that the writer employs them in any organized manner that helps accomplish their purpose.
Here are several of those essential ingredients:
Claims: These are the main ideas, the arguable points that the writer will go on to explain and prove valid. The central claim – the thesis – expresses the main idea of the entire composition … though it doesn’t have to appear in the same spot in every essay.
Support/Evidence: Once a claim has been made, the writer must prove that claim true. To do this, they must use valid evidence that helps to back up that claim. Evidence usually comes in three forms – Facts, Expert Opinion, and Examples. Or if the composition is analyzing a piece of writing, then quotations from that text are necessary.
Explanations: Evidence by itself helps to support an idea, but doesn’t automatically prove it. A good writer must spend time explaining their reasoning and talking about why the evidence they’ve presented is in fact valid.
Transitions: Writing only sounds clear when the writer distinctly moves their reader from one portion of the composition to the next. When ideas start blending and overlapping, when leaps between portions are too great to sound feasible, then the writer has failed to adequately transition from one element to the next.
Hook: At the outset of any speech or composition, it’s essential for writers to establish interest and voice. Teachers should share multiple techniques for doing so with their students. Hooks might also be useful throughout the bodies and conclusions of many compositions, too.
Strong closing: In addition to strong openings, students must learn to effectively end their compositions with strong closing statements and calls to action.
There are other ingredients that students may need to include in their writing as well, depending on the specific writing task and structure. The important thing is to show students that the structures may change, but the core ingredients will likely stay the same.
As you look at published works from professional writers of all genres, you’ll notice that very few of them follow the traditional academic five-paragraph structure. However, most of them contain the essential ingredients listed above. The trick for our students is to help them transition from the comfortable mainstay form of academic writing to the more sophisticated, adult-like forms of written expression. As they grow older and their writing becomes more advanced, they will need to remember that they can adapt these ingredients to their will to maximize the impact and outcome of their writing.
When talking about structure, one of the first things I talk to students about is getting away from the my-paper-must-be-five-paragraphs mindframe. To do this, I ask students to think about their writing in “sections” rather than in “paragraphs.” When brainstorming and outlining, I ask students to determine what they need to say to their audience … not what to squeeze into some preassigned number of paragraphs. A section represents a key idea, a core focus of a portion of their paper. Once they determine what those key sections are for their essay, they can then break those down into multiple paragraphs or subsections that help them fully develop each idea.
Now students have the opportunity to get away from believing that their thoughts must strictly conform to a rigid paragraph structure. Instead, they can freely brainstorm ideas and write without creating overly complicated paragraphs or redundant statements. They are allowed to say what needs to be said with however many paragraphs it takes.
Then we bring up specific types of tried-and-true structures that help students successfully organize their thinking into strains that might fit their purposes. Here are a few structures I might cover with students.
1. Narrative Focus. This structure employs a story for the majority of its content, and is followed by a reflection or application of the story at the end.
2. Question + Answer. Many times our writing process begins with a question, and it’s no crime to include that question and its relevant background at the outset of the composition. Here, students begin with a question, spend the bulk of their writing explaining the answer, and finish by sharing the implications for how to act or think in light of that answer.
3. Counterargument. Instead of just beginning with one’s own idea, a writer can begin instead by sharing a current misconception that exists. The beginning of the paper talks about what the misunderstanding is and who holds that perspective, and the rest of the writing focuses on explaining why that particular perspective is incorrect or inferior to the main idea the writer wants to promote.
4. Problem + Solution. Here the writer first defines a problem and its causes, then talks about the problem’s short- and long-term consequences, and then proposes a solution.
5. Information + Implication. All information implies some degree of action or change. A writer can spend the bulk of a composition sharing relevant information to a particular issue, and then at the end share the call to action this information implies for a reader.
6. Compare or Contrast. When examining two items side by side, an appropriate structure is critical for keeping these two things clear to readers. A writer who wants to compare or contrast can first talk about one element, then transition into talking about the second. When talking about the second, direct connections are made back to the first. Another way to organize this could have writers breaking down topics along specific points of comparison, and talking about both topics together point by point.
There are more modes of rhetoric. There are more structures that have served writers well. When it comes to art, limitless opportunity for expression exists, and students can develop countless variations on the above models for organization. We don’t necessarily need to teach students about every kind of possible writing structure that exists, but we do want to spend time helping them see the variety and opportunity they have for articulating their ideas.
Finally, to help students fully understand the concept of each potential structure, I provide extensive templates and samples. When I explain a structure concept, they have an elementary understanding of what it is. When they can see that structure in action in a completed piece of writing or speech, it makes more sense how it works and how they might use it. When teaching students various structures of writing, always include models for them to effectively understand and imitate the organizational concept you want them to embrace.
How do you teach writing structures to your students? Tell us the structures and teaching techniques in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.