Essays Writing Techniques For Esl

General Essay Writing Tips


Despite the fact that, as Shakespeare said, "the pen is mightier than the sword," the pen itself is not enough to make an effective writer. In fact, though we may all like to think of ourselves as the next Shakespeare, inspiration alone is not the key to effective essay writing. You see, the conventions of English essays are more formulaic than you might think – and, in many ways, it can be as simple as counting to five.

The Five Paragraph Essay

Though more advanced academic papers are a category all their own, the basic high school or college essay has the following standardized, five paragraph structure:

Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Body 1
Paragraph 3: Body 2
Paragraph 4: Body 3
Paragraph 5: Conclusion

Though it may seem formulaic – and, well, it is - the idea behind this structure is to make it easier for the reader to navigate the ideas put forth in an essay. You see, if your essay has the same structure as every other one, any reader should be able to quickly and easily find the information most relevant to them.

The Introduction

Want to see sample essays?
Check out our Sample Essay section where you can see scholarship essays, admissions essays, and more!

The principle purpose of the introduction is to present your position (this is also known as the "thesis" or "argument") on the issue at hand but effective introductory paragraphs are so much more than that. Before you even get to this thesis statement, for example, the essay should begin with a "hook" that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. Examples of effective hooks include relevant quotations ("no man is an island") or surprising statistics ("three out of four doctors report that…").

Only then, with the reader’s attention "hooked," should you move on to the thesis. The thesis should be a clear, one-sentence explanation of your position that leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about which side you are on from the beginning of your essay.

Following the thesis, you should provide a mini-outline which previews the examples you will use to support your thesis in the rest of the essay. Not only does this tell the reader what to expect in the paragraphs to come but it also gives them a clearer understanding of what the essay is about.

Finally, designing the last sentence in this way has the added benefit of seamlessly moving the reader to the first paragraph of the body of the paper. In this way we can see that the basic introduction does not need to be much more than three or four sentences in length. If yours is much longer you might want to consider editing it down a bit!

Here, by way of example, is an introductory paragraph to an essay in response to the following question:

"Do we learn more from finding out that we have made mistakes or from our successful actions?"

"No man is an island" and, as such, he is constantly shaped and influenced by his experiences. People learn by doing and, accordingly, learn considerably more from their mistakes than their success. For proof of this, consider examples from both science and everyday experience.

DO – Pay Attention to Your Introductory Paragraph

Because this is the first paragraph of your essay it is your opportunity to give the reader the best first impression possible. The introductory paragraph not only gives the reader an idea of what you will talk about but also shows them how you will talk about it. Put a disproportionate amount of effort into this – more than the 20% a simple calculation would suggest – and you will be rewarded accordingly.

DO NOT – Use Passive Voice or I/My

Active voice, wherein the subjects direct actions rather than let the actions "happen to" them – "he scored a 97%" instead of "he was given a 97%" – is a much more powerful and attention-grabbing way to write. At the same time, unless it is a personal narrative, avoid personal pronouns like I, My, or Me. Try instead to be more general and you will have your reader hooked.

The Body Paragraphs

The middle paragraphs of the essay are collectively known as the body paragraphs and, as alluded to above, the main purpose of a body paragraph is to spell out in detail the examples that support your thesis.

For the first body paragraph you should use your strongest argument or most significant example unless some other more obvious beginning point (as in the case of chronological explanations) is required. The first sentence of this paragraph should be the topic sentence of the paragraph that directly relates to the examples listed in the mini-outline of introductory paragraph.

A one sentence body paragraph that simply cites the example of "George Washington" or "LeBron James" is not enough, however. No, following this an effective essay will follow up on this topic sentence by explaining to the reader, in detail, who or what an example is and, more importantly, why that example is relevant.

Even the most famous examples need context. For example, George Washington’s life was extremely complex – by using him as an example, do you intend to refer to his honesty, bravery, or maybe even his wooden teeth? The reader needs to know this and it is your job as the writer to paint the appropriate picture for them. To do this, it is a good idea to provide the reader with five or six relevant facts about the life (in general) or event (in particular) you believe most clearly illustrates your point.

Having done that, you then need to explain exactly why this example proves your thesis. The importance of this step cannot be understated (although it clearly can be underlined); this is, after all, the whole reason you are providing the example in the first place. Seal the deal by directly stating why this example is relevant.

Here is an example of a body paragraph to continue the essay begun above:

Take, by way of example, Thomas Edison. The famed American inventor rose to prominence in the late 19th century because of his successes, yes, but even he felt that these successes were the result of his many failures. He did not succeed in his work on one of his most famous inventions, the lightbulb, on his first try nor even on his hundred and first try. In fact, it took him more than 1,000 attempts to make the first incandescent bulb but, along the way, he learned quite a deal. As he himself said, "I did not fail a thousand times but instead succeeded in finding a thousand ways it would not work." Thus Edison demonstrated both in thought and action how instructive mistakes can be.

DO – Tie Things Together

The first sentence – the topic sentence - of your body paragraphs needs to have a lot individual pieces to be truly effective. Not only should it open with a transition that signals the change from one idea to the next but also it should (ideally) also have a common thread which ties all of the body paragraphs together. For example, if you used "first" in the first body paragraph then you should used "secondly" in the second or "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" accordingly.

DO NOT – Be Too General

Examples should be relevant to the thesis and so should the explanatory details you provide for them. It can be hard to summarize the full richness of a given example in just a few lines so make them count. If you are trying to explain why George Washington is a great example of a strong leader, for instance, his childhood adventure with the cherry tree (though interesting in another essay) should probably be skipped over.

A Word on Transitions

You may have noticed that, though the above paragraph aligns pretty closely with the provided outline, there is one large exception: the first few words. These words are example of a transitional phrase – others include "furthermore," "moreover," but also "by contrast" and "on the other hand" – and are the hallmark of good writing.

Transitional phrases are useful for showing the reader where one section ends and another begins. It may be helpful to see them as the written equivalent of the kinds of spoken cues used in formal speeches that signal the end of one set of ideas and the beginning of another. In essence, they lead the reader from one section of the paragraph of another.

To further illustrate this, consider the second body paragraph of our example essay:

In a similar way, we are all like Edison in our own way. Whenever we learn a new skill - be it riding a bike, driving a car, or cooking a cake - we learn from our mistakes. Few, if any, are ready to go from training wheels to a marathon in a single day but these early experiences (these so-called mistakes) can help us improve our performance over time. You cannot make a cake without breaking a few eggs and, likewise, we learn by doing and doing inevitably means making mistakes.

Hopefully this example not only provides another example of an effective body paragraph but also illustrates how transitional phrases can be used to distinguish between them.

The Conclusion

Although the conclusion paragraph comes at the end of your essay it should not be seen as an afterthought. As the final paragraph is represents your last chance to make your case and, as such, should follow an extremely rigid format.

One way to think of the conclusion is, paradoxically, as a second introduction because it does in fact contain many of the same features. While it does not need to be too long – four well-crafted sentence should be enough – it can make or break and essay.

Effective conclusions open with a concluding transition ("in conclusion," "in the end," etc.) and an allusion to the "hook" used in the introductory paragraph. After that you should immediately provide a restatement of your thesis statement.

This should be the fourth or fifth time you have repeated your thesis so while you should use a variety of word choice in the body paragraphs it is a acceptable idea to use some (but not all) of the original language you used in the introduction. This echoing effect not only reinforces your argument but also ties it nicely to the second key element of the conclusion: a brief (two or three words is enough) review of the three main points from the body of the paper.

Having done all of that, the final element – and final sentence in your essay – should be a "global statement" or "call to action" that gives the reader signals that the discussion has come to an end.

In the end, then, one thing is clear: mistakes do far more to help us learn and improve than successes. As examples from both science and everyday experience can attest, if we treat each mistake not as a misstep but as a learning experience the possibilities for self-improvement are limitless.

DO – Be Powerful

The conclusion paragraph can be a difficult paragraph to write effectively but, as it is your last chance to convince or otherwise impress the reader, it is worth investing some time in. Take this opportunity to restate your thesis with confidence; if you present your argument as "obvious" then the reader might just do the same.

DO NOT – Copy the First Paragraph

Although you can reuse the same key words in the conclusion as you did in the introduction, try not to copy whole phrases word for word. Instead, try to use this last paragraph to really show your skills as a writer by being as artful in your rephrasing as possible.

Taken together, then, the overall structure of a five paragraph essay should look something like this:

Introduction Paragraph

  • An attention-grabbing "hook"
  • A thesis statement
  • A preview of the three subtopics you will discuss in the body paragraphs.

First Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the first subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Second Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the second subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Third Body Paragraph

  • Topic sentence which states the third subtopic and opens with a transition
  • Supporting details or examples
  • An explanation of how this example proves your thesis

Concluding Paragraph

  • Concluding Transition, Reverse "hook," and restatement of thesis.
  • Rephrasing main topic and subtopics.
  • Global statement or call to action.

More tips to make your essay shine

Planning Pays

Although it may seem like a waste of time – especially during exams where time is tight – it is almost always better to brainstorm a bit before beginning your essay. This should enable you to find the best supporting ideas – rather than simply the first ones that come to mind – and position them in your essay accordingly.

Your best supporting idea – the one that most strongly makes your case and, simultaneously, about which you have the most knowledge – should go first. Even the best-written essays can fail because of ineffectively placed arguments.

Aim for Variety

Sentences and vocabulary of varying complexity are one of the hallmarks of effective writing. When you are writing, try to avoid using the same words and phrases over and over again. You don’t have to be a walking thesaurus but a little variance can make the same idea sparkle.

If you are asked about "money," you could try "wealth" or "riches." At the same time, avoid beginning sentences the dull pattern of "subject + verb + direct object." Although examples of this are harder to give, consider our writing throughout this article as one big example of sentence structure variety.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

In the end, though, remember that good writing does not happen by accident. Although we have endeavored to explain everything that goes into effective essay writing in as clear and concise a way as possible, it is much easier in theory than it is in practice.

As a result, we recommend that you practice writing sample essays on various topics. Even if they are not masterpieces at first, a bit of regular practice will soon change that – and make you better prepared when it comes to the real thing.

Now that you’ve learned how to write an effective essay, check out our Sample Essays so you can see how they are done in practice.

Essay Writing Center

Related Content:

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

The Appetizer

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!

The Dessert

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!

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