In this article, I will look at what constitutes good essay structure and suggest ways in which teachers of English can emphasise this aspect of writing more fully. The main emphasis will be on discursive essays (argumentative and expository). I will highlight the importance of creative brainstorming and planning and consider different ways to organise essays into paragraphs and order ideas within paragraphs. I will also discuss some of the pros and cons of the PEEL method.
Mistakes with grammar, spelling and general use of English can be fairly easy to spot and rectify, but what do you do when are reading a student’s essay and it just doesn’t make sense; when the writer seems confused, and one point doesn’t follow from another? Lack of structure is one of the biggest problems we experience when looking at our student’s work. Sometimes we find ourselves having to re-write the whole essay as we go along, and we might be tempted to give up on the whole jumbled mess before we are halfway through. In order to avoid this scenario, it is worth devoting a little more classroom time to highlighting the importance of good structure in essay writing. In this post, I will focus on those elements of organisation and structure that my own students have found most useful.
Types of composition
First a word on the four main types of essay or composition: argumentative, expository, narrative and descriptive. In this article, I will focus mostly on argumentative and expository essays which suffer the most without a clear and logical structure. Narrative and descriptive essays can have a looser structure although they really should have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.
Link to Presentations
It is worth noting that much of what is said about the planning and structure of essays in this post is also applicable to the planning and structure of formal oral presentations.
Planning and Brainstorming
Some of the most useful and important work that results in a well-structured essay takes place before the first word of the composition is written. I always encourage my students to spend some time brainstorming and planning their essays. If time allows, it is worth devoting a whole lesson to methods of brainstorming and planning. I remember when I was at school the only essay planning I was encouraged to do, was listing a few ideas connected with the question and then writing a rough conclusion based on that. All this had to be done in less than five minutes. These days there are many more creative and dynamic ways to plan and brainstorm, and these lead to better ideas and clearer structure. After they have done a little research, I encourage my students to use extensive mind-maps which can incorporate words, pictures and diagrams. I ask them to write the essay question at the top of the paper and their gut reaction or opinion at the bottom of the paper (this will eventually form the basis of their thesis statement and their conclusion). Between these two headings, they write their own web of ideas in whatever style or order works best for them. This is a very visual way of seeing how some ideas relate to each other and some ideas don’t.
(An example of a brainstorm for an essay on compulsory covid vaccination is available for download at the end of this article).
I like to keep things simple and give my students a basic format I expect them to use in argumentative or expository essays. There should be an introductory paragraph at the beginning, a concluding paragraph at the end and three or four paragraphs in the middle, the main body of the text. For lower-level students (A1-B1) I may suggest and write on the board some key phrases and scaffolding language linked to specific paragraphs (In this essay I will argue that…, The most important point, in my opinion, is…, Next I want to consider…, Finally…, In conclusion…, Despite… I have attempted to show…). I advise my students to have their plan and brainstorming notes in front of them as they are writing and keep in mind that their conclusion should follow logically from what they have said earlier in the text.
An argumentative essay should begin with a ‘Thesis Statement’ (a clearly defined opinion statement that directly relates to the theme or question being discussed). I advise my students to take a little time to formulate this sentence, keeping in mind that everything else they write should directly follow from it. The introduction of an expository essay explains the topic and provides some general background. In this case, you don’t need a thesis statement but it is useful to preview the themes you will cover in the main body of the text.
The main body of an argumentative essay presents the facts and evidence that support your stance. I suggest beginning with what the student believes to be the main or most important argument. The student should also demonstrate knowledge of contra-arguments and explain why they do not find these convincing. There are various ways to organise the main body paragraphs but the simplest is probably to allot each main argument and its contra-argument to a separate paragraph.
In an expository essay, each paragraph of the main text should go into detail about individual sub-topics or elements of the main theme or question.
Conclusion of Essay
The conclusion of an argumentative essay should summarise why you believe the arguments you have made prove your opinion (your thesis statement) to be correct. The conclusion of an expository essay should summarise the main points you have made highlighting their importance to the theme. I often suggest that my students write a rough conclusion first, in order to make sure that everything else they write relates to it. For those with a mathematical brain, I sometimes use the analogy of a mathematical formula something like the following;- (2+3) X (6-2) =25 The answer represents the conclusion of the essay and if everything that goes before does not add up to the answer, something is wrong somewhere! (In other words, they will need to change or re-arrange something they have said earlier in the essay).
The most important point about essay structure is that the students should be aware of the type of structure you are looking for. Once you have decided on a format you believe is best for your learners you should give them plenty of input and practice using the chosen style.)
(An essay for B1 level students exemplifying essay structure is available to download at the end of this article)
The ‘PEEL’ method has become a popular way to organise individual paragraphs within compositions. PEEL stands for Point, Explanation, Example or Evidence and Link (back to the main topic under discussion). This paragraph is itself an example of the PEEL method. It can be a useful way to make students focus on the structure of individual paragraphs and is sometimes used as a framework for the overall structure of an essay.
Limitations and extensions of Peel Paragraphs
While the peel method is undoubtedly a useful technique to organise ideas within paragraphs, it is not the only way and, in some situations, may not be the best way. In my experience, it can easily lead students to try and put too much information of different types into a single paragraph and thus make the overall structure less clear. Personally, especially for A1-B1 learners of English as a second or foreign language, I think the instruction that each paragraph should be confined to a single point is easier to understand. At this level the PEEL acronym works better as an alternative blueprint for the essay structure as a whole; in which the first paragraph introduces the point or topic, the second paragraph explains the topic in more detail, the third paragraph gives evidence and examples, and the concluding paragraph is a summary linking back to the main point or topic.
A clearly defined essay structure helps the reader to better understand what the writer is trying to convey. It contributes significantly to the readability and enjoyment of a text. English teachers are only human; we are more likely to respond positively to an essay that is easy and enjoyable to read. Our students need to understand that, and we need to be clear with them about what we are expecting. The most important things I have realised over the years are as follows.
- Good structure in essay writing seldom comes naturally, it needs to be taught.
- We need to make our students aware that good structure is as important as grammar, spelling and use of English.
- Students need to see plenty of clear examples of the type of structure we prefer.
- Student essays improve when more class time is allocated to creative brainstorming and planning.
- There are all sorts of formats and techniques for organising paragraphs, but we need to choose those which best suit the needs and abilities of our students.
Do you have a particular style or technique that your English language students find helpful in composing essays? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments.
Resource – Vaccination Essay Brainstorm Example
Resource Essay Structure for students in essay form.
300 Word Argumentative Essay Structure