“Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays


“Wow!” can be expected from professional writing not students’ writing.

An English Comp instructor told me that after reading a student’s essay, she wants to think, “Wow!  These are amazing ideas.”  I’ve also met ESL writing instructors who also looked at her students’ writing in a similar way.  She wanted them to write about “something significant.”  She wanted to be entertained.  She wanted to learn something new.

Actually, those are not what we are trying to accomplish in our ESL writing courses. And even if they were the goals, how could they ever be honestly evaluated?  I’ve witnessed a conversation between two instructors in which one of them was in total amazement about one of her student’s essays.  In it, the student, who was African, described how happy the people in her village were and how people there did not experience depression even though they were some of the poorest people on earth.  The other instructor yawned and said, “I already knew all that.”

After I read an essay, I might say, “Wow!” but it’s not because of the student’s profound ideas.  It’s because s/he used a technique in a way that really help explain his/her idea.

What we’re looking for in essays is how well they are using writing techniques.  These are tools that we can teach students, that they can apply to other writing tasks, and that we can evaluate.

Needless to say, we don’t just list the techniques and expect students to apply them.  The art of teaching ESL is leading students to learning the techniques so they can have them available in their “tool box.”

Here a just a few of the writing techniques that we can teach our students:

-Use a variety of introductions, for example, use a quote, tell a brief personal experience, use a dramatic introduction, tell other’s experience, statistics, tell common knowledge, include a surprising idea.  (For an example of how to write interesting first sentences, see Writing Outstanding First Sentences on Essays (Applying Critical Think Techniques)

-Make ideas clearer by adding examples

-Include information from your country/culture

-Include information in the news

-Use a hypothetical

-Tell a brief narrative to illustrate a point

-Include a personal experience

-Tell other people’s experience.

– Use a variety of conclusions, for example, use a quote, complete the story in the introduction, tell why the information in the essay is important

To see specific activities designed to teaching these techniques, see Writing Strategies Book 1 and Book 2 and Write After Input

As we read students’ essays, we can focus on what they are trying to explain, not on how significant it is.  We can then compliment them on how well they used techniques and indicate places in their essays where they might want to use one of them.

Focusing on techniques is something that we as instructors can effectively do.  We don’t have to use up precious mental energy trying to draw “deep” ideas out of students who may not be experienced enough to have them.  Students aren’t trying to be dull.  But, all of them should be able to draw on technique to make whatever ideas they do have clearer and even more interesting and fun to read.

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you and hearing your perspectives and experiences.  If you’d like to see samples of specific exercises that I’ve used with my students to help them develop some of the techniques I’ve listed above, feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and/or send me an email.

David Kehe

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