(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)*
A frequent type comment by teachers, “I always look forward to reading these essays. They often give me new insights into my students and their cultures.”
A frequent type comment by students, “When I heard that we would write a complete essay about one word, I thought it would be impossible. But after I chose a good word, I really enjoyed writing this.”
Another frequent type comment by students, “This was the most challenging essay for me, but in the end, it was the most rewarding.”
Many ESL Writing books and instructors overlook this essay mode because they don’t realize its secret potential. It’s the Definition Essay. The potential lies in the type of words that the students write about.
Traditional Definition essays can be very unstimulating for the students to write and for the teachers to read. There are two major reasons for this:
(1) The category of topics from which to choose provides little opportunity for ESL students to feel truly invested in it.
(2) The students are given few specific or poorly designed techniques which they can use.
The Dynamic Definition Essay: Category of Topics and Specific Techniques
Three Categories of Topic that Will Engage Students
1) A word from your language that is difficult to directly translate into English. Some examples:
2) An English word that is difficult to translate directly into your language. An example of this is the word “fun.” French speakers tend to translate it as amusing because of the French word amusant. However, there is a difference between the fun and amusing.
3) A common word/expression/slang word in English. Some examples:
Specific Techniques/Stratgies that Students can Draw from
Before writing their essays, students are introduced to and practice five strategies which they can use:
Sample essay excerpt
Exercises for Practicing the Strategies
To give you an idea about how students can learn these strategies and how they can use them to construct their essays, I’ll include four exercises here:
See handout: Strategy 3 Use similar terms to compare and contrast Exercise
See handout Strategy 4 Use Negation to Define a Word Exercise p. 1
See handout Identify the strategy and practice with five words Exercise
Work with sample essay: Exercise Sample essay A word from your language
Two sample essays written by students.
You’ll notice in the links below, the students used the five strategies. And I think you’ll see the passion that they brought to their essay. By the way, they also chose to start with a dramatic introduction (For more information about this popular introduction technique, see Teaching the Most Interesting Type of Essay Introduction (an Inductive Approach)
“Boon Tong Sui” (Chinese word) Student Definition Essay foreign word
“Phobia” (English word) Student Definition Essay English word
Some teachers say that they don’t assign this essay because, they claim, students won’t write this type in English Comp or academic classes. Actually, students do use these STRATEGIES to develop and support their ideas in any future essay they will write.
If you’d like to see the complete Definition Essay unit with exercises practicing all five strategies and exercises in which students work with all three types of essays, see Pro Lingua Learning–Writing Strategies Book 2
*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.