Powerful Tool for ESL Writers: Giving Examples in Essays.

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

A researcher asked people in a retirement home what they regret.  He found that older people regret not the things that they did, but rather the things they didn’t do, for example, never learning to salsa dance, never traveling the world or never learning to play a musical instrument.

That paragraph, from Brain Briefs by Markman and Duke, I think illustrates the importance of examples. Imagine what we’d wonder about had they not included three examples.

I have found a great improvement in the clarity of my students’ writing and in my enjoyment of reading their papers after they’ve practiced using examples and then applied that tool. I’ve often noticed that they seem liberated by this tool. If they are struggling with how to explain something, they can almost always come up with an example to do it.

In this post, I’ll include:

  • Samples of places in a paper where an example would be helpful.
  • Samples of how students at different writing-skill levels successfully used examples to explain everything from simple ideas to abstract ones.
  • Effective and simple ways for teachers to indicate to students where to include them in their papers and to encourage their use.
  • Exercises to help students develop this tool that you can use with your students.

Samples of place in a paper where an example would have been helpful.

In the paragraph below, it would be very interesting for the teacher / others to read an example of how his friend made school life fun for him, especially if the readers are from a different culture. 

My school life was changed by my best friend. We were in the same class and he made my school life fun for me.

In this next paragraph, instead of trying to explain what the knowledge was about, one example would have been clearer.

 Moreover, my new teacher gave us a lot of knowledge which was not just about the subject we were studying. We learned information about other topics that we could use to improve our lives. Sometimes that other information was more important than subject topic that we were studying.

The samples below show how students at different writing-skill levels successfully used examples to explain everything from simple ideas to abstract ones.

(Simple example: This intermediate-level writer below wanted to explain the problems with permissive parents. Rather than try to just explain this concept, she added this brief example on her second draft.  Notice how much it helps the reader.)

Secondly, there are permissive parents. It means that they always allow their children to do anything that they want. The parents don’t discipline their children.  For example, the family goes to a restaurant, and their young children run around making noise.

(Personal experience example: This student below is writing about why it’s better to get married in the early 20s than early 30’s. After explaining several reasons such as childbirth factors, she adds another support and gives an example from her personal experience which gives a strong impact.)

Furthermore, bearing at an early age makes your children closer to you when they grow up. My mom had me when she was almost 38 years old.  She is almost 60 now and because of our age gap, I feel like she doesn’t perceive my feelings or give me what I need. For example, when I go shopping with her, my mom usually picks clothes that match her age. Sometimes she hands me those clothes to try on. I still love my mom, and she loves me, but at times, I want someone to understand me when I’m struggling.

 (The writer’s culture example: This writer was writing about pleasures that can come from simple acts of kindness.  This example of a concept from his culture not only clearly supports his idea but also is compelling for readers from other cultures.)

In Egypt, we have a word called Baraka, which means having a small quantity of something, but it would give satisfaction to a lot of people.  For instance, when my mother and her friends were having their lunch break, they decided to share because two of them didn’t bring their lunch.  Although the food was too little compared to the number of people, everyone ate and felt full. My mother came home that day saying that the lunch that day had Baraka.

 (Explain abstract idea: This writer below is discussing sarcasm and gives this example which encapsulates it clearly.)

In other words, to understand sarcasm correctly, it is important to understand the situation and be able to catch the implied meaning. For example, to say, “You are not smart” to a student who got a poor grade is definitely an insult.  However, to say, “Congratulations, you did a great job!” to that same person is an example of sarcasm.

Effective and simple ways for teachers to indicate to students where to include them in their papers and encourage their use.

After students have completed some exercises practicing the tool of giving examples (see below for handouts), it’s very easy to help students apply it to their papers. In the margin, the teacher merely writes, “Give an example” or “Give an example or tell a story” in the place that one would be helpful.

Below is part of a paragraph from an early draft about characteristics of a good company to work for.

Sample parag needs example Shot

This is the revised draft with an example. Notice how it clarifies the point that he is making and is fun to read.

…Lowest-paid worker.  Good bosses are people who do not give personal business.  For example, six years ago, I worked in the center which serviced for disable people.  My boss gave me his family works like driving his daughter, helping his wife to cook, bringing something from his house and feeding his dog.  I could reject what he asked me, but I didn’t say no.  If I had refuse, he would not be kind to me anymore.  Consequently, I did his personal works.  Thus, I could not focus my company’s work well because of my boss’s personal work. Also, the workers feel …

What is especially fun about this for the teacher is to see what the students will come up with in their next draft.

To encourage students to use example, it’s especially helpful to indicate where they used them but simply writing “Good example” in the margin and/or to underline the words “For example” in green.  (See  Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique  about giving positive feedback on papers.)

This student below was writing about types of parents.

Example positive green shot

Exercises to help students develop this tool that you can use with your students.

Feel free to download and use these two exercises for your students to practice giving examples.

(For more writing techniques at this level, see  Write After Input )

(For more writing techniques at this level, see  Writing Strategies 2 )

David Kehe
Faculty Emeritus

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