• Why We Teach the Modes in ESL Writing Courses and a Mix-Mode Essay

Cover Modes shot

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

I was left speechless after reading Sayo’s essay. I didn’t know where to start because I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was trying to say.

When I asked her how a specific detail was connected to her topic, she said that she purposely didn’t explain that because she was showing respect to the readers who would figure it out without her explicitly saying it.

I also asked her about why she included an unrelated personal experience. She responded that she thought it would make her paper more interesting to read.

She concluded with a vague question that she hoped would give the reader something to ponder. It only left me pondering how the question was related to her essay.

I realized that Sayo’s essay demonstrated a cultural difference with regard to reader- versus writer-responsibility.  Apparently, English is a “writer-responsible” language; as such, it is the writer’s job to communicate ideas clearly to the reader.  On the other hand, in “reader-responsible” languages, (like Sayo’s) the burden is on the reader to understand what the writer is trying to say.  In reader-responsible cultures, it is presumed that the writer already shares with the reader certain knowledge that can, thus, be left unsaid. However, since readers in English are not accustomed to that role, frustration and communication breakdown can result.

What researchers have found about other cultural differences in writing papers.

Kaplan (1966), in his benchmark study on cultural differences, discussed the fact that various cultures organize ideas in writing differently.  According to him, writers in English rely on a linear approach, in which they tend to make sentence-to-sentence connections and to use deductive logic.  Arabic writers, however, make abstract statements, include tangents with each main point, and expect the reader to “read between the lines.”  Romance languages consider good writing to include flowery wording.  In East Asian languages, written discourse is expected to be indirect and to possibly end with a vague conclusion or with one that merely asks a question.

What this means for our ESL students and our Writing courses.

The above is intended to highlight what can handicap writers who are nonnative English speakers (NNS) when they take academic classes with native English speakers (NS).  The NS bring to their coursework a sense of how to present information. These NS began to acquire this sense in early childhood, and they continue to hone and internalize it throughout their lives, both in and outside of school.  Even those NS who might not view writing as a forte have an advantage over average NNS, who are apt to arrange and present information under an entirely different set of assumptions.

Most ESL Writing programs spend time focusing on the rhetorical modes (e.g., Exposition, Cause & Effect, Narration, Compare & Contrast, Argumentation) in order to put their NNS on an equal footing with NS—at least in terms of organization.  These structures provide a template for students who otherwise may have little way of knowing that the academic audience expects, for example, a thesis statement or ideas arranged in a “logical” order.

If ESL students write “the five-paragraph essay” or even one merely organized according to a rhetorical mode, some English Composition instructors may label it as too predictable.  However, essays organized in this way will “provide at least a known quantity to work with—a take-off point” from which to explore more esoteric styles (Atkinson & Ramanathan, 1995, p. 563).  As those two authors point out, ESL students who write in these more formulaic styles, be it in English Composition or in other content-based coursework, may be preferable to those who have developed no recognizable discourse patterns at all.

Mixed-mode essays

Once students are familiar with the different modes, we can introduce them to a “mixed-mode essay” (which was introduced to me by an English Composition instructor) in which a different mode is used for each paragraph. For example, a Korean student wrote about the benefits of mandatory military service.  In the first paragraph of the body, he compared and contrasted going to college directly out of high school with doing military service before college.  Then he wrote a “cause and effect” paragraph about what happened to him during his time in the army and its positive effect.  In the third paragraph of the body, he explained how some people think military service is a waste of time, and he refuted it (argumentation style), and he ended up with a narrative paragraph about a life-changing experience his friend had had during his time in the military.

To see how to present a mix-mode essay to students including an exercise, see MIxed-Mode Essay Exercise

For exercises for the mode Definition Essay, see • Most Stimulating and Engaging but Often Over-Looked Essay Mode 

David Kehe


Atkinson, D. & Ramanathan, V. (1995). Cultures of writing: An ethnographic comparison of L1 and L2 University writing/language programs.  TESOL Quarterly, 29, 538-68.

Kaplan, R. (1996). Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education. Language Learning, 16, 1-20.

Land, R. & Whitley, C. (1989). Evaluating second language essays in regular classes: Toward a pluralistic U.S. rhetoric. In D. Johnson & D. Roen (Eds.), Richness in writing: empowering ESL students (pp. 284-93). New York: Longman.

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