Tips for Teaching the Essay: ORGANIZATION

What makes a good essay?!  Who decides?!  Based on what rubric?!

The Rig Veda: “what stirred? where? in whose protection?”

In looking over the various, sample essays housed on the AICE website (mentioned in my previous post), and in mulling through the many examiner comments posted for each exam over the years, I’ve arrived at a few conclusions of my own regarding the characteristics of a “good” essay, per Cambridge Examinations.

As promised, in the next few posts, I will be listing some tips for teaching when it comes to the GP essay, and again, this is per my* interpretation of the Cambridge program (*AKA, you may agree to disagree at any point!):

The next few blog posts will cover these three overarching “TIPS” segments…

  • Essay Organization
  • Essay Content
  • Essay Conventions (spelling, grammar, punctuation)


Essay patterns/formulas are a great place to get acquainted with essay organization, but avoid teaching this as the only way to organize a successful essay…  

BACKDROP:  I often introduce discursive writing technique by initially (key word, initially) teaching my students to organize their points in an AABB format.  This is a basic formula we refer to often in order to see that a discursive essay calls for attention to both sides of the prompt.  When we brainstorm, we have the A side and the B side…it makes life easy in the beginning.  Note: this is ok in the beginning

OPINION:  Eventually, it is important that we lead students toward a more natural development of the argument…if the essay suddenly takes on an ABAB pattern, great.  Or ABBA, awesome.  There’s no wrong way to write a discursive as long as you let the points lead the reader in a way that logically flowzzzz from one to the next.

  • i.e. ‘While there may be progress of ‘x’ abroad, just the opposite is true from a domestic point of view…’
  • Notice how this transition flows naturally from one end of the map to the other regarding the random ‘x’ topic.  So far, this essay seems to be forming an ABAB pattern (A/abroad to B/at home), but the very next point after this might also be a ‘B’ point because it happens to flow along as the next natural point, related in some clear way to the point previous.  The essay would then be taking on ABBA…and that’s ok because the argument is developing naturally through the use of broader ideas that guide this movement!

Despite what FCAT Writes! might teach to Florida writers (to begin, to continue, to recapitulate…), formulaic writing isn’t always beneficial (and thus, we learn that there IS life outside graduation requirements…).  Herein lies…

PROOF THAT CAMBRIDGE WANTS MORE:  In one of the sample essays I read on the website, the student was asked to write about whether television has much to offer teens in Mauritius these days; let’s take a look at an outline of the sample essay’s structure…

*                                   *                                    *                                  *

INTRO…the student outlined brief history of the television to open up the topic


B1…(A) television is bad because teens spend too much time watching it, thus detracting from academics/learning

B2…(A) television is bad because it encourages bad behaviors such as gang-related violence

B3…(A) television is bad because it encourages bad behaviors such as smoking

B4…(B) television is good because it’s educational, with documentaries teaching a range of topics to viewers

B5…(B) television is good because it teaches good behaviors, such as disaster relief/outreach because the news educates teens on the issues

B6…(B) television is good because it’s educational, teaching kids about their own cultural history

B7…(B) television is good because the time spent watching it offers them a source of relaxation while enhancing creativity, which heightens critical thought

CONCLUSION…tv has much to offer teens today

*                                  *                                    *                                    *

Right away, notice the structure, AABB…all cons are discussed first, followed by all pros, the side with which the writer ultimately agrees by the conclusion.

Notice, also, how contradictory the content is!  TV is bad academically yet it provides educational opportunity; TV teaches bad behaviors, but then it teaches good behaviors; time spent watching it is bad for students, but then it’s suddenly good for them? Huh??

In my briefest explanation, I’ll tell you this…this essay needs to do one of two things…

EITHER (1)  have the student organize each sub-point in the argument by THEME–in this essay, the student might choose the theme of “television’s impact on education”–then he would discuss the pros and cons of the concept together in the same paragraph (under that theme!) in order to make it clear that two sides exist regarding the single sub-point; but then, the student MUST give weight to one side of these conflicting ideas before moving on to the next paragraph/sub-point…

  • OBSERVE the generic:  “Television tends to distract teens academically because… / however,it is also true that, if used properly, television can be a valuable resource to aid their learning experience because…/ Unfortunately though, more often than not, television seems to detract from learning since teens do not watch it as their primary source of learning, but rather, as an escape from it.”  

Success with this approach lies in a CLEAR explanation from the essay writer, so I teach this with extreme caution because not all students can grab on to this format and run with it!   

OR…(2), another approach exists…the student can fix this essay by picking one or the other (television is either GOOD for academics or BAD), and develop that point as a theme on the one side…

  • OBSERVE the generic:  ‘While TV is academically beneficial, it is socially detrimental‘.  The student would keep the themed ideas on their own sides at all times (i.e. tv viewing for academic purposes is most often good, then argue that tv viewing for social purpose is most often bad) as a way of drawing a distinguishing line between pro and con when it comes to the television’s benefits and detriments, respectively.

Now let’s look at the score…the student scored 14 out of 30 possible points in content.  (See RUBRIC-Marking Scheme).  Organization of the argument affects that content.  According to the rubric, more eloquently written essays should demonstrate a “logical progression of thought.”

In his comments, the examiner mentions the writer’s organizational approach.   Specifically, the examiner wrote:

“The way in which this essay is structured is not recommended because it is an essay of ‘two contradictory halves’ and so lacks a continuous argument.  The balance of positives and negatives should be struck within each point as the discussion/analysis progresses.  The way this essay has been structured also means that any weighting which the candidate gives to each positive/negative aspect is missing [since the contradictions cancel this weight out!].”

MY INTERPRETATION OF THE EXAMINER’S COMMENT:  Based on the above comment from the examiner, he appears to be saying that AABB formulas–which the student used in this essay–can end up in ‘contradictory halves.’  Instead, according to the examiner, this writer should be talking about the pros and cons ‘within each point,’ which sounds more like an ABAB approach to me.

So we should just teach our kids to go ABAB then, right?  WRONG!  It’s still formulaic instruction and it will get our writers into just as much trouble!

As you well know, writing is not a one-size-fits-all concept, which is precisely why I warn against using formulas beyond teaching the basics!  This particular writer does not clearly establish themes to distinguish between his pro and con points, nor does he make it clear to the writer that while pros and cons for a single point exist, one outweighs the other.  The AABB format only perpetuates this.  So for him, his ideas would have been better served through the use of a different or more specific format.

The magic bullet of writing?! Fiction, I tell you! Pure, unadulterated malarkey!

Bottom Line?  Formulas, no matter how “magic bullet-esque” they may seem, never add up right for writers.  The choice a student makes regarding which organizational pattern to use is highly dependent upon the prompt and the way it is worded, not to mention the writer’s own style and abilities.

A SUGGESTION FOR INSTRUCTION:  For me, the best way to keep kids from contradicting themselves in an essay, is to teach them to develop their argument around THEMES, which I mentioned above.  In its simplest sense, here’s how one would fix the organizational structure of the rather general, contradictory ‘television’ essay:


In his essay, the student says that television distracts teens from their academic studies (Point A, which concerns education), then he turns right around in another paragraph to say that television–such as watching documentaries–can be a great educational resource for teens (his Point B, which also concerns education)…what does this amount to?  One big contradiction, that’s what!


Instead, the student could argue that while teen exposure to television can hurt social behavior–since kids tend to mimic behaviors they see such as smoking–it helps academic behavior–because films such as documentaries can educate them.

Notice that Point A now concerns lifestyle, while Point B concerns education.

NOTE:  Since he originally had a point about television hurting academics, the student would need to nix that point entirely in this revised version to avoid contradiction!

Take another look using this simplified outline:

A–television is bad for teens in terms of lifestyle (teaches them violence)

B–television is good for teens in terms of education (documentaries provide exposure to a variety of topics)

OMITTED–television is bad for teens in terms of education (distracts them from homework)


Let me know what helped, what didn’t…:-)

Next tip in line…ESSAY ORGANIZATION: How many paragraphs should students have to make their essay complete?  Myth: Discursives have 6…I’ll be debunking that one soon…stay tuned!

Collaboratively Yours,


3 responses

  1. LOve the organization info….
    I am also looking for the IR format…is there a chart or a template for it?


    1. Hi! More organizational tips to come this week!! Glad you like!! Did you happen across the post I did on Inquiry Research? It’s in the August archives, entitled, ‘Student Research: Inquiring Minds Want to Know’…this tells you tips on how to set up your IR, as there is no established handout for it. Let me know of any questions you have from here and I’m happy to help you draft it up, look over what you have, etc.!! Good luck!


  2. […] Tips for Teaching the Essay: Organization […]


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