Instructional Materials

Simpson WAC

Teaching Students to Organize Their Writing

Many high school courses and standardized writing exams expect students to use the 5-paragraph essay structure. It is fairly easy to identify students who use this format. The first paragraph, the Introduction, may contain three to five sentences, and the final sentence is the three-part thesis. Each of the three body paragraphs addresses one part of the thesis. The fifth paragraph reminds readers of the thesis. Composition studies recognizes that the 5-paragraph essay does not allow for students to fully explore a topic by addressing counter arguments or contextualizing their ideas, and this structure may simply be unsuitable for some writing assignments.

First-year students, especially, need instruction in appropriate ways to organize their ideas. The following resources have been collected based on the ideas that writing reports, emails, essays, blogs, or journals all require some of the same skills. Readers want the text to focus on a main point; they want enough details that they understand the topic, they want the details in a logical order, and they want to smoothly move from one idea to another. While some of these materials use the word essay, feel free to substitute report, journal, peer review, etc.


The Global Pen

Pro: This site demonstrates how to teach and reinforce the idea that writing is a process of steps and iteration. It also teaches students that ideas may help determine order of content.

Con: Some professors want the ease of reading a 5-paragraph essay structure. This activity substitutes one structure for another and does not leave room for creative organization.


LEARN NC, from the University of North Carolina

Pro: This site defines writing assignment types that may be surprisingly unfamiliar to students, and this resource offers examples. The questions at the bottom of the page could easily be adapted into a peer review activity or personal reflection and revision activity. Be sure to use open-ended questions.

Con: I have not found one yet.

BONUS: Go here for ideas about teaching six more elements of writing.


While the previous resources addressed the overall organization of an essay or report, the next source will help you teach students to order and link their ideas within a paragraph.

Purdue University, Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Pro: This presentation gives students several methods for identifying the types of information and appropriate placement of that information within a paragraph.

Con: This is a good resource for faculty, but it could result in information overload for students.

BONUS: The Purdue OWL has information available for almost any writing issue a student can produce—or fail to produce!