Genre Makeover: An argument essay

Greetings, genre warriors! Welcome to an occasional series in which I’ll makeover a boring old five-paragraph essay into a genre-based writing assignment. No, you don’t win a house or a new wardrobe, but you might not fall asleep during your next grading session. Deal?

Sometimes, an assignment really is an essay, but more often, essay is a vague shorthand for “any piece of multi-paragraph student writing,” which can mislead students into responding to every task in the same way, regardless of the context. Since actual writing tasks are always situated, it makes sense to teach writing in context.

I was recently writing new material for Q: Skills for Success (3rd edition coming from OUP next year!), and I realized that I had a chance to get rid of some essays and replace them with more precise assignments. Here are some of the questions I ask myself when I write an assignment:

  • What am I really asking students to do in their writing?
  • What is the purpose of the text they are producing?
  • In what context might a text like this be written? (Who reads and writes these texts and why?)
  • What would users of this genre call it?

For example, consider this draft of an assignment for a new unit on the changing workplace (gig economy, Uber, AirBnB, the robots are taking are job, that sort of thing):

What jobs are safe from the gig economy? Write an essay in response giving specific reasons to support your answer.


What am I asking students to do here? Answer the question? Make an argument? Persuade me to change jobs? Who writes texts like this? Err, students in ESL classes? Who reads them? No one voluntarily.

Let’s rethink this. I want students to make argument that is convincing because it uses strong appeals to logic, emotion, and authority (ethos, logos, pathos), so they need an audience in mind. Where do we read such arguments outside of student compositions? Op-eds in newspapers? Students don’t write those … except in student publications. Aha!

Write an article for your school or university career service newsletter arguing why a particular job is a good choice in the changing workplace.

Bingo. Now we have a genre (an opinion article), a context (career service newsletter), an audience (peers), and a purpose (defending or promoting a career choice).

Not all genres need such real-world analogs: pedagogical genres are the ways we do things in school (to paraphrase David Russell). But pedagogical genres need pedagogical purposes, too, not to just to produce writing in a particular mode. Even better, we should think about disciplinary genres, which are the ways academic work is done in writing. Here’s an example of a small change I made to an assignment:

Write an analysis essay that evaluates a public place and suggests how to improve it.

My fix here is just to strike the word essay. Now the thing students are writing is an analysis, a pedagogical genre to be sure, but one that will serve them will in the future. By removing essay, I hope to remove the temptation to cram the text into a pre-set formula. We don’t want every student to start with a variant of this introduction:

There are many public places in the world. Some are successful, but others are failures. As we know, a good public place must be accessible, engaging, and flexible. In this essay, I am going to introduce a public place that I like and suggest three ways to improve it by turning into a giant rubber chicken, you’re not really reading this anymore are you, your eyes are already skipping ahead to the next paragraph and your brain has skipped ahead to choosing a show on Netflix.

See what I mean?

Write an analysis of a public place and suggest how to improve it.

Now we can jettison the five-paragraph essay and concentrate on what students need to do here. What does it mean to analyze and make suggestions? What’s the best way to start the paper (maybe describe the place!)? What organization best fits the question? What’s more, now we’re approaching a pedagogical genre that students might encounter in a landscape architecture or public policy class.

Stay tuned for more genre makeovers!

Photo credit: Creative Commons (c) Clare Wilkinson (Flickr; cropped to landscape); Arguments Yard is in the lovely seaside town of Whitby in East Yorkshire and is named for a Thomas Argument.

Do you have an assignment that needs an extreme genre makeover? Have you made-over your own assignments? Leave a comment below, and we can write a post together!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

4 thoughts on “Genre Makeover: An argument essay”

  1. Hi, Nigel.

    I have been tasked with teaching a regular old FYW class and designing a course on writing in the social sciences—not for multilingual writers per se but There will be many in the class. It is time to jettison the old ways and bring in the new. While I have stopped using the word essay in all my writing classes, I am hoping to write a much more genre-influenced syllabus for FYW. The social sciences class will be easier to design as target uses of writing are a tad narrower.

    Might I buy you a drink and BALEAP and discuss options for genre and FYW?


    Margi Wald College Writing Programs UC Berkeley (sent from my iPhone–please excuse any typos)


  2. Hi Nigel,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your “essay makeover” posts and agree that it’s time for ESL instructors, especially those who teach soon-to-be university students, to move beyond the 5PE box we’ve grown up in. However, I’d guess many instructors find that the main obstacle to moving forward is the lack of ELT resources addressing/supporting this shift. I plan to check out your Inside Reading series. Do you have any suggestions on other relevant resources for teachers who are ready to break out of the 5PE box?
    Josh Rosenberger
    English Language Institute – University of Montana

    1. Josh, thanks for your comment, and yes, I completely understand this concern. It is very frustrating to see so many textbooks that continue to perpetuate the 5PE.

      You should definitely take a look at Inside Writing (not Inside Reading — that’s a different series!). You might also enjoy a new book that’s coming out in April, edited by me and Ann Johns:

      Chris Tardy’s “Beyond Convention” and Dana Ferris & John Hedgcock’s “Teaching L2 Composition” also advocate for strong genre-based writing models of instruction.
      I hope this helps. Good luck and keep fighting the good fight!

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