IEPIS Newsletter - August 2014 (Plain Text Version)

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Leadership Updates
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Academic and standardized assessments are moving away from personal response essay prompts toward a more integrative approach requiring students to read one or more texts and respond appropriately in writing. The texts may be quantitative (charts, graphs, or other visuals) or issues-based (controversial topics, current events, and so on). Such assessments require a set of skills that go far beyond mere grammatical accuracy and felicitous word choice, skills normally taught to American students in language arts rather than in foreign language classes. Many ESL students coming from traditional educational backgrounds in which texts are to be memorized or imitated need careful preparation in both the careful reading and analysis of texts and the production of an appropriately academic written text of their own.

Following basic reading instruction models, a combination top-down (going from the "big picture" of meaning) and bottom-up (analyzing how authors convey meaning with grammatical structures, figurative language, and register) approach appears to work best in facilitating students' analysis of texts, the necessary first step in the production of an appropriate written response. The following easy-to-follow assignment types have been used successfully to assist students in handling these higher-level integrated assessments.

Activities and Guidelines

Dialectical Journal

The dialectical journal requires students to respond in writing to a self-chosen idea from an assigned text, which is usually lengthy (e.g., a book—fiction or nonfiction—or a long short story or article), to be read outside of class. Students dig deeper into the text by carefully reflecting on and analyzing the author’s ideas.

After informing students that this assignment is a reaction to, not a summary of, ideas in the assigned readings, have them do the following:

  1. Select at least four ideas that interest them from the assigned reading (chapters, story, article).
  2. Divide their paper in half vertically (either folding the page, drawing a line down the center, or typing their entries in two columns).
  3. On the left side of the page, write down the passage they choose from the book, noting page numbers, enclosing the excerpt in quotes, and using an ellipsis (…) if the passage is long.
  4. On the right side of the page, write their reaction to each passage. They might write about why they chose a particular passage, how the passage affects them, how it relates to their own experience or to the “real” world, or why the passage is important (frustrating, confusing, inspiring). Their responses should demonstrate that they have thought carefully about and comprehend what they have read.

Reaction Essay

The dialectical journal serves as a springboard for a more sophisticated assignment, a formal reaction essay, in which the student responds to the arguments presented by one or more authors, agreeing or disagreeing and explaining why. This analytical essay integrates two or three of the author's main points, generally with a direct or indirect quote, with the student's stance in carefully constructed paragraphs that form a complete analytical essay.

Remind students that a reaction paper is not a summary or basic argument essay but rather a point-by-point analysis of the author’s thesis and arguments. Students are expected to evaluate the author’s central claim/point/argument, the underlying assumptions, and the supporting evidence.

For a single text/author: Students read the article carefully, identify the author’s thesis/main idea and supporting arguments, and select ideas to paraphrase or quote in their essay. They then draft their essay using the following format:

  1. Introduction should properly cite the author (with appositive) and source, as well as include a brief summary of the overall thesis and key points to be analyzed (context of the argument). The students’ thesis should state their overall opinion about the author’s main point.
  2. Each body paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that addresses a main point from the article (with a paraphrase or quote), followed by the student’s statement of agreement or disagreement with that idea. Body paragraphs must also include discussion/analysis of the validity of the author’s point with adequate support (facts, expert opinion, examples).
  3. The concluding paragraph should include students’ overall conclusion (overall opinion) about the author’s argument and a final comment (prediction, solution, recommendation, warning, insightful question).

Comparative Reading Analysis

For more than one text/author, take the reaction essay a step further:

  1. Ask students to read two thematically-related articles and examine where the arguments overlap and differ. Students analyze how the authors address different aspects of the same issue.
  2. Ask students to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each argument as well as the purpose, intended audience and tone of the articles.

Reverse Outline

Reverse outlining requires students to examine how a writer constructs an essay (someone else’s or their own). This activity can be used in a variety of ways, including to examine how successful writers effectively develop and support their ideas and to assess the weaknesses and strengths of their own essays.

When reverse outlining the essay, students should consider the following:

1. Introductory paragraph

  • What kind of “attention getter” does the writer use to interest the reader?
  • What context/background information is provided for the issue?
  • What is the writer's thesis?

2. Body paragraphs (complete for each body paragraph)

  • Topic sentence: What is the paragraph’s main idea?
  • Supporting points: What points (comments or claims) does the writer make about that idea?
  • Evidence: What evidence does the writer provide as support?
  • Analysis: How does the writer analyze that evidence? Does the writer address and refute the counterargument?
  • Concluding sentence: How does the writer end the paragraph and tie the ideas together?

3. Concluding paragraph

  • What is the writer’s conclusion about the thesis?
  • What final comment about the issue does the writer make?

Rhetorical Précis

Writing a rhetorical précis (abstract summary) helps students develop their critical reading skills. This type of summary requires students to summarize the writer’s argument concisely and to describe the rhetorical aspects of the text accurately as follows:

  1. Identify the author, the name and genre of text, and the central claim/thesis.
  2. Explain how the author develops and supports the argument.
  3. State the author's purpose (motive).
  4. Identify the intended audience and characterize how the author relates to that audience.
  5. Describe the author’s tone (word choice reflects tone: serious, informal, humorous).
  6. Explain the significance of the text.

Statistical Paragraph

Statistical writing requires students to turn a graph, chart, or other statistical information into clear, accurate prose. Having students draft their statistical paragraphs as follows makes turning numbers into prose much easier:

  1. Survey the statistics for trends or patterns.
  2. Decide on a main point for the paragraph that reflects that trend or pattern.
  3. Write a topic sentence, citing the source for the statistics and explaining the main point.
  4. Include the key statistics that support the main point.
  5. Write statistical statements supporting that point and organize them in logical order(i.e. highest to lowest or most important to least important).
  6. Draw a conclusion clearly supported by the statistics.
  7. Make an inference, a recommendation, a prediction, or other concluding thought, ensuring the statistics support that idea.

Structure Search

This activity (done individually or in pair/small groups) requires students—using one of their assigned readings—to search for, identify, and analyze various grammatical structures. Besides providing useful grammar review, this activity increases awareness of how an effective writer’s style and syntactic choices affect the reader. Often ESL students write choppy, awkward, wordy, stringy, ungrammatical sentences. By examining well-written texts, they learn how to write clear, detailed, varied sentences using modification and subordination. Have the students do the following:

1. Highlight and label the following structures in the reading:

  • Verbal phrases: participial (-ing, -en/ed), gerund, infinitive
  • Prepositional phrases; (adjective and adverb)
  • Appositive phrases
  • Adverbial clauses
  • Adjective clauses (restrictive and nonrestrictive)
  • Noun clauses

2. Search for and highlight one example for each of the following sentence types:

  • Simple
  • Compound (rare!)
  • Complex
  • Compound-complex

3. How does the writer begin sentences? (Subject?)

4. Does the author use a lot of short sentences? Explain.

Rhetorical and Literary Devices Search

This activity requires students to examine how an author uses rhetorical and literary devices to convey meaning and helps them to become more proficient readers and writers. Using a list of literary devices (e.g., metaphor, simile, hyperbole) as a guide, students (individually or in pairs/groups) search for and highlight examples of each device in the assigned text and explain the purpose of each. This activity can also be done on a worksheet, on which students write their example sentences and explanations followed by a paraphrase without the device so that they can discover how these devices enrich meaning.


Clearly, these activities illustrate for students the very real connection between reading and writing. By building their language and analytical skills, we can provide students with the tools they need to handle the complex demands of academic assessment and prepare them for their future college coursework.

Karen Fox has held both teaching and administration positions in the ESL field for many years. She has a master’s degree in both linguistics and education and has presented at various CATESOL and TESOL conferences.

Rosemary Hiruma has extensive experience teaching academic ESL, especially composition courses. She has a master’s degree in linguistics with an emphasis in second language acquisition. She has coauthored articles and presented at various CATESOL and TESOL conferences.

Barbara Jonckheere has been teaching in the academic ESL field for many years. She has a master’s degree in applied linguistics and has presented at various CATESOL and TESOL conferences and published articles about academic writing issues.