The Superiority of Narratives to 5-Paragraph Persuasive Essay Writing in College ESL Courses

by , under For teachers, Narrative writing

Many teachers believe that the 5-paragraph persuasive essay is the only appropriate writing task for college-level students. Almost all of the college-level ESL textbooks published for the Quebec market include units on the so-called 5-paragraph persuasive essay, but units on narrative writing rarely appear. This dearth is unfortunate since there are some very good reasons to switch to narrative writing.

1. We need an alternative to the 5-paragraph persuasive essay

Why would anyone want an alternative to the 5-paragraph persuasive essay, you ask? For starters, over-reliance on this standard writing model does considerable harm to both students and teachers. When you ask teachers why they teach the 5-paragraph persuasive essay, they invariably tell you that it teaches students how to think and how to express themselves. However, there is evidence to suggest that, in fact, this standard writing model does exactly the opposite–limiting thinking, stunting expressiveness, and persuading no one of anything.

Structure displaces meaning

Rorschach (2004) reports in a case-study of three college ESL students in a remedial writing course that pressure from the writing teacher to adhere strictly to a proscribed form interfered with the students’ development and organization of their ideas. One student had been taught in her ESL writing class to focus solely on the formal features of the model and ignore critical issues with content. As a result, her paragraphs remained “a series of unconnected vignettes,” bound together by a highly-formulaic thesis statement. Rather than to help the student organize and express her own ideas, the imposed structure suppressed personal expression and produced non-thinking conformity.

A deskilling effect

Another teacher phrased the problem this way: “The five-paragraph essay is not an inherently incorrect form. However, it is destructive in that students are not ever allowed to discover if the form fits the meaning they seek to make” (Duxbury, 2008). Since the form is always set in advance, meaning suffers. Part of the blame belongs to the thesis statement, by controlling what you are able to say and how you can say it. Berggren calls persuasive essay writing profoundly anti-intellectual in this respect because the student’s only question becomes, “What can I say that I can support?” (Berggren, 2008, p. 60). Students begin with an opinion and cast about in search of support for it, instead of looking at the evidence and formulating a position by induction. Moreover, the epistemology thesis statements reinforce is exactly the style of knowing we want learners to outgrow, namely that of absolute knowing in favour of contextual knowing. The absolute claims of the conventional thesis statement preclude nuanced thinking.

Not only does this rhetorical straitjacket have a negative effect on students’ ability to think and express their meaning, excessive focus on this one rhetorical model to the exclusion to all others, Moss (2002) argues, has left students under-prepared for the range of critical thinking and writing tasks they will face at university. Concomitantly, Moss (2002) found that adopting a single, standard academic writing model has devalued teacher innovation and development, with school administrations claiming that in the context of a single, universal writing model funding teacher training for writing instruction is no longer necessary. The 5-paragraph persuasive essay is having a deskilling effect on teachers, as well.

Virtues Overstated

E. L. Thorndike, the first educational psychologist

E. L. Thorndike, the first educational psychologist

The virtues of the 5-paragraph persuasive essay are almost always overstated. Many teachers will tell you that this type of essay promotes proper habits of mind, helping learners organize their ideas, no matter the subject. This is called the Doctrine of Formal Discipline and is based on the idea that learning to do one task can have a positive effect on a learner’s ability to do another unrelated task. In the early 1900s, the dominant view was that learning Latin and Geometry would have an improving effect on learners, so E. L. Thorndike, the first educational psychologist, set out to test whether learning one cognitive task would result in an improvement on a different task. It did not. The theory of general transfer has been abandoned in favour of theories of specific transfer (where learning one task will help you do a similar task in the future) or specific transfer of general principles (where learning to apply specific strategies to one situation can transfer to a new situation). Essay writing may provide an organizational model for arranging arguments into an essay form but it is very unlikely for it to cause a general improvement in thinking skills.

Inauthentic task

The persuasive essay is an inauthentic task since it is never used outside of instructional contexts. Horowitz (1986) in a survey of writing assignments across disciplines found that the persuasive essay does not resemble any of the actual writing tasks usually given by university professors.  Defenders of the essay claim that persuasive essay writing is nevertheless an essential academic skill, without which advancement in academia is impossible. Proof of this is that the universities use persuasive essay writing tasks as entry tests. Therefore, the reasoning goes, teaching the persuasive essay in English will help students gain access to and succeed in English language universities.

According to Statscan, 64% of the population in Quebec attends CEGEP. Only 38% go on to university. But from there, according to Lamarre (2008), only 20% of francophone graduates attend English language university. That means that only 8% of all the francophones in all CEGEPs will go on to English University. Assuming that learning to write the persuasive essay is, as claimed, useful for students attending English universities, a class of 30 CEGEP ESL learners will receive instruction in a writing task which might be relevant for only about 2 students in the group. “How relevant?” is another question since a growing number of undergrads enter Business and Engineering programs where report writing and case studies (i.e., narratives) will be required of them.

Of the English L2 speakers who do arrive at English language universities, irrespective of academic discipline, the biggest hurdle, according to the Vice-Provost of Concordia University, is their low English proficiency. It is for this reason that the University Writing Test has been suspended at Concordia University for all undergraduate students in favor of preparatory ESL courses that focus on writing, listening, and speaking components of language training. To what extent, we should ask, do academic writing tasks support listening and speaking skills? To answer this question, we should look at the corpus data.

2. Narratives and ultimate attainment

Writing tasks that support oral skills should be a priority for ESL teachers since speaking is the most anxiety provoking form of communication. Anxiety has been shown to have a negative impact on willingness to communicate, which has a concomitant impact on frequency of communication, reducing contact with the target culture and ultimate attainment. Preparing learners for the demands of social situations should have the opposite effect, reducing task anxiety, increasing perceived competence and causing a direct positive effect on frequency of communication and commitment to integrate with the target language culture  (MacIntyre and Charos, 1996). One way to help learners with the demands of informal oral communication is to support the development of informal spoken registers through the use of narratives in ESL.

Over-emphasizing formal registers reduces integrativeness

College ESL courses tend to over-emphasize formal registers because of a concern that college-courses should be college-level and academic. This aspiration while noble in intent has unintended negative consequences for learners. One study (Segalowitz, 1976) found that non-fluent second language learners believe themselves to appear less intelligent, less self-confident, and less friendly during casual speech situations than formal speech situations. These same learners also evaluated their native speaker interlocutors less favorably in situations demanding casual speech than formal speech. The reason was that the language instruction these learners had been given had emphasized formal registers to the exclusion of informal registers, leaving them unprepared for situations involving informal social interaction. What these findings suggest is that an overemphasis on academic English will reduce learners’ motivation to integrate with the target language community. Since integrative motivation is needed to achieve moderate levels of second language proficiency (Dornyei, 1990), emphasizing casual registers in language learning classes should have a positive influence on ultimate attainment.

Narratives encourage contact with the target culture

Since narratives capture the closest approximation to the vernacular of unmonitored speech (Labov, 2010) and since speaking is the most anxiety-provoking form of communication (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991; McCrosky & Richmond, 1982), it follows that switching from academic reading and writing tasks in the college classroom to narrative tasks should support the development of oral communication skills.

It is very important that language teachers make efforts to reduce anxiety associated with speaking the second language because of the impact of anxiety on ultimate attainment. To explain, we know from research into anxiety and language learning that the anxiety speaking produces reduces willingness to communicate (Baker & MacIntyre, 2000). We also know that reduced willingness to communicate has been shown reduce the frequency of communication (Hines & Barraclough, 1995). Where contact is minimal or non-existent, there is less commitment to integrate with the target culture (Dornyei, 1990) and integrative motivation is needed to achieve moderate levels of second language proficiency (Dornyei, 1990). Supporting oral skills in non-fluent bilinguals through narratives should have an overall positive effect on ultimate attainment and help mitigate the negative effects of the current overemphasis on formal registers in second language instruction at the college level.

Narratives support the development of register-appropriate oral communication

Narrative writing instruction is more likely to prepare learners for informal social interaction for a number of linguistic reasons, also. Most importantly, it should be noted that academic and conversational registers involve a complementary frequency distribution of vocabulary and grammatical forms (Biber et al., 1999). However, because fictional narratives contain quoted speech, narratives contain many of the features of conversation English, making them particularly helpful in the development of the grammar and vocabulary needed in conversational registers. Some of the stark differences between academic English and conversational English are revealed in the corpus research given in Biber et al. (1999). Here are some examples of the differences between the registers with page numbers:

Conversation has a lower density of information and therefore fewer nouns (Biber et al, 1999, p. 66). 60% of lexical words in academic prose are nouns (p. 65). Plural nouns are used 3-4 times more in academic prose than conversation (p. 291). Nominalization is much more common in academic prose than other registers, especially –tion and -ity (p. 322).

Adjectives are least common in conversation and most common in academic prose. The comparative form is used three times more often in academic prose than in conversation. Conversely, superlatives are more common in conversation than in academic prose (p. 65).

Conversation is marked by a high frequency of pronouns and a low frequency of nouns (p. 1042). Words like everybody, everyone, everything, somebody, anybody, anyone, anything, and nobody are common in conversation but rare in academic writing. Conversation uses pronouns in anaphoric expressions (to refer to an already established idea), whereas academic writing uses definite noun phrases in anaphoric expressions (p. 266). Preposition+which relativizers are only common in academic prose (p. 625).


The determiner that is 11 times more common in conversation than in academic writing, where it is relatively rare. This, used as a determiner, is more common in academic writing than in conversation, occurring 2500 versus 1500 times. The big exception is with the phrase this one which occurs 3000 times in the conversational corpus and not at all in the academic written corpus.


Conversation has shorter clauses, and so verbs and adverbs are much more frequent in conversation and fiction (because it contains quoted speech) and much less frequent in academic prose (p. 65). Certain verbs are particularly common in conversation and particularly rare in academic prose: try, buy, put, pay, bring, meet, play, run, eat, watch, pick, wear. Negation is most common in conversation and least common in academic prose (p. 159). Only in conversation is the progressive used to emphasize the reported message itself as in, “She was saying…” (p. 1120). Across all registers, 85% of verbs are tensed, while 15% of verbs are modal constructions (p. 456). Modals are most common in conversation and are about half as common in academic prose (p. 456). The progressive aspect is more common in conversation than in academic prose. The present perfect is about 30% more common in conversation than in academic prose (p. 461). Have/has got is the most common present perfect verb in any register, occurring over 1000 times per million words in conversation, but less than 20 times per million words in academic prose (p. 465).


“But” is more frequent in conversation and fiction, and less frequent in academic prose. “And” is more frequent in academic and fiction than conversation and news. In conversation, “and” is used as a clause level connector. In academic prose, and is used as a phrase level connector (p. 81) .


Verbs and “not” are contracted most frequently in conversation and fiction. Verbs are contracted less than 2.5% of the time in academic prose, and “not” is contracted 5% or less. (p. 1132).


The word since is used to introduce a reason in academic prose 95% of the time, but it is used to indicated a point in time in all other registers. The word while is used for concession in 80% of occurrences in academic prose, but it is used for time references 100% of occurrences in conversation. The word though is used primarily as a linking adverbial in conversation but as a subordinator in written registers.


Expressions like see if, wonder if, know if and ask if are common in conversation and rare in academic prose. Know whether is 8 times more common in conversation than in academic writing. Determine whether, the most common post predicate wh-clause in academic prose, occurs 20 times in academic writing and not at all in conversation.

Technical Writing

Some college teachers ask their ESL students to read and write technical reports, believing that the more challenging the text to read or write, the more students will learn about English. For these teachers, there is an unspoken assumption that conversational English can be acquired by implication. In fact, technical writing has certain features which cannot be generalized to everyday English. Trimble (1985) in his book on technical writing for second language teachers reports three key areas of difficulty for non-native students: descriptions, instructions, and literature reviews. He attributes much of the difficulty to grammatical elements found within them.  Descriptions make unusually frequent use of passive and stative verbs. In instructions, the definite article is often left out (e.g., remove puncturing object from tire) or used on first mention in generalizing statements (e.g., The gas turbine fires continuously). In literature reviews, modals and modal passives are very common, and in certain instances, the modal “should” is used with the same force as “must” (Trimble, 1985, pp. 115-120). In all these cases, non-native learners who do not have full command of English will have difficulty learning these specialized uses of English and must learn not to generalize these specialized rules to everyday English.


With fewer verbs, fewer negatives, fewer modals, fewer contractions, fewer progressive forms, academic English is less suitable for supporting oral interactions than narrative writing. Furthermore, technical writing offers such an eccentric model of English grammar that learners will have difficulty generalizing its grammatical forms to any other communicative context. Finally, because of its effect on integrative motivation and ultimate attainment, ESL teachers should be very careful not to overemphasize formal registers in the instruction of non-fluent bilinguals.

3. Narratives promote the use of a wider range of grammatical structures

The verb density of narratives should be of special interest to ESL teachers. “Narratives are the principle way in which our species organizes its understanding of time” (Abbott, 2008, p.3) and verb tense choice signals how events relate to each other in time. Since “narratives frequently contain irrealis clauses—negatives, conditionals, futures—which refer to events that did not happen or might have happened or had not yet happened.” (Labov, 2010, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences), narratives are best suited to teach these linguistic features to second language learners.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase book cover

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

It is important to note that narrative writing involves a default tense. As such, narratives create an obligatory context for eliciting and measuring mastery of past tenses.  Primarily, narratives employ the simple past (Smith, 2003; He, 2011), and “more complex tense selections involving a secondary tense are then used to relate some other time to the main storyline — as simultaneous with it (present), as a flashback (past), or as a flashforward (future).” (Matthiessen, 1995, p. 741).” Argument, on the other hand, does not have an obligatory tense.

Take a look at this short excerpt from The Case of the Hidden Staircase, a Nancy Drew novel for young adults.

       The weary workers had just finished their job when the phone rang. Nancy, being closest to the instrument, answered it. Hannah Gruen was calling.

     “Nancy! What happened? she asked. “I‘ve been waiting over an hour for you to call me back. What‘s the matter?”

While there are three times as many Simple Past verbs than any other verb tense, this narrative is hardly limited to the Simple Past, containing examples of four other tenses. In just 44 words, this short text contains verbs in the Past Perfect, Simple Past, Past Progressive, Present Perfect Progressive, and the Simple Present. Looking at corpus data on word frequency, we observe that this passage contains no academic words and two conversational words that are very rare in academic prose: asked, and  just. The eight sentences are short with an average of only six words per sentence.

ESL teachers will recognize that comprehension tasks involving narratives suggest an efficient way of getting learners to notice the tense and aspect system of English verbs in a meaningful way. Narrative writing should also offer an efficient way of eliciting a variety of verb tenses. How to structure a narrative to elicit and rehearse specific structures is the topic of another blog post.


Abbott, H. P. (2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

Baker, S. C., & MacIntyre, P. D. (2000). The role of gender and immersion in communication and second language orientations. Language Learning, (50), 311–341.

Berggren, A. (2008). Do thesis statements short-circuit originality in students’ writing? In C. Eisner & M. Vicinus, Originality, imitation, and plagiarism: Teaching writing in the digital age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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Dornyei, Z. (1990). Conceptualizing Motivation in Foreign-Language Learning. Language Learning, 40(1), 45–78.

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Hines, S. C., & Barraclough, R. A. (1995). Communicating in a foreign language: Its effects on perceived motivation, knowledge, and communication ability. Comrnunication Research Reports, (12), 241–247.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Charos, C. (1996). Personality, attitudes, and affect as predictors of second language communication. 15, 3-26. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, (15), 3–26.

McCrosky, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (1982). Communication apprehension and shyness: Conceptual and operational distinctions. Central States Speech Journal, (33), 458–468.

Moss, G. (2002). The five-paragraph theme. The Quarterly24(3), 23-38. Retrieved from

Labov, W. 2008. Oral narratives of personal experience. (13 December 2008.)

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Segalowitz, N. (1976). Communicative incompetence and the non-fluent bilingual. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 8(2), 121-131.

Statistics Canada, (2008). Youth in transition survey. Retrieved from Statistics Canada website:

Trimble, L. (1985). English for science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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