Monday, December 15, 2014

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

(Go back to part 1: Alternatives to the 5-paragraph persuasive essay in College ESL Courses )

604-101-MQ Oral Competency in Quebec ESL 
3.      To express a message orally.
3.1.    Intelligible, structured and coherent general interest communication or interaction lasting at least three minutes.
3.2.    Formulation of relevant questions in interactive communication; questions are generally grammatically correct.
3.3.    Generally correct use of verbs in reference to the past.
3.4.    Adequate pronunciation, intonation and rate of delivery.
3.5.    Showing of openness and respect

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.  

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 story line — 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. 

For pedagogically sound ESL materials that are easy to use, visit Bokomaru's Power Tools for ESL Teachers

  • For pedagogically sound ESL materials that are easy to use, visit  Try Actively Engaged at College for collaborative narrative writing for 604-101 or Actively Engaged on the Job for field-related collaborative narrative writing in 604-100b. Order the Revision Strategies Card or the Illustrated Grammar Reference Card to help your students excel in ESL. 

    Check your essay for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors for free with the, a 100% free grammar checker for ESL learners
  • Check your essay for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors for free with the, a 100% free grammar checker for ESL learners. 

    Check your ESL writing for academic and field-related vocabulary using, a free vocabulary checker for ESL learners at CEGEP in Quebec.
  • Check  your ESL writing for academic and field-related vocabulary using, a 100% free vocabulary checker for ESL learners at CEGEP in Quebec. 

  • Correct more, better, and faster with Corrective (in development), the ultimate power tool for teachers. With just a few clicks, you can check your students' writing for a variety of features, including ESL academic and field-related vocabulary, common ESL grammar errors, target structures, word count and other statistics. You can review and score all corrective feedback, adding comments and links to remedial activities, before returning the assignment by email or pasting the feedback into your Moodle system. 


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
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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.

Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad and E. Finegan (1999), Longman grammar of
spoken and written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.

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

Duxbury, A.R. (2008). The tyranny of the thesis statement. English Journal, 97(4), 16-18.

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.)

Rorschach, E. (2004). The five-paragraph theme redux.The Quarterly26(1), 16-25. Retrieved from 

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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