Think Function Not Form: Stop Teaching Students Structure Supersedes Message

In other words: Ditch that five-paragraph essay right now! Yes, I’m talking to you, elementary and middle school teachers. (Apparently, some high school teachers are “guilty” as well, so I’m including you, too!)

Nothing is more frustrating for me as a writer and a writing teacher than to spend hours encouraging classrooms full of students to select topics about which they are passionate, guiding them through the process of crafting a message on that topic, and coaching my young writers through selecting a form in which to present this message to their audiences, only to have them ask one of the following questions:

“How many sentences are in a paragraph?”

“How many paragraphs do you want?”

“How many words does this essay need to be?”

I’m sure you have had this happen before. Probably one of your brightest students, one who will do almost anything to earn an “A.” I guarantee you, this kid will not go one word, sentence, or paragraph under or over what you prescribe. And if you’re crafty and tell them their essay should be as long as it needs to be, they’ll sulk in frustration for a few minutes before every putting word to paper.

So what do you do?

I started out by using a metaphor with my students. I’d ask one to pretend that she was ordering a cake from me for the birthday of her best friend. So she’d tell me she needs a cake. And for said friend’s birthday. And I’d respond by saying, “Great! How many cups of sugar would you like in that?”

Needless to say, the students are incredulous and think I’m nuts when I respond that way, as well they should be. So I follow this up by explaining that how may cups of sugar are required is variable and can’t be determined until we know the important information, like what flavor the cake needs to be, what color and type of icing should be used, how many people need to be fed, how many tiers are on the cake, etc.

I follow that up by explaining that the message of the essay is more important than the structure and is actually what determines the structure. I guess you could say they’re putting the sugar before the cake?

Then someone says, “Great! So seriously though, how many paragraphs do you want? Five?”

(Hides under my desk.)

I think the problem we’re having here is that we’re not teaching students strategies for organizing their essays. We’re expecting them to figure it out, but they are confused and grasping at the only straws we have given them.

What we need to do is provide students with an organizational purpose that supports the message they are trying to convey. That way, when you have a student who writes a 50 sentence paragraph (We wish!), we can show them how to break it up based on organization. Or when we have that student who writes one sentence and thinks he’s done, we can show him what else he needs to add to make his point.

So what are these strategies?

First, forget the five paragraph essay and put away your four-square organizer. Instead, teach your students the following organizational structures or patterns and show them how to use these during the prewriting and drafting stages of the writing process:


A chronological essay is structured based on the progression of time. This pattern is best used for essays that cover historical topics, such as the history of Starbucks from its inception to today. An outline for this essay might look like this:

  1. 1970s
    1. Significant Event #1
    2. Significant Event #2
  2. 1980s
    1. Significant Event #1
    2. Significant Event #2
  3. 1990s
    1. Significant Event #1
    2. Significant Event #2
  4. 2000s
    1. Significant Event #1
    2. Significant Event #2
  5. 2010s
    1. Significant Event #1
    2. Significant Event #2


A sequential essay is organized according to the step-by-step sequence of a process. This pattern is best used for “how to” essays, such as an essay on how to write an essay. (How very metacognitive!)

An outline for this essay might look like this:

  1. Prewriting
    1. Choose and research topic
    2. Research audience
    3. Determine form
    4. Determine purpose
  2. Drafting
    1. Organize ideas into complete thoughts
    2. Organize thoughts into a structure
    3. Compose an introduction
    4. Compose a conclusion
  3. Revising
    1. Set writing aside, then review with fresh eyes
    2. Ask peer to review and ask questions about meaning
    3. Add details need to convey message
    4. Remove information that detracts from the message
    5. Rearrange structure to best present message
  4. Editing
    1. Proofread for basic grammar, usage, and mechanics errors
    2. Review each sentence — starting from the bottom and going up, if necessary — to determine if it makes sense as written
  5. Publishing
    1. Find a publication that accepts manuscripts on our topic, purpose
    2. Submit your manuscript


A spatial essay is organized based on how the elements of the topic are related to each other in a physical space. For example, a student might use this pattern to write about family-friendly adventures in Las Vegas.

  1. Planet Hollywood Resort
    1. Restaurants
    2. Miracle Mile Shops
  2. Paris Las Vegas Hotel
    1. Restaurants
    2. Gift Shops
  3. The LINQ Hotel
    1. Restaurants
    2. High Roller ride


An essay organized around the significance of events or items can build in intensity or go the other way. For example, an essay written about how a student has grown as a writer.

  1. Narrative describing a teacher praising student for a poem outside of class
    1. Commentary on how this was the first clue student could write
  2. Narrative describing winning first place in a school-wide writing contest for a poem
    1. Commentary describing how this was exciting, but not entirely convincing
  3. Narrative describing being selected to write for the yearbook staff
    1. Commentary describing how this selection and experience solidified the student’s desire to write


A compare-contrast essay considers how two subjects are alike and how they are different. This pattern is best used when understanding an issue requires one to see it from more than one side and in relation to each side. For example, a student can compare and contrast attending a large state university versus a small private university.

  1. Quality of education
    1. Large State University
      1. Large class sizes
      2. Taught by grad students
    2. Small Private University
      1. Smaller classes
      2. Access to professors
  2. Cost of Tuition
    1. Large State University
      1. Less expensive
      2. Less financial aid
    2. Small Private University
      1. Way more expensive
      2. Possibly more financial aid options
  3. Programs Offered
    1. Large State University
      1. Tons of programs
      2. Research focus instead of teaching focus
    2. Small Private University
      1. Fewer programs
      2. Faculty focused on teaching

Students can also organize this essay by writing about how the two universities are the same and then discussing how their are different.


This essay structure describes a problem, often using a narrative format, and then offers one or more solutions to the problem. This pattern is often used for persuasive or argumentative pieces such as editorials or letters to the editor. An example would be an editor about the quality of water in a small town.

  1. Problem: Poor water quality
    1. Ancient pipes leech chemicals into water
    2. Water is tinged orange
    3. Laundry is ruined
    4. Health may be damaged
  2. Solution: Seek federal and legislative assistance
    1. Seek federal aid for upgrading pipes
    2. Townspeople lobby local representatives


The topical structure may work when others won’t. For example, if a writer could use this structure to describe the different types of pastries a chef may bake.

  1. Types of pastries
  2. Laminated
    1. Flaky
    2. Puff
  3. Nonlaminated
    1. Shortcrust
    2. Choux
    3. Filo

Advantages and Disadvantages

This type of essay weighs the pros and cons of a topic. For example, a student who is considering whether to stay in a small rural high school or transfer to a large suburban one might write a using this pattern.

  1. Advantages of a small rural school
    1. Smaller class sizes
    2. More opportunities to play school sports
    3. More access to teachers
  2. Disadvantages of a small rural school
    1. Fewer electives
    2. Fewer social groups
    3. Less funding for resources

Cause and Effect

The cause and effect essay describes something that has happened and then what happened as a result of that event. Sometimes, the writer reverses this order and describes the effect first, followed by what caused the effect. This pattern is also useful for persuasive writing. For example, a student might use this structure to write about the death of small towns in Oklahoma.

  1. Causes
    1. Construction of highways that bypass towns
    2. Advent of technology
    3. Crumbling infrastructure
    4. Rise of big box stores
  2. Effect
    1. Small towns are dying as people move to cities

And this is how the essay might look if the structure is reversed:

  1. Effect
    1. Description of a dying small town with wistful quotes from residents
  2. Causes
    1. Construction of highways that bypass towns
    2. Advent of technology
    3. Crumbling infrastructure
    4. Rise of big box stores

The best way to help students envision these structures is to provide them with mentor texts, graphic organizers, and checklists enabling them see how these structure work,  organize their thoughts first, and then track their progress.

Related topics: The Writing Process

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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