First-Second-Third…In Conclusion

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What is academic writing? Are we all on the same page? Is it a five paragraph essay? I don’t think so. Let me explain.

I always read with great enthusiasm my students’ essay writing diagnostics. This helps me to understand their way of thinking and their prior working understanding of academic writing. For some, the question posted is somewhat forgotten as they go about making their essay fit into a five paragraph structure. I perceive trains of thoughts interrupted as these students try to inject the three point parallel structure at the end of the so called introduction paragraph, while moving on to adding transitions throughout the remaining paragraphs as they seek to achieve the perfect five paragraph layout. The structure looks good…Hmm…Let me go inside and look.

First…Second…Third…In conclusion

This has prompted me to research on the topic. Conclusion (yes, I’m jumping to the end!): The five paragraph essay poses problems if it is taught as THE way to express thought – including pushing for the addition of transitions that are “supposed” to connect ideas – which is not necessarily true as what should matter is presenting the idea, supporting it, and explaining it. Transitions don’t do that. Thinking that transitions drive thought can actually block thought processing, which is the opposite of what we want from our students to be exposed to (the disease of…uuuhhh…writer’s block).

Supporting Research

According to Lincoln and Ben Idris (2015) remedial learners (second language learners or not) need practice time instead of a battery of linguistic codes because the “overuse of learned grammatical rules in every state in writing…blocks their thinking about what they want to say. [As a result, these students] limit themselves only to the form without paying attention to the meaning” (p. 121). This is the reason why their essay layout looks great, but the idea is still in need of remediation.


I find that when I forgo the rules of what academic writing is supposed to look like, my students’ ideas bloom and flourish. They are able to express their voice, which is what is important. They can then focus on audience as they have already found a purpose.

Going Back to My Questions…

What is academic writing? Well, it could be anything that is written within the constraints of academia: Blogs, journals, e-mails, opinion essays, and research papers. It can also be an infographic, a slide deck, an image, a discussion. Whatever it is, it should express the intended meaning.

Are we all on the same page? Is academic writing the five paragraph essay? When it comes to writing, I think the focus should be on discussing the topic and developing thought. The focus should be on the idea the writer wishes to deliver. It should have a purpose and an audience in mind (even if it is never read). It should fit the context for sure.

One Last Question

I guess you might think I’m going off track here. I’m not. My last question is really my first one: What is academic writing? Please share your thoughts.


Lincoln, F. , & Ben Idris, A. (2015). Teaching the writing process as a first and second language revisited: Are they the same? Journal of International Education Research, 11(2), 119-124.


9 thoughts on “First-Second-Third…In Conclusion”

  1. Outlines and various writing structures once mastered, becomes a quick and effective method to introduce learners ideas to audience.

    Also, just allowing a learner to write allows the creativity to flow. Both are effective, but i’ve never met an instructor or reader who enjoys trying to find the main point, purpose etc. without a structure. The five paragraph writing method is the” tip of the iceberg” for academic writing. It’s up to the learner or instructor to discover and demonatrate other more advanced writing structures to progress up the ladder successfully.

    In the end, the instructor has to mark it, while learner has to advance to the next level. What ever works!

  2. I agree. It’s a challenge for many University students, not just ESL students, to break out of the constraints and expand their academic writing style so that content and meaning is the focus. Although, having said that, Jennifer has a good point. There is a definite place for the 5 paragraph essay, especially to help beginning academic writers to have a structure and starting point for their writing.

    1. Thanks for your input.
      I also agree that getting rid of essay writing as a medium of academic discourse is not the answer., but we also need to address other forms. Overall, the view is not to get rid of one type of genre. The approach should be additive – not subtractive. Cheers!

  3. I think your insights are important, timely and valid. I previously taught EAP at a community college. I often wondered why oh why did I have to teach the same formulaic essay structure, again and again, when in fact, they were unlikely to ever need it once they entered a mainstream program.

    To answer your question (in passing) academic writing is about clarity and depth and appropriateness. There will always be expectations, standards for formatting, etc., specific to each field or discipline. One thing that is unwavering… no tolerance for plagiarism.

    1. Thank you for your points Heidi. Plagiarism is complex. Teaching students how to cite is one way to avoid it. Another way to avoid it is by providing students with opportunities to write what they know about a topic before reading about it; the emphasis would be to dispel the belief that ‘the expert source’ is the only voice that matters. However, students at this stage need vocabulary, so we need to spend time exploring this area/skill in the classroom.

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