• Tom Garside

How to teach writing 3 - Developing ideas in student essays: Sandwiches vs spaghetti


Writing is a complex activity - it involves language, culture, cognition and the management of ideas as they develop onto the page. In writing classes, however, one of these important aspects of writing is often overlooked: that of culture.


Written communication is culturally relative in many ways: Essay and text structures are presented differently under different education systems, priority is given to different kinds of information, and the relationships between written points are not the same in every culture. Perhaps more importantly, students bring culturally-bound assumptions about the nature of writing with them to the English language classroom, and teachers have their own culturally-bound expectations of what makes an effective essay or paragraph. These assumptions don’t always align, so a clear set of criteria is required to guide student writing.

The following are suggestions for helping students to develop their essay writing to align with common expectations from English-language settings such as international universities, language tests and international exams:

1) Remind readers what they're reading


This piece of advice has worked wonders in getting learners to write with clarity and full development. In many cultures, shared knowledge of written information is assumed between the reader and the writer, meaning that the reader and the writer share responsibility for understanding the message. In English-language writing, however, it is the sole responsibility of the writer to make points clearly. Alignment between the expectations of the writer and those of the reader are essential to avoid a clash of cultures in written work.

2) Write a sandwich, not a bowl of spaghetti


A famous metaphor for the structure of English-language essays is that of a sandwich, with bread on the top (the introduction), the fillings inside (the paragraph points) and the bread at the bottom (the conclusion). This structure can be broken down into its constituent parts, and explored from within, looking at the content that each part of the sandwich requires.

By contrast, in cultures of writing where the reader shares responsibility for understanding, an essay can feel less like a sandwich and more like a bowl of spaghetti, with fragments of topics appearing in different parts of the dish, and every mouthful being slightly different, with little linear progression through the points being made. In English language writing, if the reader is expected to pick through the points and identify the ingredients themselves, an essay can feel unfocused and confusing to follow.

A functional view of what is achieved in each part of the sandwich can be used as a ‘recipe’ for writers to follow as they develop their essay as a whole:

Essay structure: the sandwich

Bread (introduction):

General statement of topic

Statement of opinion / argument / explanation (according to the focus of the essay)

Scope - Short introduction of paragraph topics 1, 2 and 3, framed as reasons / examples / arguments (according to essay focus)

Filling 1: Introduction of paragraph topic 1

Development of main topic idea, with reasons, examples, effects…

Summary of paragraph topic 1 with reference to development points

Filling 2: Introduction of paragraph topic 2

Development of main topic idea, with reasons, examples, effects…

Summary of paragraph topic 2 with reference to development points

Filling 3: Introduction of paragraph topic 3

Development of main topic idea, with reasons, examples, effects…

Summary of paragraph topic 3 with reference to development points

Bread (conclusion)

Restate the main idea of the whole essay and finish off with restatement of the main point

Like a sandwich, every bite of the essay should be predictable as the reader works through the points. This means that paragraph topics are presented in the introduction, stated as topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph and summarised in the last sentence of each paragraph. This cycling of points through the essay seems repetitive, but each step should develop the paragraph points in more detail, to move towards an overall conclusion by the end of the essay.

3) Repeat points without repeating language

As you can see from the above, effective English-language essay structure seems to involve a lot of repetition. However, development of ideas means the ability to return to points of points without repeating specific vocabulary, grammar or other features time after time to avoid redundancy.

To avoid redundancy, several writing sub-skills are necessary: use of synonyms and paraphrase can avoid vocabulary repetition; flexibility of grammar can shift the focus of the points made at different points in the essay (for example using active and passive voice to restate points in the introduction and paragraph points), and ensuring that there is a flow from general information in the introduction to more specific detail in the paragraphs adds progression to the points.

In conclusion, by highlighting how to return to points without repeating, how to frame the paragraphs in the bread of the introduction and conclusion, and how to organise the fillings so that there is development through the essay, student work becomes more linear, and fits the expectations of English-language essay structure more appropriately in the final product.

Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on specific strands of TESOL, such as EAP, CLIL, exam preparation and working towards language assessments.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to the next level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our course pages for details.

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