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Vol 34 No 2, April - June 1996
Page 38


Teaching Organisational Writing
by Ntonifor Helen Manka

My experience as a teacher of English to students whose first official language is French has shown that organising words in a sentence and sentences into a paragraph poses a serious problem for students. Try to jumble words in a sentence or mix up sentences in a paragraph and ask your students to put them into an order to convey a coherent, cohesive meaning. The results you get will help you understand the point I would like to highlight in this article.

Writing, is intimately related to the other language skills. One reads a text to write answers to questions (in reading comprehension activities) or to summarize it (in summary writing). Similarly, one usually discusses ideas before writing them down; and one listens before writing (as in the case of dictation writing). There are different types of writing which reflect the different reasons for writing. Whether students are writing an examination, a letter to a friend, a newspaper article, or simply filling out a form, it is very important for them to be able to communicate effectively. Effective writing, therefore, depends on one's ability to structure and organise words and sentences into a meaningful whole.

Like writing, organisation is intimately related to the other components of language-grammar, vocabulary, mechanics, and content. The purpose of introducing organization to students through guided- writing is to encourage them to "fit meaning in a form, and not the other way around" (Raimes 1983:126).

First steps to teaching organisational writing

Generally, it is advisable to introduce organisational writing with internal sentence arrangement. Mix up the words and ask the students to restructure them and render them meaningful. A student who successfully rearranges the words in a sentence must have mastered the grammatical rules in the restructuring process. Furthermore, the correct placement of words in a sentence is proof of the student's vocabulary competence. If the student is conscious of punctuation, and actually uses commas, semicolons, etc., this is indicative of the student's effective communicative ability in writing.

Below are examples of sentences whose words have been scrambled. They will serve as illustrations of how the teacher teaches grammar, vocabulary, and writing mechanics while teaching organisational writing. Put differently, the teacher can kill many birds with one stone.

  1. took, the, I, hardest, subject, was, phonology;
  2. is, in, semantics, that, same, I, semester, another, course, took;
  3. waste, to, time, no, there, is;

Restructured as:

  1. The hardest subject I took was phonology/Phonology was the hardest subject I took.
  2. I took another course in semantics that same semester/I took another course that same semester in semantics.
  3. There is no time to waste.

The internal structure (syntax) of the sentences is the immediate problem for the student. The teacher should point out that the word hardest in sentence 1 is an adjective that qualifies the noun subject . The teacher can then explain that, as a grammatical rule in English, adjectives precede the nouns they qualify and not vice versa; e.g., (i) a clever student. not *student clever; (ii) a silly question. not *question silly; (iii) a fantastic idea. not *idea fantastic.

If we look back at the "disordered" sentences, we immediately notice each word is separated by commas because we have a bunch of words which have no relationship to one another in the scrambled order. Teachers can emphasize the need to start all sentences with capitals and to use a full-stop (or period) at the end of a sentence. The teacher can teach many other conventions of punctuation, depending on the structure of the sentence under consideration.

The above explanation only reinforces the idea that by teaching sentence organisation, we also teach grammar, vocabulary, mechanics, and content. A well organised sentence or text ensures clarity, reality, and relevance (Hamp- Lyons et al., 1987).

Scrambled sentences

Once students understand sentence order, the teachers can move to sentence arrangement in a paragraph. If we, as language teachers, want our classes to be lively and devoid of boredom, we must diversify our choices of the texts which we introduce to our students. The organisation of any text depends greatly on the literary genre it represents. For instance, if a text is a narrative, or a commentary, or an analysis, each genre requires a different organisational format. In an analysis, the writing must be logically organised, whereas narratives require a chronological ordering; and a commentary presents an opinion with supportive facts. Whatever the case, organising a paragraph or a text requires an understanding of rhetorical markers. The student should watch for the following:

  1. Semantic markers. They indicate how ideas are being developed. Examples of these semantic markers include firstly, secondly, finally , etc.
  2. Markers for illustrations and examples such as, for instance, for example , etc.
  3. Markers that introduce an idea that runs against what has been said earlier: but, nevertheless, yet, although, by contrast , etc.
  4. Markers showing a cause and effect relationship between one idea and another. They include, so, therefore, because, since, thus, consequently .
  5. Markers that show the speaker's intention to sum up his message. Some of these phrases are to summarize, in other words, it amounts to , etc.
  6. Markers indicating the relative importance of different items, e.g., it is worth noting, it is important to note that, the next crucial point is , etc.
  7. Markers used to rephrase what has already been said. These are in other words, put differently, that is to say , etc.
  8. Markers that express a time relationship, e.g., then, next, after, while, when .

Paragraphs and texts that contain sentences with the above rhetorical markers are much easier to organise than those without them. However, a text devoid of such markers may still contain clues to facilitate the organisational process. For example, what is necessary in a narrative is chronological order which arranges the events in the order in which they occurred. Below is an example of a narrative paragraph of seven sentences. The paragraph does not make use of any rhetorical markers, but the key to organising this paragraph is chronology. Texts like this are recommended for students because they are not only educational but interesting as well.

Ask your students to try to decide on the correct order for these sentences on oral dehydration therapy which is an inexpensive way of helping some of the world's poorest people combat the problem of diarrhea in children.

Class Activity
a. These deaths need not have occurred.

b. In 1984 alone, about half a million children were saved by this revolutionary technique.

c. ORT, simply a drink of water, sugar and salt, costs practically nothing, and is simple enough for any parent to prepare.

d. Each year, more than four million young children die of diarrhea dehydration.

e. Today, 38 nations have begun a large scale production of oral rehydration salts.

f. A revolutionary, low-cost technique called oral rehydration therapy (ORT) could probably have saved their lives.

g. Over the next five years, ORT could spread to half the world's families, saving the lives of some two million children each year.

Source: Ministry of Public Health Yaounde, Cameroon

The above text must be arranged in such a way that background information comes before new information.

When the students complete the reorganising exercise, together with their teacher, they can discuss the clues that helped them reorder the sentences. The most difficult task that a student is likely to face is to identify the topic sentence. Once this is accomplished, the rest of the sentences will be less difficult to arrange, provided the student recognizes the cohesive ties employed in the text.

The importance of teaching organisational writing

As pointed out earlier, the teacher can teach other components of writing by teaching organisational writing. Apart from teaching grammar, vocabulary, content, and mechanics through organisation, the students are also encouraged to create a meaningful text out of confusion. This can therefore be a starting point for teaching creative writing to our students. Although some critics may say that guided writing of this sort stifles the student's ability to create his own text, it should be noted that reordering a text involves critical thinking. Moreover, the text serves as a model for the student in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph indentation (if the text comprises many paragraphs).

In addition, teaching organisational writing means introducing many different types of texts ( scientific, agricultural, geographical, historical, medical, fiction, andtelecommunication ) in the language class. The use of a wide variety of texts chases away monotony and boredom and may help to widen the English learner's view of the world.

The next advantage is that teaching organisation is an effective way of teaching writing to a large class (100+). After the reorganisation task, the students, with the help of their teacher, can discuss the order that the text was supposed to take. During this time students can correct their own work so they have the opportunity to take particular note of where they went wrong. Correcting not only saves time for the teacher but also reveals to the student the errors s/he committed. This could be a forerunner to the elimination of future errors.

Finally, it is also important to note that if the passage that is to be used for organisation is interesting, students are generally excited during the discussion. My students, for example, have always enjoyed topics that deal with a telephone conversation like making a date, inviting a friend for lunch, and sending a message by fax. This can probably be explained by the fact that a telephone and a fax machine are still considered as luxuries in Cameroon. Therefore, they are inaccessible to most of the students. Once we have completed a scrambled exercise about telephones, my students are excited to discuss what life is like when a telephone is in the home.

I have attempted to illustrate how teachers can use one component of writing (organisation) to teach the other components of the skill. By doing this, the teacher enhances the students' comprehension of writing as a whole process.

Ntonifor Helen Manka is an assistant lecturer in the Department of Foreign Applied Languages, University of Dschang, Cameroon.



  • Frank, M. 1990. Writing as thinking: A guided process approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Halliday, M. and R. Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
  • Johnson, K. 1981. Communicate in writing. London: Longman.
  • Raimes, A. l983. Techniques in teaching writing. London: Longman.
  • Rutherford, W. 1980. Principled sentence arrangement. Mextesol Journal, 4, pp. 43-48
  • Wallace, J. M. 1989. Study skills in English, 9th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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