Why Crafting a Thesis is Cultural


By Chrissine Rios, KUWC Writing Tutor

Thesis-support essay organization is standard in academic writing, yet it doesn’t come naturally to all students. Essay organization reflects the way we organize thoughts, and how we think is cultural.  For English Language Learner students who are not only learning another language but also the ways of a new culture, academic essay writing will challenge their acculturation.

Hispanic students, for example, especially those who speak Spanish at home and in their communities, may resist the idea of being so direct in their writing. In Hispanic composition, all perspectives are given before any final conclusion is drawn, and even then, presenting a final or singular point from the many is not the goal of communication.

This chart, created by American linguist, Robert B. Kaplan, illustrates the various ways different cultures organize thought and how one’s culture thus affects an ELL student’s approach to organizing ideas in writing:

(Kaplan, 1966)

(Kaplan, 1966)

The chart also helps explain why it can be difficult to find the main idea or thesis in a nonnative speaker’s essay.  It may be at the end of the paper, or it may never be given, or the writer may seem to go off on a tangent in the middle, which also violates the logically organized, thesis-support structure of the American, college essay.

ELL students thus have many questions about essay organization.  Here are some tips to address those questions:

  • Invite students to discuss how they would organize a paper in their first language and compare and contrast that to the expectations of their KU assignments.
  • Provide ELL students a sample outline to illustrate how their paper should be organized.
  • Provide students the opportunity to submit rough drafts or outlines for review or allow them time to conduct peer reviews or submit drafts to the Writing Center for review.

When ELL students become aware of the American academic style and how it contrasts to their first language, they will be less likely to translate (Kaplan, 1999) by writing first in their native language then translating the words and sentences but leaving the original organization (and confounding readers).

It may sound funny to refer to an academic paper as being American style, but the linear approach to organization that we use in English is just a style–it’s cultural, not universal.  Being aware of cultural influences of thought and writing will help you be proactive about supporting your ELL students and creating a learning environment that fosters respect for all cultures.


Kaplan, R. B. (1966) Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education. Language Learning, 16 (1), 1-20.

Kaplan, R. B. (1999, Feb. 19).  Report on Teleconference with Egypt.  Retrieved from http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/usia/E-USIA/education/engteaching/kap0299.htm

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2 Responses

  1. Robley Hood says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Chrissine. Years ago, as a teacher-consultant in a National Writing Project site, I worked with a sociolinguistics professor. She introduced me to the notion that African-Americans tell stories in a less linear way than I had thought of as the norm or, as you put it, the “universal” way. She recommended some reading and one movie, Daughters of the Dust. My work with her in the 1990s helped to revolutionize my thinking about composition and literature.

  2. I remember also hearing the term “American style” in my class on language acquisition years ago. “American style” was our shorthand for “Standard American English,” which is different from the standard English used in England (and many other countries). We used the term “American style” or “American” when something distinct to writing in U.S. academic contexts came up. For instance, if a writer’s main point/thesis came across as very direct and almost aggressive, our professor (a U.S. educated professional from South Korea) would say, “Ah, yes. American.” From time to time she would explain the label “American” by doing what Chrissine has suggested we can do with our students- she would compare how the same writing might be organized for a Korean audience. In fact, she used the illustration from Robert Kaplan that this blog post uses. As funny as it sounded at first, “American style” became a disarming reminder that all writing is contextual and cultural.

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