Problem Solution Pattern Essay Definition

Monica Almeida/The New York TimesHow does a bad economy affect businesses like Phoenix Decorating in Pasadena? We’re using this and other articles as models of writing about cause and effect. Go to related article »

Update | Sept. 2012: We’ll be exploring the new Common Core State Standards, and how teaching with The Times can address them, through a series of blog posts. You can find them all here, in the lesson plan category “Common Core.”

Last summer we took our first stab at thinking about how the Common Core Standards might apply to what we do on The Learning Network.

In that post, we offered suggestions for literacy strategies that we know work well with “informational text” — a category that includes pretty much everything The Times publishes every day.

Now we’d like to elaborate on that with more ideas for helping students understand common expository “text structures” like cause and effect, compare and contrast and problem-solution. These three, especially, are such staples of journalism that you can find multiple examples in every day’s paper.

Below, we’ve pulled out recent, student-friendly Times examples — in both print and multimedia — that illustrate each. We’ve also included a list of “signal words” commonly used in each. (A list borrowed, in part, from the work of Stephanie Harvey.)

Of course, the Times examples we include here are sophisticated pieces of writing. Just as it is impossible to find real-world, professional versions of that schoolroom classic, the five-paragraph-essay (the one with the thesis as the final line of the first paragraph, and topic sentences neatly heading each of the three body paragraphs), these pieces similarly resist a lockstep outline. Some may even cross categories. But each can illustrate for students how well a basic structure can work to lay out complex information.

After you’ve read a few from each category, try finding your own. We invite students and teachers to post more Times examples for each in the comment section below.

Cause and Effect

Much of journalism involves tracking the ripple effects of big news events or societal trends.

For instance, take a look at the paper any day and you’ll find stories in every section about the continuing chain of effects of the dismal global economy. Earlier this year, The Times was full of stories about the effects of the Japanese tsunami and nuclear crisis, and more recently journalists have tracked the spread, and effects, of Occupy Wall Street.

As students read the pieces we’ve chosen, they might use or adapt our simple graphic organizer — or create their own.

Signal Words and Phrases

  • for this reason
  • thus
  • since
  • in order to
  • as a result
  • therefore
  • consequently
  • because
  • due to
  • for this reason
  • on account of

Times Print Examples

After Lean Acorn Crop in Northeast, Even People May Feel the Effects
How does a dearth of acorns this year lead one scientist to predict both that traffic collisions will rise and that 2012 will be “the worst year for Lyme disease risk ever”?

The Lasting Shadow of Bernie Madoff
“…for those he ensnared, the Madoff story drags on”: How Bernie Madoff, who was arrested three years ago this week, has changed the lives of his victims, family and trustees.

Time for a Vacation? Climate Change and the Human Clock
How climate change over the last thirty years has affected attendance at the national parks — and how it could influence leisure activities, from ski trips to leaf-peeping to bird watching to ice-cream-eating, in the future.

In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money
“All but taboo in the United States 50 years ago, cremation is now chosen over burial in 41 percent of American deaths, up from 15 percent in 1985, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Economics is clearly one of the factors driving that change.”

Rough Times Take Bloom Off a New Year’s Rite, the Rose Parade
The sputtering economy and municipal budget cuts are presenting new problems for the Tournament of Roses and the float industry.

A Message on Every Arm
Why the chic are carrying humble cloth tote bags this season.

Times Multimedia Examples

Graphic | How Shifting Plates Caused the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan

Graphic | It’s All Connected: An Overview of the Euro Crisis

Compare and Contrast

Articles and multimedia that compare two or more things can be found daily in The Times, whether it’s via a chart comparing the new iPhone to its rivals, or an architecture review that contrasts the two new baseball stadiums in New York City.

Our Venn diagram graphic organizer might come in handy, either for taking notes while reading or for planning your own piece.

Signal Words and Phrases

  • in comparison
  • by contrast
  • similarly
  • but
  • on the other hand
  • on the contrary
  • yet
  • however
  • despite
  • similarly
  • as opposed to

Times Print Examples
Two New Baseball Palaces, One Stoic, One Scrappy
A 2009 architecture review comparing the two new baseball stadiums in New York City, Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.

Fire and Ice
A recent Op-Ed by Maureen Dowd compares Newt Gingrich with President Obama.

India Ink | Who Wants to Shop in a Big Box Store, Anyway?
“Let’s compare the American big-box shopping experience to shopping in urban India,” invites this blog post, a particularly simple and clear example of this kind of writing.

Obsession, Reignited
An article comparing Stieg Larsson’s novel “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” with the forthcoming film version by David Fincher. (This is just one of many Times examples in which an original literary piece is compared with the film or theatrical version. To find more, use Times search to read about works of literature you’re teaching.)

Multimedia Examples

Graphic | A Smartphone Face-Off Apple iPhone 4S vs. Samsung Galaxy S II

Slide Show | Vamps, Crooks and Killers to compare with A Rogues’ Gallery

Graphic | Comparing Internet Speeds Across the Nation

Problem and Solution

Every day in The Times there are articles that identify a problem of some kind and report on an innovative solution. In fact, one whole Times blog, called Fixes, is entirely devoted to reporting on solutions to social problems and why they work.

Of course we have a basic graphic organizer for this text type as well — to use as is, or as a jumping-off point for your own version.

Signal Words and Phrases

  • problem
  • solution
  • because
  • cause
  • since
  • as a result
  • in order to
  • so that

Times Print Examples

Monks Embrace Web to Reach Recruits
“The Benedictine monks at the Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I., have a problem. They are aging — five are octogenarians and the youngest will be 50 on his next birthday — and their numbers have fallen to 12, from a peak of about 24 in 1969.” Read about how these monks have taken to the Internet to solve it.

A Hard Turn: Better Health on the Highway
How can the trucking industry encourage drivers to exercise and eat right on the road?

Fixes | The Power of Positive Coaching
“…today’s youth coaches often struggle to provide sound, evidence-based, and age-appropriate guidance to players.” Fixes describes one solution.

Fixes | An Electronic Eye on Hospital Hand-Washing
“Hospitals do impossible things like heart surgery on a fetus, but they are apparently stymied by the task of getting health care workers to wash their hands.” What can they do to change that culture?

Times Multimedia Examples

Interactive | Lunch Line Redesign

Slide Show | 10 Days in a Carry-On

Interactive | The 2010 Year in Ideas

Problem-solution essays are a common essay type, especially for short essays such as subject exams or IELTS. The page gives information on what they are, how to structure this type of essay, and gives an example problem-solution essay on the topic of obesity and fitness levels.

What are problem-solution essays?

Problem-solution essays consider the problems of a particular situation, and give solutions to those problems. They are in some ways similar to cause and effect essays, especially in terms of structure (see below). Problem-solution essays are actually a sub-type of another type of essay, which has the following four components:

The 'situation' may be included in the essay prompt, in which case it will not be needed in the main body. If it is needed, it can often be included in the introduction, especially for short essays, as with the example essay below. The 'evaluation' may be included as part of the conclusion (also as in the example below), or omitted altogether, especially for short essays. For these reasons, problem-solution essays are more common than situation-problem-solution-evaluation essays (or SPSE essays).


There are two main ways to structure a problem-solution essay. These are similar to the ways to structure cause and effect essays, namely using a block or a chain structure. For the block structure, all of the problems are listed first, and all of the solutions are listed afterwards. For the chain structure, each problem is followed immediately by the solution to that problem. Both types of structure have their merits. The former is generally clearer, especially for shorter essays, while the latter ensures that any solutions you present relate directly to the problems you have given.

The two types of structure, block and chain, are shown in the diagram below. This is for a short essay, which includes the 'situation' in the introduction and 'evaluation' in the conclusion. A longer essay, for example one of around 1,000 words, with citations, would probably have these two sections as separate paragraphs in the main body.


(including 'situation')

Transition sentence/paragraph

(including 'evaluation')


(including 'situation')

Problem 1
Solution to Problem 1

Problem 2
Solution to Problem 2

Problem 3
Solution to Problem 3

(including 'evaluation')

Example essay

Below is a problem-solution essay on the topic of obesity and poor fitness. It uses the block structure. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay, i.e. Situation, Problem, Solution, Evaluation. This will highlight not simply the paragraphs, but also (for problems and solutions) the thesis statement and summary, as these repeat the problems and solutions contained in the main body.













Consumption of processed and convenience foods and our dependence on the car have led to an increase in obesity and reduction in the fitness level of the adult population. In some countries, especially industrialized ones, the number of obese people can amount to one third of the population. This is significant as obesity and poor fitness lead to a decrease in life expectancy, and it is therefore important for individuals and governments to work together to tackle this issue and improve their citizens' diet and fitness.

Obesity and poor fitness decrease life expectancy. Overweight people are more likely to have serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, which can result in premature death. It is well known that regular exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, which means that those with poor fitness levels are at an increased risk of suffering from those problems.

Changes by individuals to their diet and their physical activity can increase life expectancy. There is a reliance today on the consumption of processed foods, which have a high fat and sugar content. By preparing their own foods, and consuming more fruit and vegetables, people could ensure that their diets are healthier and more balanced, which could lead to a reduction in obesity levels. In order to improve fitness levels, people could choose to walk or cycle to work or to the shops rather than taking the car. They could also choose to walk up stairs instead of taking the lift. These simple changes could lead to a significant improvement in fitness levels.

Governments could also implement initiatives to improve their citizens' eating and exercise habits. This could be done through education, for example by adding classes to the curriculum about healthy diet and lifestyles. Governments could also do more to encourage their citizens to walk or cycle instead of taking the car, for instance by building more cycle lanes or increasing vehicle taxes. While some might argue that increased taxes are a negative way to solve the problem, it is no different from the high taxes imposed on cigarettes to reduce cigarette consumption.

In short, obesity and poor fitness are a significant problem in modern life, leading to lower life expectancy. Individuals and governments can work together to tackle this problem and so improve diet and fitness. Of the solutions suggested, those made by individuals themselves are likely to have more impact, though it is clear that a concerted effort with the government is essential for success. With obesity levels in industrialized and industrializing countries continuing to rise, it is essential that we take action now to deal with this problem.












Below is a checklist for the main body of an essay. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.


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