I have written a countless number of essays. At school, university, and back at school again, showing my students how to do it. In my fourteen years teaching I must have modelled hundreds of essays. I have likely set and assessed thousands of the blighters.
My go-to strategy has always been to model the essay writing process, to make visible how an expert essay writer thinks. Students are often left baffled by how fast I can make decisions about my essay, how I can pluck sophisticated academic words seemingly from the ether, and then write with speed as well. With sore hands and muffled complaints, students have been pulled along on the path from novice to expert.
In my recent thinking on assessment – see my blog on ‘The Problem with Past Papers‘ for more – I have looked to go further and to seek out deploying more effective diagnostic assessments to help my students develop their essay writing skill.
I gave the example in my last blog of setting ‘An Inspector Calls‘ essay to my year 10 class, in preparation for them doing a summative essay writing task. [Dear reader, those essays sit in my work bag right now, taunting me] I described how my students had so many errors and gaps in their knowledge with their last essay, that it made my feedback scattergun and not as effective as it could be.
I went onto write the following about the complexity of essay writing:
“They had to play the ‘big game’ of remembering quotes, writing insights about character, theme, social context, all in a coherent argument structure, with written accuracy, without the practice and focus on knowledge to do all of these things fluently.”
In truth, writing a good essay takes a host of knowledge and expertise. For English Literature then, we need to distill down that complexity into more manageable diagnostic assessments, so that our students can gradually develop from their novice status towards something like expertise. To use an analogy, writing a great essay is like the creation of a strong rope, with each sub-strand being woven together in unison. Each strand of the rope can represent the crucial knowledge required for essay writing success.
If we are to teach great essays, then we need to define the strands that will be woven together to form the rope. For my GCSE students, you can refer to the exam board rubrics, but they too often prove vague and not as definitive as we would like. My judgment is that the key strands of the great essay writing ‘rope’ comes down to students knowing (declarative knowledge) and doing (summative knowledge) the following:
- Display knowledge and understanding of how the social context influences the writer and their text (including how different audiences may respond to the text);
- Display knowledge and understanding of the character, themes and language of the text, making connections and inferences from across the text;
- Display knowledge of the writer’s choice of literary devices and generic conventions, based on a wider knowledge of literary history;
- Select, retrieve and interpret evidence (predominantly in the form of quotations);
- Make inferences from that evidence on the writer’s vocabulary choices based upon a broad and deep academic vocabulary knowledge;
- Plan and organise an essay into a coherent argument, linking salient points that address the essay question;
- Write with accuracy and clarity, including the use of lead sentences, discourse markers and academic vocabulary, all deployed in an appropriate academic style (written in the passive voice, using nominalization etc.).
I think we can get lost down the rabbit hole discussing the meaning and difference between words like ‘evaluate‘ and ‘analyse‘. I have ignored exam rubrics for this reason. I am confident that if my students could address the above strands, practising each in isolation, before, over time, weaving them together into the ‘rope’ of a full, expert essay, that my students would write great essays for any English Literature qualification.
I think there is something useful about the order in which I have presented the strands above. By beginning with the ‘big picture‘ of the social and literary context, we give our students a schema – or a broader framework – in which to root their knowledge of the text. If the text is ‘Animal Farm‘, they need to see the big picture of Communism and Russian history (1), linked to the characters and themes (2), that are couched in a dystopian fairytale (3). Given that ‘big picture‘, they can begin to select evidence and make inferences and interpretations from the text.
Assessing Strand 1
Let’s take the first strand and consider how we can use diagnostic assessments to better develop their ability to ‘Display knowledge and understanding of how the social context influences the writer and their text (including how different audiences may respond to the text)‘, long before they are asked to do so in the ‘big game‘ of writing a full, timed essay.
I think the different strands lend themselves to different diagnostic assessments. Knowledge and understanding of social context lends itself to cumulative quizzing. If we take ‘Animal Farm‘ once more, then a regular quiz to consolidate which historical figures are represented by which characters in the novella. This is crucial ‘base knowledge’ and can be assessed rather simply. Once students have consolidated these basic facts, they can begin to display understanding of those characters: how they change; their relationships with other characters; the themes and ideas they relate to, and their symbolism etc.
Another apt assessment for strand 1 would be using graphic timelines, both for how the text fits in a broader literary tradition, as well as a timeline for the text itself (for example, with Animal Farm, the characters actions neatly translate to historical acts, such as the Russian revolution etc.)
If we are looking to diagnose our students’ understanding of different audience responses to a text, another approach is using other types of graphic organisers, such as a Venn diagram, a ‘mind map’, or an ‘event map’ – see here:
We can begin to increase the degree of challenge, and the related complexity of the diagnostic assessment, by getting students to relate their knowledge of a contextual factor to themes in the text, as well as the audience’s interpretation of theme and context. Here ‘short answer questions‘, that require a paragraph length response, are more appropriate assessment tools. It is this progression of assessment that is important.
Still, we must hold our nerve that doing smaller, more precise diagnostic assessments better secures their knowledge and understanding than playing the ‘big game‘ of writing multiple essays. I haven’t even mentioned the potential reduction in teacher marking. [Ignores siren calls from the marking unceremonious neglected in my school bag]
Assessing Strand 4
Now, you may have noted that I missed out strands 2 and 3, but I wanted to address the use of evidence, particularly the use of quotations, given this is a real pressure point with the new GCSEs, due to the nature of the closed book examinations.
There has been much gnashing of teeth at the prospect of students memorising over 200 quotations for English Literature. It certainly will separate out children who are trained to remember quotations effectively and cumulatively, over those who are not, but given the challenge, we should deploy good diagnostic assessments that not only help us grasp our students’ current progress, but actually help them reinforce their memory and understanding of quotations.
As indicated in the wording of strand 4, ‘select, retrieve and interpret evidence (predominantly in the form of quotations)‘, we can more effectively separate out what we want our students to know and can do with evidence from the text.
We often miss out the ability to ‘select‘ quotations as a first step. We need to train our students to pick the ‘right’ quotes. With tongue in cheek, I often describe the right quotes to learn as ‘Swiss-Army-Quotes‘. That is to say, those quotations that you can use for a multitude of essay questions, as they encompass many different ideas, themes or issues from the given text. An effective essay writer can only store so many quotations, so they need to be pertinent and selected judiciously.
In terms of diagnostic assessments for selecting good quotations, we can start with using multiple choice questions that get students to correctly relate quotations to individual characters or themes. We can get students to rank order quotations with regard to their relevance, relative importance etc. We can get them to select quotations when given a specific character, theme or prospective essay question.
If we want to test and learn how well our students ‘retrieve‘ quotations then we can set them timed challenges – with a ‘Quotation Quest‘ (a challenge to collate key quotes for whatever purposes that you identify) which proves great for competition; or we can quiz them on what chapter/stave/stanza/page quotations are from. Alternatively, or concurrently, we can get students to devise a quotation timeline, that sorts quotations by chronological order, and more.
With each of the ‘select‘ and ‘retrieve‘ diagnostic assessments, we can, if we choose to, record their relative progress. It is relevant, over time, we can increase the degree of challenge for these tasks by factoring in timed conditions.
When it comes to ‘interpret‘, we need different, more nuanced diagnostic assessments. Short answers quizzes can get students to respond to individual quotations. We can assess their understanding in such quizzes. We can assess them orally, with a ‘Just a Minute‘ activity, whereat they have to say as much as they can about a given quotation. Of course, targeted questioning can elicit how well they can interpret a quotation. I like the idea, rather than tackling essays, or PEE paragraphs (PEAL, PETAL, whatever you call it!), of doing what Katie Ashford labels ‘show sentences‘ (see here for more: ‘Beyond the Show Sentence‘): effectively a concise response to a given quote.
Of course, after we have honed and assessed this more precise textual knowledge, we can more consistently combine ‘select‘, ‘retrieve‘ and ‘interpret‘ procedural knowledge in singular tasks. Over time, we can be more assured they are ready to write a great essay. What we need to do is use diagnostic assessment – testing as learning – to ensure that students can automatically select the ‘right’ quotes, retrieve them quickly, before interpreting them skillfully.
Tying it all together
I know English teachers have enough to do, but if we are devote our time, it shouldn’t be wading through endless mock exams; it should be developing our subject knowledge – particularly our text specific insights – and developing and sharing better diagnostic assessments for the texts that we teach.
It may mean that we have to reconsider our typical teacher habits and go back to the drawing board with assessment of texts. If we get our assessment of learning right, we will likely be marking fewer, but better essays. After spending countless hours marking a few thousand, I’m ready for better essays!
Read PART TWO – the follow up outlining the seven strands.
There is obviously work to do with regard to the assessment strands that I have outlined above and the attendant range of diagnostic assessments. If you have any insights, criticisms or ideas, please do share. I aim to follow up this blog with a completed set of essay writing strands, with ideas for apt diagnostic assessments, but I would welcome input, suggested changes, and any additional ideas before I do that.
Cover image via PhotoSteve101: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/5418402840
“A tutee’s ability in a subject is frequently not reflected in their grades simply due to inadequate exam technique. I view it as a key subject in itself and have found that a focus on this area can be some of the most productive hours spent with atutee.”
In addition to over a decade of personal experience undertaking exams, scholarships and Oxbridge interviews, I have prepared tutees for a range of exams including 11+, Common Entrance, GCSE, A Level and Degrees. Many students know the content of their subjects in detail but simply do not perform in exams. This can often be due to a lack of understanding of how to prepare for an exam and/or structure an essay to best show off their understanding. In other words, a focus on exam and revision technique is time well spent and can remove all the fear from a coursework or exam paper. Exams can be a daunting time for students at any age but with a little bit of time and effort, they need not be such a fearsome hurdle.
Organisation and strategy are key aspects of examination technique, both of which can be taught by demonstrating the variety of ways in which to prepare for an exam. Each individual will have a preferred method so it is simply a case of helping them discover the method that will suit them best. Whether it involves breaking down class notes into manageable chunks, creating word gamestohelpmemorise information or creating wall posters to highlight key quotes or facts, there are numerous techniques to help each student prepare for exams. As well as devising revision plans (realistic enough to stick to!), condensing class notes into revision cards and suchlike, exam preparation should factor in awareness of assessment objectives, marking criteria and examiner reports relevant to the subject and level. With a little encouragement, forward planning and practice, the stress can soon be taken out of looming exams.
Practice papers are key to taking the pressure off exams and minimizing the chances of any nasty surprises on the day. It is often an area which is underplayed by teachers at school due to their need to complete a syllabus but its importance is crucial to achieve exam success. I tend to go through a few papers initially with the tutee and plan how an effective answer should look. I then gradually encourage the tutee to attempt papers independently and under examination conditions. It can be helpful to mark a completed question or paper alongside the tutee so that they being to get a feel for how marks are allocated in their particular subject/board. Furthermore, many exam boards provide examiner reports on their websites (eg AQA) which are invaluable resources to indicate the areas in which the previous year’s examinees slipped up. Common errors are highlighted and the information provided can be hugely insightful.
Once students begin to think in the mind of the examiner, they can start to approach each question in a systematic and confident way. Many students slip up by giving the answer they want to give as opposed to thinking about what the examiner is looking for and how marks will be allocated. A run through of the exam’s assessment objectives and marking criteria frequently pays off. This is another area which is frequently skated over in the summer term before an exam and mistakenly neglected by all too many students.
For essay based subjects, essay technique is another key skill to develop and an area in which a tutor can add great value. I have found that discussing the variety of ways in which an essay could be approached gives tutees the confidence to formulate their ideas on paper, structure their points effectively and develop their own systematic way of tackling an essay. Everybody is different in terms of the way they like to approach an essay and how much they like to plan. This is where an initial discussion comes in useful to understand how a student currently tackles an essay question and lead on to aspects of their approach which could be improved.
Every essay has three parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. The introductory paragraph explains the general topic and introduces your point of view or angle you will be taking in the essay. The body is the ‘meat’ of the essay. It should contain all the points you want to make and flow naturally from one point to the next. The concluding paragraph concisely sums up what you have said. Having done the research behind an essay, I would always advise writing an outline and the body of an essay first, then the introduction and the conclusion.
Many students fall down by ploughing straight into the writing of an essay without forming any sort of plan. Whilst they words ‘essay plan’ can be enough to send many students into daydream land, they will soon begin to listen when they realise how much time it will save them in the long run. Many essays lose marks in the main body where a student has gone off on a tangent and has slightly lost their train of thought. It is very obvious when this happens and if the student has lost interest by going off track, then it is highly likely the examiner will too! The net result is a weak conclusion and a below average mark. This can be avoided by spending a short period of time preparing an essay outline. This is not to be confused with a draft; it is simply an organised set list of ideas for the essay. Students who begin their essays by writing an outline find that their academic writing skills improve dramatically.
One useful first step when faced with a new essay title is to convert it into a question, if it isn’t already. This forces you to question yourself over what exactly is being asked and will help you formulate your key argument or in effect, your ‘answer’ to the essay title. (NB: Many essay titles are given as statements and you are asked to what extent you agree or disagree: do not feel that you are obliged to agree with it, however eminent the author may be!). By restating the title as a question, you may find it easier to form an opinion and it will truly help with the planning and structure of your essay. After all, your essay is essentially nothing more than a clearly stated and well supported argument so it is crucial that you know what it is you are arguing!
Once the research has been done, my advice on tackling any essay is to first put pen to paper with a brainstorming exercise roughly scribbling down ideas that spring to mind. This may involve single words, phrases or even quotes. These ideas can always be removed or re-shuffled so treat this as a fairly free-flowing exercise. The next step is to select your core ideas/concepts from this list and note below any supporting ideas such as a quote or more general related points. These key points may change as you re-shuffle your ideas but you be aiming to end up with an ordered set of bullet points along the lines of the below:
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
- Supporting idea
This outline can be adapted as you see fit but I guarantee it will help you structure your thoughts (and ultimately the main body of your essay). Once you have practised using this model, you will soon see how a good outline cuts actual writing time by half.
Instead of writing complete essays, it can be more productive (and time saving) exercise to write an essay outline comprising of the above as well as the key points you will touch on in your introduction and a conclusion. You do not have to write full sentences since this is only an outline. Equally, spelling and grammar are not of great concern until your final draft so concentrate more on ensuring that you are communicating your ideas. You could go further to write an opening sentence and a closing sentence for each paragraph (more on this later!). For now, let’s look in more depth at each section of an essay.
Top tip: Consider writing your introduction last!
Your INTRODUCTION is your first chance to impress the examiner. It should encapsulate your argument and form the heart of the essay. As such, you not only need to introduce the topic/title but you need to present your perspective and hint at what is to follow. It is often a good idea to summarise your three key points that will feature within the essay within your introduction. The main body of the essay will then elaborate on these points. In essence, your opening paragraph/introduction ought to be an ultra-succint answer to the essay ‘question’. In my opinion, this is why you are better writing your introduction last, or at least when you are absolutely clear as to your main argument and the key points (paragraphs) that you will use to support that argument. How else can you provide an answer/summary for something you haven’t yet written?!
Some people like to start their essays with a quote. This can be a very effective opening to an essay if, and only if, the entire quote embodies your key argument. In other words, never use a quote as an excuse for not knowing what to write! It must be appropriate and relevant to your essay ‘answer’. A better alternative can be to incorporate a word or short phrase from the text into your opening sentence (instead of giving a long single quote). This suggests a deep knowledge of the text itself, creating an authoritative tone and a confident approach. Here is an example: “Blanche Dubois might claim she wants ‘magic’ rather than ‘realism’ but in his play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ Williams provides his audience with an extra large helping of reality”. This embedded quotation demonstrates a good understanding of the text as well as offering your opinion, both of which will be rewarded.
However you begin your essay, avoid the dreadfully boring openingof “In my essay I am going to be looking at the...”. Your head is likely to be on your desk at this point before you’ve even started and so the chances of inspiring your examiner are slim. Don’t be afraid to be fairly bold in your opening sentence (although if essay writing is not your forte, I would recommend keeping it relatively straight-forward and non-controversial). It is your chance to make a favourable first impression and entice the reader to read on and listen to your point of view so make sure you are hooking them in and giving them reason to continue.
The MAIN BODY of the essay is your chance to demonstrate why your stated ‘answer’ in the introduction, is a justified one! Each paragraph is used to explain and explore a new persuasive point that supports your interpretation of the title. A good trick if you are prone to waffle is to make it a habit never to open a paragraph with any sentence that does not clearly develop your overall argument and so help ‘answer’ the essay question or title. Equally, never close a paragraph with any sentence that does not explain why the point you just made is relevant to the essay title and your point of view!
Another technique to help you with the structure of the main body is the ‘Point, Evidence, Explanation’ model. This encourages you to make a point, support it with evidence from the text such as using a quote and then explaining why this helps to answer the essay question. If you have a tendency to waffle, then using PEE to structure your sentences/paragraphs is likely to help you. When deciding whether to add in a new point, ask yourself whether it relates strongly enough to your initial point of view which you stated in your introduction. If it doesn’t, leave it out. So... your essay becomes nothing more than a series of paragraphs in which you try to persuade your examiner why your interpretation is a valid one.
NB The word ‘interpretation’ is key here. Remember, you are getting marked on your interpretation and analysis of the text, not for repeating what happened. The examiner has read the text (you would hope!) so they don’t need to hear it again. Don’t waste precious time re-telling the story unless it is swiftly leading to making a clear point; not only will you not gain marks but you might even lose some!
As well as making valid and well supported points, your goal should be to try to make each sentence flow into the next sentence and each paragraph flow into the next paragraph. Such cohesive writing is achieved through good structure and a pre-organised essay outline as I touched on earlier. Deciding on the order of your points and how they will relate to one another will make your argument flow logically from one to the next. Using connectives or discourse markers can help you inter-link sentences such as ‘therefore, ‘consequently’, ‘in contrast’ etc. Ultimately, each paragraph should be leading towards the conclusion in some way.
Observing and critiquing other people’s essays swiftly demonstrates how to make an essay flow coherently and how to structure clear, concise points. This is a good way of learning about paragraph construction and how one idea should smoothly lead on to the next. Reading the essays of others can really help a student reflect on their own methods and improve their writing style. Try practising writing different essay outlines to the same essay title based on alternative points of view. This will truly help with your understanding of essay planning and structure.
Self assessment can be equally productive by marking essays alongside a tutee whilst referring to the relevant marking criteria. Similarly, noting the key point you think is made in each paragraph is a good way of learning about essay construction. It can be good practice for students to give each paragraph a sub-heading of what they believe to be the key point; in effect, breaking an essay down into its essay outline. Having done this exercise a few times with a range of essays, the student will swiftly be able to distinguish a good essay from a bad one in terms of structure. They will soon appreciate that ideas should be linked via sentences and paragraphs, developing the main argument in a manner that naturally leads towards the essay’s conclusion.
Speaking of CONCLUSIONS, many students make the mistake of not planning their ending when it is the last thing the examiner reads before giving you a mark. In other words, don’t leave it as an afterthought! The best conclusions draw on the key points made in the main body of the essay and link them all up by stating how they ‘answer’ your essay. It is absolutely fine if your conclusion looks similar to the introduction; in fact, it probably will. It should not look like it is tagged on but rather be intrinsically linked to the introduction and main body. A weak ending and no clear point/points made can really pull down an essay by several grades. The good news for English students, is that there is rarely one right answer so as long as you state your view clearly at the beginning and support what you say convincingly in the essay itself, you can’t go too far wrong.
It’s always a fantastic moment when you have completed your essay and are pleased with its structure and content. Don’t forget the finishing touches which might just get you the extra marks you need to bump up a grade – ensure you smooth out the language and sentence structure for clarity and flow, along with proof-reading for spelling and grammatical errors. Asking others to read the final draft can also help to reveal errors you might have overlooked and iron out any creases.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer as to how you should approach an essay... aside from leaving yourself sufficient time! Constructing an essay the night before a deadline is possible but unlikely to result in a well structured and refined piece. Give yourself plenty of days ahead of the deadline to revise your essay and make any necessary amendments. I would always suggest that you take a break after writing the first draft and return to it the following day with fresh eyes and a clear head. You will be better equipped at this point to revise and edit. I find printing off a draft helps me to see the essay as a whole and review which parts require further work. Whilst I emphasise that there are no strict rules in essay writing, simply knowing having a model in your head of how you could approach it is likely to take all the stress out of approaching an essay. In short, discussing essay flow and strategy with a tutor as well as playing around with alternative methods of planning can really help a student to discover their own style of essay writing which they are comfortable and confident with.
In summary, a strategic approach is needed to ensure exam success and effective essay writing. Whilst there is no right or wrong way to approach an exam or an essay, it is important for each student to be aware of their options and in turn develop their own independent style which works for them. Whatever your approach, I would emphasise organisation and forward planning when it comes to exam preparation. As for essay structure, my best advice would be to begin with a brainstorming exercise and go on to develop an essay outline from which you can build. Constructing a top grade essay means beginning with a strong foundation so learning to write well structured outlines can really improve your writing skills. Stay true to your central argument as a lawyer does to his court case, and treat the paragraphs as ‘evidence’ to support what you have said. All of the above may be achieved with the help of an experienced tutor and may just be the most valuable lesson a student has before those up and coming exams!