Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Say what you’ve said.
Three sentences. That was all the instruction I was given on essay technique back when I was sitting my GCSEs. These were three sentences that stood me in good stead throughout GCSE, A level, degree and postgraduate study. Nice and simple, I thought.
However, having marked my way through rounds and rounds of literature essays, I have since discovered that what I had thought was a straightforward method of writing an essay was just not working for my students. And the biggest problem was the introduction.
Despite all of the planning we did in class, the students were still incapable of saying what they were going to say, and I was inundated with a stream of snore-worthy introductions that were all just a waste of ink and paper.
"This essay will discuss the writer’s presentation of..." Blah, blah. Boring.
"In this essay, I will..." Zzzz.
Thinking beyond the text
While these introductions technically introduced the focus of the students' essays, they were frequently little more than a rephrasing of the essay question. And for my top set class, this was just not going to cut the band 6 mustard.
For high-ability students, the challenge of the new English literature GCSE is getting them to think beyond the confines of the text, while also developing conceptualised, coherent, critical responses. Not asking for much, then.
So, I set about finding a way to teach my students to write better introductions. Here’s what I did.
After teaching all the relevant contextual information (the traits of a tragic hero, the core principles of Marxism and so forth) that students would need to support their arguments when writing about An Inspector Calls, I started to encourage them to embed questions within their introductions, which they would then endeavour to answer throughout their essay.
I felt the benefits for doing this were two-fold. Firstly, if they knew the phrasing and structure of an introduction before entering the exam room, their cognitive load would be reduced during the exam itself.
Secondly, and most critically, it would allow them to prepare almost entire essays on key themes in advance, which they could then contextualise to the extract before them.
Brevity is key
To support this development, I taught the students that their introductions would consist of two sentences for the prose and drama texts. Concision and brevity were key in the teaching here.
Sentence 1: Define the key word in the question. Personalise it – what does it mean to you? Contextualise it based on the text you’re writing about.
Sentence 2: Identify a question based on what the author wants us to think of the key theme/character named in the exam question.
For example, take this exam question on An Inspector Calls: "How does Priestley present the theme of equality in the play?"
My model was as follows:
Sentence 1: An equal society is one in which there are no disparities between people due to gender, class, wealth or age – a Utopia that would signal the ultimate success of humanity’s super-ego over its id.
Sentence 2: In An Inspector Calls, Priestley's horrifying microcosm of a society ruled by its id, encourages us to question the lack of equality in an unjust Edwardian England.
By reducing the introduction to two critical sentences, my students were able to write a focused start to their essay, which also provided a shape and a direction that they could follow for the rest of their analysis, helping them to access the higher mark bands.
My class’s introductions improved and so did their essays, as they were finally able to say what they’re going to say and then to say it.
Now we just need to work on saying what they said. Next time, conclusions.
Sana Master is an English teacher at a school in Yorkshire. She tweets @MsMaster13