It is possible to make a weighty classic novel exciting and accessible, but I've often found the GCSE coursework essay a painful process. Many students find it hard to revisit the text on their own and to draw on the notes they made weeks before. But I was reluctant to resort to the "let's just concentrate on one chapter" approach when studying Jane Eyre with my mixed-ability Year 11 class, so I opted to let them write the essay in instalments.
We chose "Mr Rochester as romantic hero" as our focus. At convenient breaks in the narrative we discussed relevant points and then students went off to write a short section of their essay for homework while the ideas were fresh in their minds.
We also focused on structure by talking about appropriate introductory sentences and how they could link sections of the essay. The fact that most students were still in suspense about how the story would turn out seemed to generate enthusiasm and they approached these bite-size extracts with relish, producing work that showed real engagement. I marked their sections each week and they used my comments to hone their style.
Far from producing identical essays, the more able students manipulated the title so that they could explore avenues that interested them. Weaker students, who often found essays difficult, ended up with much more detailed and sustained pieces of writing of which they were justifiably proud. In the latter stages of the work, all that was needed was some fine-tuning and the production of a neat copy for the students' folders.
I am sure that this approach could be used in other subjects in which extended writing is required. Certainly, it is a useful stepping-stone to help students to construct essays independently.
Caroline Roberts, KS4 English co-ordinator, The Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls, Ealing, London