I often found that getting key stage 3 and 4 students to write coherent essays was difficult, so I would begin by getting them to break down the causes of events into economic, social, religious and political factors.
For example, "Why did Hitler rise to power?" Groups of three to five students write the question on the board and answer it by using short statements given to them on a set of about 10 cards, which they organise into piles.
Examples of statements are: (1) The Great Depression ruined the German economy; (2) Hitler was a good orator; (3) There was high unemployment in Germany; (4) The Weimar Republic had done little to solve the problem of hyperinflation; (5) The Weimar Republic was weak; (6) Hitler used propaganda effectively.
The most successful groups formed three piles: cards (1) and (3) connected because they were about the economy; cards (2) and (6) were to do with Hitler's talents; cards (4) and (5) were about the Weimar Republic's weaknesses.
Students then labelled their piles with four or five word-headings on Post-it Notes, which made them think concisely. They could reconsider their piles and labels and change them.
There was a class discussion about which headings best summarised the information on the cards. Each group wrote its favourite heading on the board. Groups also guessed which cards another group had placed under a certain heading. If the groups' opinions differed, I got them to think about why. The class selected three or four of the best headings to be the paragraphs or the writing frame of the essay, giving it structure. Headings could be incorporated into the first sentence of a paragraph and the paragraph "fillers" are the statements written on the cards.
With less able or attentive pupils it helped to start by writing my own headings on the board and then asking them to arrange the cards.
This activity only works where students have already been studying a topic, and they must be reminded to keep referring to the historical categories.
Former teacher currently living in Bogota, Colombia