Shall I compel thee to a great essay?

22nd January 2016 at 00:00
With so much emphasis placed on essays in exams, children should learn the art from a young age

English coursework. Controlled assessments. Speaking and listening assessments that counted. All too soon, we’ll class these with other ancient crafts like shoeing shire horses and basket-weaving.

This is because the focus, in terms of assessment, has shifted on to exam performance. So now, those think-on-your-feet exam essays carry weight. Our students, like the Scouts, need to “Be Prepared”. Here’s how to prep students for writing essays in exams:

Start them young

It’s a tad excessive to present newborns with advice on essay structures as they emerge from the womb, but only just. In Year 7, I get students working on mini-essays, writing the point, evidence and elaboration (PEE) in each analytical paragraph in different colours.

I also split the class into groups of three and task them with producing paragraphs where each is responsible for one aspect of PEE. Finally, we use Post-it notes to collaboratively build PEE points around the classroom.

Rapid planning

As an examiner, I’ve seen the tenuous grasp that teenagers have on essay planning. They copy long quotations, jot down disconnected ideas, irrelevant terminology and frankly bizarre acronyms. In lessons, use an online timer to speed the students up. Rapid-plan in groups, then pairs, then individually. Use fun texts for essay plans, such as a fast-food restaurant menu, asking, “To what extent is this menu a death wish?” Set rapid plans for homework. It’s the quickest marking you’ll do all week.

Waffle-free introductions

and conclusions

English exam answers need brief, focused introductions and conclusions, but substance is the key. Give the students long, rambling introductions and conclusions to cut down and 2-3 word ones to expand. Make them top and tail the body of an essay. Train them to say something in introductions that already begins to answer the question.

Plan for an ‘Err...’ moment

Teach this list of options to students for when they have a great point, relevant evidence but then suffer a crisis of confidence about how to discuss effects:

Find the most powerful word in the quote, and discuss.

Identify key methods.

Compare/contrast backwards in the text.

Compare/contrast forwards in the text.

Refer to contexts.

Comment on structure.

Add another quotation and compare.

Link quotation to genre, character, setting or theme.

Explore authorial intention.

Consider different interpretations.

Check, check, check

Don’t take in practice essays until students have checked them – and perhaps each other’s – using a different colour for amendments. Give direct instructions such as, “Replace three verbs with better alternatives”, “Insert a new paragraph for dramatic effect” or “Add two connectives for better fluency”. This will demonstrate that improving essays means more than just correcting 14 instances of “would of”, although this, too, should be instilled from birth.

Fran Hill is a writer and part-time English teacher at a girls’ independent school @beingFran

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