Crowdsourced research – the proposal

An update post on the current status of our “Team English Crowdsourced Research” project, here is the outline proposal that I am working with so far.  I am delighted to be meeting with the English and Media Centre this week to discuss further.  So watch this space…

Research project proposal – How can we best teach essay writing (in KS3)?


Teaching oversimplified essay writing structures (such as PQE, PEA, PEEL) at KS3 inhibits cogent and sophisticated written expression and limits opportunities for the creation of individual, detailed and powerful arguments in KS4 and KS5.


The acquisition of academic written language is now increasingly a focus of the English classroom.  Students’ ability to express, in a cogent manner, their analysis and interpretation of literary texts remains the primary mode of assessment, both internally within school and through public examination.Yet, essay writing remains an area of low confidence for students right the way through to A Level.  Additionally, with a time-pressured curriculum, teachers often rely on essay writing as taught at KS3, to underpin analytical writing at KS4.  Students arriving into Year 7 have little experience of essay writing, having only been exposed to the formulaic devices of genre, audience and purpose within the remit of original writing.  This habitual approach to tick-box writing is carried onto KS3 analytical writing, as teachers strive for the easiest possible approach to essay writing, in addition to mastering the new skills of close analysis, contextual links and understanding the writer’s intention.

It is no surprise then that in order to provide students with the greatest opportunity for success, within what is often perceived to be a flawed assessment system, teachers have devised numerous strategies for scaffolding analytical writing.  The true purpose of ‘scaffolding’ is to provide support and structure for initial learning and demonstration of understanding, yet there comes a time, when metaphorically the scaffolding needs to be removed.  In practice it seems, however, that an over-reliance by teachers on these structures has resulted in analytical writing becoming a gap-fill exercise, rather than a well argued discussion of a literary text.

The proliferation of essay writing structures (such as PEE, PQE, PEAL), particularly as used by students sitting public examinations, has resulted in criticism by examination boards.

There are two main issues at stake:

  1. The structure of analytical writing itself, and then
  2. The skill of expressing in writing analytical thought and discussion.

It is the purpose, of this present study,to explore both of these issues.  To challenge the use of overly simplified essay structures as “a way in” to analytical writing, to explore how analytical writing should be structured and to explore approaches to written expression itself.


In order to investigate fully the implications of teaching essay writing and its impact across students’ progression through school, it would be necessary to undertake a specific large scale case study of pupils, together with extensive field research.

Although empirical data collection maybe possible with the results of participation such data is not the purpose of this study.

The aim of this study is to be wide-ranging including participants from a number of UK secondary schools.  Currently, the expectation of participants is:

  • They teach English in UK secondary school
  • They will have two KS3 classes available from September 2014
  • They will be prepared to provide data, evidence and analysis at some point before January 2015.
  • They have been granted permission to collect data by their schools.
  • They will be prepared to use at least eight lessons with each class to participate in this research.

Participants will gather evidence and data through observation and assessment using the following methods:

Class 1: PEE/PQE – the control group

Participants will deliver a series of structured lessons based on a named literary text, students will use their own in-house essay structure to write an analytical response.  These responses will then be gathered and compared against responses gathered from the test group.

The rationale of the control group is to allow validation of the success and usefulness of simplified essay structures.

Class 2: the test group

Participants will deliver a series of structured lessons based on a named literary text, as part of these lessons students will be untaught their own in-house essay structure and will explore approaches to writing sophisticating and cogent analysis.

These responses will then be gathered and compared against responses gathered from the control group.

Interested in joining in?

Please add your details here.

Previous posts:

Crowdsourced research are you game?



Crowdsourced research – next steps

My recent post on the possibility of taking part in some crowdsourced research on essay writing garnered more interest than I was prepared for.  Here is a first stab at next steps. Thank goodness it’s the holidays.

Here is where we are:

  • The proposal still stands.
  • The English and Media Centre (@EngMediaCentre) have offered to discuss.  I would like to explore their participation further, as EMC always seem ahead of the game nationally and have a wealth of resources and knowledge that it would be foolish to ignore.
  • Over 20 teachers / schools have already expressed an interest in participating.  Thank you! That’s over 1000 students, who may possibly be part of this study, which would be absolutely amazing.
    Interested teachers are listed here – please add yourself if you aren’t there or fill in the details if I have already added you.  I am very happy for participants to stay anonymous.
  • A number of others have offered support in terms of sourcing literature, providing insight and thought, which I am very grateful for.



Where now:

  • I am in the midst of writing a project proposal which I will share with EMC and here over the next few days.  Any volunteers, who would like to sense check and proofread, would be gratefully appreciated.
  • In order for this study to be rigorous, we will need to agree a quite structured approach to how we deliver the classroom elements of the research.  If anyone (whether able to participate or not) feels like getting involved in helping to plan this bit, then let me know.
  • Part of this will be the content of the lessons themselves.  I am thinking of a poem – that we would all teach.  Anyone want to nominate something?  It would need to be a typically unpopular choice for KS3. Keats maybe?
  • Initial thoughts on timings are looking like gathering all the evidence in September or October 14, so we can analyse shortly after.  However we may be able to move more quickly depending on the scale we attempt to tackle.
  • If anyone would like to offer to be a hub coordinator for schools in their area, that would be amazing.
  • TeachMeet Essay Writing for the summer anyone? (she half jokes)

Here are where all the relevant documents can be found for now:

Original post

Interested participants – – googledoc (thanks to @Joe__Kirby for being a tireless champion of crowdsourcing and shared docs).

Thank you to everyone for their support and interest in this.

you rock


Crowdsourced research – are you game?

Team English – are you interested in how to teach essay writing? Yes? This idea might just be up your street then.

I am taking a bold step in sharing publicly something that I am not yet 100% clear on or certain of.  This is because I am looking for help, volunteers and criticism, when I say criticism, I don’t mean mauling.

The Project: How can we best teach essay writing (in KS3)?

The thesis (as it stands): Teaching oversimplified essay writing structures (such as PQE, PEA) at KS3 inhibits cogent and sophisticated written expression and limits opportunities for the creation of individual, detailed and powerful arguments in KS4 and KS5.

The background: Essay writing comes easily to me, more so than creative writing or even close analysis.  Yet the vast majority of students I teach have the opposite experience. They are brilliant at sharing different ideas and interpretations during class discussion but when I ask them to write it down, they freeze.  It used to be the classic teenage boy problem “It sounds stupid when I write it down, Miss!”.  Now everyone seems to suffer from this malady.  So to help students, we created essay structures like PQE, PEE, PEA, PEAL etc – I could go on.  Below is a bog standard example of the essay sentence stems taught to year 10s and 11s across the country when preparing for the language questions on Of Mice and Men.

In Section 1, the character of Lennie is presented as…
This is shown in “…”
The adjective “…” suggests
This is important because..
Steinbeck here is highlighting…
The reader understands that…

Animal farm

I am not criticising sentence stems, in fact, I have and am still using them.  But I am beginning to wonder if I am shooting myself in the foot.  Firstly, exam boards are now becoming very wary of overly structured answers (both in coursework and exam responses) – citing that essay writing has become a glorified gap-fill exercise.  Secondly, as I spend more and more time teaching sixth form students, I find I am unteaching everything students have learnt about essays in KS3 and KS4.  So this year, for the first time, I have started teaching my year 10s essay writing as I would in year 12, the creation of a detailed and sophisticated argument, rather than prodding predictably through the assessment criteria set by the exam board.  My next post will be a detailed look at how I did this.  The results were positive in my opinion.  But I don’t want to be one of these people that says, this works for me, you should try it.

Given the changes the English curriculum is about to undergo, perhaps now is the time for us to look again at how can we best teach essay writing?

The Time frame: Hopefully we will sort all the unanswered questions this summer and be ready to kick off with our new classes in September.  Again this will be dependent on participants and their timetables.  This may turn into a long term project for me, tracking students through KS3 and KS4, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone.  I think a commitment for the Autumn term is as much as I can ask for at the moment.

The Literature: Currently a gaping black hole – I am working on it.  All suggestions welcome.

The Methodology: Well, this is up for debate as too, depending on how many of us are prepared to take part and how many classes we can viably include.  We will need to discuss and agree our methods so that we can ensure our results are valid and rigorous.   Otherwise this entire research project would be pointless. Just to give you an idea, here is what I have been considering initially:  I currently have two year 7 classes, they are broadly the same ability and broadly similar in terms of cultural and social makeup, as well as SEN, FSM etc.  Both classes are due to study some Literary Heritage texts during the summer term.  With one class, I will teach the structured PEE approach to essay writing as used as standard by my colleagues.  With the second class, I will teach essay writing as I teach my year 12s, introducing argument creation rather than standard sentence stems.  At the end of term, I will anonymous the assessment task and ask another teacher to judge the quality of essay writing.

Here is the rub, I mean the presence of an argument (that Lennie is child-like is not, in my opinion, an argument, it is an observation and something almost anyone who reads Of Mice and Men can glean), the sophistication of written expression, the understanding of the writer’s intention and connection of the historical or social context (and here I am meaning this into the argument, not just paying lip-service to it).

As I said, until we (I genuinely hope there is a ‘we’) will need to get into this in more detail, the outcomes / methods / approaches lack clarity.

The requirements: You will need 2 KS3 classes you can test this on, I don’t think they have to be year 7 – although I can see why this might be preferable.  You would need to be prepared to agree a set criteria for teaching each style of essay writing and assessing not only students demonstration, but also your own delivery.

I am asking a question – how can we best teach essay writing?

I am hoping together we can find the answer.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thoughts?