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?


9 thoughts on “Crowdsourced research – are you game?

  1. Fairly large literature on this in history education – bundles written on the limitations of writing frames, too much structure and insufficient agency etc. Email me (maf44 at cam dot ac dot uk) if you want to discuss further.


  2. I would be interested in working with you on this. Like you I find that students can complete the PEE etc essays but are less successful at structuring their ideas and understanding how to develop an argument.



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