Not another PEE

A couple of months ago, I met with Barbara Bleheim and Andrew MacCullum of the English & Media Centre to discuss essay writing.  As with many such meetings, I left with more questions than answers.

The key one, for me, being “what is the purpose of essay writing in school?” followed closely by “what is an essay?”

I think if we are going to be at all successful in teaching students to write good essays, then we need to answer these questions.  It is no longer good enough in my mind, to answer with “to pass their GCSEs” as there is no balance between the quality of writing and the content of the writing.

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My meeting at the English & Media Centre rightly challenged my use of confused language.  I have used “argument” writing alongside “critical” and “analytical” writing.  Each has its own meaning and in many ways different criteria, structure and thought process. This is something I have had to force myself to tackle, in my thinking, in my talk and in my classroom.

Andrew MacCullum reminded me of something that English teachers are intuitively aware of, yet don’t always act on – that essay writing is the form of writing that students are least confident in.  It is an expert form, requiring expert thought, understanding, processing and then expert articulation in order to succeed (and I caveat here – stating that I am reading literature that explores why students are bad at essay writing, not literature that studies whether students believe they are bad at essay writing).

Essentially students take a text that they don’t know too much about, listen carefully for what the teacher says about the text add in some thoughts from fellow students, then regurgitate this into a written form that doesn’t always marry itself to the thoughts produced. And all this, for an audience who helped them work out what to write in the first place.


Have you ever moderated coursework and come across exactly the same phrase in every essay?  Mine was “poverty led to feelings of powerlessness” about Of Mice and Men. Almost every student included it; I don’t particularly remember saying it, what knowledge or understanding have my students demonstrated in this process?

Another problem is that essays are the remit of dry academic halls.  No one reads essays for pleasure, or least, not at the age of 12 or 14.  Academic prose is obscure and unknown to students, yet we expect them to be able to write it well without much thought to the process of writing.  The dreaded PEE and even the most generic sentence stems are the only aids provided for the thought-to-paper process.   We dedicate entire schemes of work to creative writing, yet academic writing is by-product of other often content heavy schemes.  We would never dream of studying just one poem for a month in order to use it to improve essay writing.  It is unheard of.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be.

When we ask students to write persuasive or informative or descriptive texts we give them exemplars, at particular times of the year my classroom is awash with Obama’s speeches or that one Elizabeth I gave, or indeed the fabulous Kenneth Brannagh as he is about to invade Iraq.

Do we use exemplar essays? No.

We use model essays.  Either ones provided by the exam board, one written by ourselves (perhaps during lesson time) or ones written by other students.  By in large, none of these will show good academic writing.   Those of us that teach A Level are surprised when students struggle to navigate their way through a critical essay, we after all are saturated by them day in and day out.

With this in mind, I asked the question – what is the purpose of essay writing? Here are some of the responses:

  • To show understanding of the text, character, idea
  • To answer an exam question
  • To demonstrate an ability to think in depth
  • To offer different interpretations of a text
  • To discuss
  • To analyse
  • To write analysis in a logical, coherent and cohesive manner
  • To explore language, form and structure
  • To evaluate
  • To discuss how writer impact their readers
  • To explore how literature reflects society or history
  • To compare and contrast

It’s a pretty big ask.  You can see why when our students walk into the exam room and are faced with 8 mark, 10 mark, 25 mark questions we, the teachers, have felt the need to reduce this to the easiest possible strategy.

Over my next few blog posts I will be exploring essay writing and how we can do it better.  Next up: What is an essay?

Thanks for reading.

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Because the sun is at the beginning of the world…

Earlier this week I was marking a piece of imaginative writing by a year 7 student.  The sentence that sparked my thinking was “…and that was when Chris started to rob”.   As a class we had a long conversation about the words “rob” and “steal” the nuances of word use and why perhaps “…and that was when Chris started to steal” might be a better word choice for that sentence.

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This reminded me of some conversations I had with students about words and word use.  It was during one of my PGCE placements and I was looking at teaching idioms and figurative language to EAL students, within the auspices of War Poetry and Romeo and Juliet.  I wrote up the conversations in great detail at the time because I loved them so much.  Below are some of my favourites:

Asking questions about words:

The extract below  shows a typical example of a classroom exchange on how definition and meaning creation are often implicitly linked and need to be made explicit (it also shows some of my very early mistakes in questioning as a beginner teacher!):

Teacher LE:    Queen Mab is described as no bigger than a stone of someone’s finger (.) What do you think that means?//

Pupil J:                                                            //What is (.) agate (.) stone?//

Pupil ZS:                                                                                             //The stone is (.) big (.) on the finger.//

Teacher LE:    If a stone is (.) sitting on the end of my finger (.) do you think it is big (.) or  small?

Pupil MI:          [Small]

Pupil J:            [Big]

Pupil N:           [Small]

Teacher LE:    //So Queen Mab is described as small enough to sit (.) on the end of a finger  (.) what sort of creation is she?//

Pupil J:                        // Small//

Pupil MH:        //Is she an (.) insect?//

Pupil N:                       //A germ.//

Teacher LE:    So you’re not far off (.) If she is that (.) small (.) where  can she go?

Pupil MH:        //Everywhere//

Playing with words:

In her discussion of the benefits of multilingualism, Ophelia Garcia states “It is as if bilingualism provides x-ray vision, allowing the children to conceptualise underlying structures and to incorporate them into one functioning communicative system.” (Garcia, 2009, p95)

This examples below are taken from a lesson where pupils used language from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ to create their own poetry.  Pupils had at this point not read the poem and were free to create interesting word combinations using a list of words taken from the poem.

Pupil MI:          Anger stuttering in my brain

Pupil MS:        My (.) brain (.) mind full (.) of stuttering anger

Pupil J:            Innocent (.) candles (.) shine (.) wailing goodbyes.

Pupil N:           Rapid hands draw silent stuttering (.) prayers

Pupil F:            Monstrous (.) eyes (.) glimmer from (.) demented minds

Pupil ZS:         Silent (.) tenderness (.) who call (.) now (.) for death.

Pupil N representing contribution made by non-participant pupils, reveals a relatively standard (although very poetic) response to the task.  The combination of rapid with hands and silent with stuttering and prayers do not create for the reader atypical images.  By comparison, although the combination of innocent with candles and wailing with goodbyes are again relatively standard, the overall image created by Pupil J (“innocent candles shine wailing goodbyes”) is much more vivid.  Pupil ZS’s contribution of “silent tenderness who call now for death” again produces a much deeper response from the reader; there are several possible inferences and interpretations.  The idea is more playful, although the image itself is anything but.

Written homework by Pupil MI revealed a continuation of this idea:

These guns shout sad words

Shells likes voices of hopeless.

Language is not fixed, it is fluid; additions and subtractions, manipulations and inventions are commonplace.  The contributions made by multilingual pupils in the above lesson enhanced and increased the learning of all in the classroom.  Their ability to play with words, to not see meaning as entirely fixed, allowed monolingual pupils the opportunity see the process by which deeper layers of meaning are created.

Finding your own interpretation:

Pupils discussing metaphors in two different texts were markedly more confident and creative at suggesting meanings after they had themselves written metaphors using the text.  The below is inspired by Romeo’s metaphor ‘Juliet is the sun’.

Teacher LE:        Lets (.) lets hear (.) some of your metaphors

Pupil N:                Juliet (.) is a (.) rose//

Pupil MI:                                          // Juliet is a (.) riped (.) ripe (.) apple tree

…returning to the text:

Teacher LE:        So (.) that means Juliet is?//

Pupil MI:                                              //That (.) Juliet is (.) like the sun for him (.) Romeo (.) because the sun is (.) at the (.) beginning of the world//

Teacher LE:        //at the beginning?//

Pupil MI:                                             //I mean (.) in the middle of the (.) the earth goes around it (.) it is important (.) we cannot live without it//

The above exchange shows, participant pupils writing metaphors based on “Juliet is the sun”.  Following this task, pupils then move on to discuss possible meanings for Romeo’s metaphor.  After some thought, Pupil MI explains that Juliet is the centre of Romeo’s world and he cannot live without her.  As a result of this comment, pupils then continued to suggest a wide variety of other meanings for the metaphor, thus exploring deeper layers of meaning.

In comparison, the exchange below shows pupils’ discussion of metaphorical language in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Appendix Five).  At this stage, pupils had not explored the text beyond standard comprehension tasks.

Pupil MS:        What is froth (.)

Teacher LE:    It’s like foam (.) when a dog has rabies it’s mouth (.)

Pupil ZS:         The lungs have foam? [Like] poison?

Teacher LE:                                       [Yes] (.) Could it suggest (.) anything (.) else

Pupil MI:          They have (.) disease//

Pupil F:                                            //Like (.) rabies

Pupil MI:          He (.) isn’t (.) Wilfred Owen (.) means only (.) that

The above exchange reveals pupils struggling to find meaning beyond that which is provided by the teacher.   Pupil MI eventually concluding that “Wilfred Owen means only that”, this pupil is unable to conceive of any meaning beyond that which has been provided.  The approach which invites pupils to clarify meaning and yet not explore it or use language creatively resulted in the pupils stagnating in their ability to find deeper layers of meaning from the text.  Unlike the prior occasion, pupils here were not given the opportunity to use the language of text creatively and as a result, were limited in their ability to create meaning from the text.


4 week project – Opening the window

Saki’s The Open Window is a wonderful short story.  It is so different from many of the texts we read in English as it is so very short, yet within this shortest of shorts is a humorous, perverse and delightfully cruel tale.

You can read it online here.

french window

 Lesson 1:

Before reading the story, students gathered a bunch of factual knowledge on social and gender norms in Victorian England.  We discussed Victorian masculinity, the ideal woman, social etiquette and ‘introductions’ and ideas of children as innocent and children as evil.

We used inspiration stations to gather and process this information – a fabulous idea from @tiptopteach from #TMEng hosted by @Xris32.   Key information is pinned up around the room, set out in a way that is far too detailed to copy down.  Students go to an inspiration station, read the information and when they return to their desk, summarise it in writing and share with their team mates.


Next we read the story and answered a series of comprehension questions.

Students loved the narrative, particularly Vera and her manipulative ways.  I posed the question: How does Saki use the concept of first appearances to challenge traditional thinking?

We discussed:

– the use of weak male protagonist

– the use of young, female antagonist

– the way Victorian social norms contributed to the situation

– the irony at the end

– the characters of Mrs Sappleton and Framton Nuttel’s sister

– the men (and the dog) and the symbolism connected to Victorian masculinity.

Lesson 2: Subversion

Starter – “Gimmick Klaxon”: I don’t often use Wordles (or the thing below which has another name), they are gimmicks.  However, Ryan Phoenix made this for me and I can’t complain – well, except that his was an umbrella and I wanted a puppy.  Students choose 5 words from the text – which has been transformed by the magic of the internet into a puppy shape – and linked those words to the concepts and ideas discussed in the previous lesson.



Some of the links were lovely:

– voice – linked to the idea of children having no real voice in Victorian society and Vera taking the chance to grab power where she could;

– window – linked to the barrier between men and women, childhood and adulthood, truth and lies, fantasy and reality;

– Mrs – linked to the labelling of women, always referred to by the social status;

The list goes on.

Next we consolidated the discussion at the end of the previous lesson and explored not only how Saki’s subverts traditional thinking, but also how he upholds it.

ideas 2


Then – we looked a form and watched this neat and tidy summary of the Gothic:

We discussed:

– the setting: countryside but not remote or isolated, not gothic enough?

– the characters – a weak male and female villain – gothic?

– the plot?

– the supernatural – well, the ghosts aren’t real, but Framton doesn’t know that.

Now it was time for some analytical writing.

It just so happened that @atharby blogged some ideas for pushing students beyond PEE, which worked wonderfully.  Here is what I asked…


analytical sentences


And here is what they wrote:

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So 3 lessons in and what had we covered?



Next up, Shirley Jackson’s The Possibility of Evil.

Thanks for reading, if you would like any of these resources, get in contact via twitter.