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.
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.