I have blogged many times about essay writing before, I glowed with righteous indignation about the writing I saw being taught over and over by colleagues (and myself). I decided that essay writing in English needed a reboot and I wanted to get it done.
It’s funny how time, and thought, and reading, and talking to experts can bring sense and maturity. Here’s a little bit of my journey (also known as “the bleeping research project”).
I have split my summary into 4 parts:
Part 1 – the research project
Part 2 – what I actually taught the control group and the test group
Part 3 – the findings
Part 4 – what I “think” this means.
Here is part 1.
The bleeping research project
Every research project needs a hypothesis. Here’s mine. You can see already how lopsided I am. I wouldn’t cut in the ivory corridors of edu-research.
The plan was to compare the written outcomes of two Year 7 classes, who were learning essay writing for the very first time. My school were generous enough to let me go for it.
At first I was sure what the relevance of this context would be, but it did ‘feel’ significance at the time. To focus you then, each of the 64 students in the two classes had secured L5 for Reading and Writing in Year 6 and most had achieved a verbal/non-verbal reasoning top band score. This became relevant later on when I needed to tackle the “how do we write our ideas down” issue. It also then questions the relevance of anything I have to say about essay writing for mid or lower ability students (forgive the “ability” word). More on this in part 3 and 4.
Class 1: PEE/PQE – the control group.
- Participant students studied a literary text through a series of structured exposition lessons (the same introductory lessons for both classes).
- Students then used our in-house PEE essay structure and sentence starters to write an analytical response. These responses were 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.
- Participant students studied the same literary text and participated in the same exposition lessons.
- Students were then exposed to the essay question and allowed to explore this freely.
- Students then worked together to discuss how a written response should be organised and written up.
With just one lesson a week I was limited with what could be done, so we worked out that this was possible:
- Over 3 terms teach 3 bespoke literature units, pupils write 3 separate essays – one per unit.*
- A short story, a collection of poetry and a play.
- End of year 7 exam – an unseen poem.
- Surveys of student experience
These essays were then to analysed and given numeric scores:
- Length of response
- Number of analytical words used (pre-defined set)
- Score out of 20 quality of analysis (pre-defined set – subjective)
We (colleagues, tutors from my MA, various English-types who offered advice) oscillated numerous times on the best way to collect data from these essays.
The length of each response was decided upon because it is a ‘truism’ that pupils who use PQE structures or sentence openers only ever write short analytical paragraphs. It was also then an expectation that not using a PQE structure should result in a longer response. Were longer responses better – in that you have more opportunity for the quality of analysis.
The number of analytical words used became significant because having discussed “what an essay is” both classes also had to tackle “what analysis is” and this was and could be done without any reference to essay writing, essay structure or essay sentence openers.
The pre-defined set of analytical words had also been part of the very early teaching of all Year 7 students in the very first week of the year before they were placed in sets. They had tackled all of them and practiced using them. For interest – here’s the list:
The quality of analysis would have perhaps been the most difficult one to tackle if I had been doing all this alone. But my department had last year decided to take on the new Edexcel Language and Literature GCSE and with it came some comprehensive KS3 assessment criteria. We therefore have our own in-house assessment system for essay writing in English which is detailed in minutiae. A pain as a classroom teacher. Great for my bleeping project.
Before I go any further, I probably also need to be upfront about some of the mitigating factors.
- Both classes had 2 hours of English a week with another teacher. Although neither classes were ‘taught’ essay writing by their other teacher, they were expected to create analytical writing following which method I had covered with them.
- Both classes participated in the usual assessed essay responses in line with internal assessment and data collection.
- The school planners have a PEE frame in them.
- Some students have parents who are English teachers (well, it could totally be a thing, couldn’t it!).
- Some students were aware of PEE from primary school.
- Marking and feedback was given on each essay (more on this later).
I am trying to keep these blog posts as short as possible, so that’s it for now, the next part will be: What I actually taught the control group and the test group.
*At the end of the academic year 14/15 it was agreed to continue the research project into year 8 which the same group of students.
Thanks for reading,