For many years I was the Head of the English Department in a small independent school in Sussex. I’ve also tutored private students of many different backgrounds, ages and capabilities in both England and Australia.
In doing a subject like English, or in History, or in Art, or occasionally in other subjects, students are required to write essays. There are many text books about how to do this, and even a cursory search of the internet will show thousands of pieces of advice on how best to go about it. Teachers themselves usually fall back on the conventional way of explaining an essay structure - Introduction, Body, Conclusion- and before you know it, students are being taught about essays in the same way all over the world because it’s supposedly easy to teach and accepted.
But from the way in which students respond, and from years of experience in listening to students and trying to get better essays out of them, I have found that the conventional way is not only considered boring by them, it is also ineffective. It doesn’t really teach them much about what an essay is or what it is supposed to do, nor does it it actually help a student to get started and overcome his or her fear of writing or at least reluctance to write them.
So I came up with a five step plan which not only helps students to write an essay on any subject from scratch, it boosts their grades and raises their confidence and morale while saving them precious time in examinations.
What is the single biggest problem faced by students when they come to write an essay?
Many teachers stress that an essay is supposed to be ‘logical’, to contain an ‘argument’, to lead the reader on from one point to the next. Most of the students I have spoken to about this find it all unutterably boring and decidedly unhelpful. What is meant by ‘logical’? How are ideas supposed to be linked together in an ‘argument’? What’s the difference between the introduction and the conclusion?
But these concerns are not even the worst issue.
The most difficult thing faced by students when it comes to writing an essay, given that they have sat through all of the above lessons on how to do it, is how to actually start.
Confronted by a blank piece of paper in an exam, or a blank computer screen at school or at home, it is so easy, students tell me, to drift off and find something else to do.
They are simply not sure of how to begin.
Take for example an essay on romantic poetry. Students have studied the poems in depth and detail, learned all about the poets’ backgrounds, covered what romanticism is as a historical movement, made lots of notes, listened to lots of ideas.
Now they are sat in front of a blank screen with a keyboard in front of them. What should they do first?
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