Sunday, 12 October 2014

essay writing - structure


I'll come to the fish in a bit.  In the meantime, here are some thoughts on helping sixth-formers plan essays.

Building a cogent and coherent argument in essay form is an essential skill at AS for MFL, and it takes a lot of care to build up the skills.  For AQA, the essay has 20 out of the available 35 marks for content and structure.  How can we help our sixth-formers to write these essays?

Planning and preparation
Encouraging planning is essential.  In the early days, I used to insist on the sixth-formers handing in their planning as well as their essay before I realised that they often did their plan after they had written their essay.  Now, especially in the first few months when we are embedding good habits,  I get my sixth-formers to hand in a plan, a word-bank and their planned examples before I let them write the essay.  This can either focus minds or highlight any potential mistakes.

If they don't get into the habit of planning, they will forget to do it in the exam, and probably find themselves with a wobbly blancmange of an essay.  It is all the more important, as the AQA essays are often in 2 parts, and failure to answer one part of the question is penalised.

Why the fish?
Well, that is what the essay structure should look like.  I saw this demonstrated many moons ago when I was just starting out, and I've used it ever since - the image is clear and really gets the point across.

The head is the introduction, preferably with a hook to get the reader's attention.
The main body with the spine is the development - with a clear line of argument (the spine) running through
The conclusion is the tail.
The proportions also roughly correspond.

Paragraph structure
There are many acronyms for helping to structure a paragraph, and although sticking slavishly to them can limit students writing at this level, there are some elements of these acronyms that are helpful.  The most acronym for supporting students who struggle with structure is:
P -point
E- example
E- explain
L- link to the question, link to the next paragraph

An example of the usefulness of acronyms: a student, who had done a rather shabby essay was reviewing his work, and when I told him that he hadn't explored the implications of the essay said, "Oh -so I've done P.E. rather than P.E.E.L."

There are some key principles of a paragraph:
1. The first sentence should tell you the theme of the paragraph
2.  Once you have made a point, you need to explain and explore it, preferably using an example
3.  It should be clearly linked to the question
4.  If you give a statistic, you need to explore all the implications
5.  It is expected that you will analyse as you go, rather than waiting for the conclusion, as in other subjects,such as history.

A great little exercise for emphasising the importance of the first sentence is to present the pupils with several paragraphs with the first sentence removed, and a choice of possible replacements.  This focuses the pupils on the key elements very effectively. I'll post an example in the next post.

A few of my resources for essay-writing are on the TES here.  I'll be adding to them in the next few weeks. Here is the essay feedback sheet - designed for AQA.  Here is the essay plan template.

Essay writing in sixth form - Miss, what's an example?

This post is prompted by a question which stopped me in my tracks. When giving feedback on an essay, I told a student that he had to use more examples, to which he replied, "Miss- I don't know what you mean by an example."  This had me stumped - how can you not know what an example is? Although this may be a rather extreme case, I'm pretty sure that there are lots of students who could use some sharpening up in the area.  I get too many essays in at the start of the year where pupils make a point (usually a sweeping generalisation) and simply name their example with no further explanation as if to say, "BOOM!  Impressive, huh?" Um, no - not even close.
Finally, after recovering myself, I came up with this:
Why use examples?

  • They allow  you to demonstrate use of other tenses/voices e.g.  past
  • They back up your point by providing evidence


  • Use them to explore the full implications of the point you’re making – remember you are getting most of your points for the development of your ideas.

Types of examples

A fact or statistic : e.g. 1/3 of children have their own TV

A concrete example: e.g. Sesamstraße is able to help children to read and count whilst also having fun

A personal example: e.g. I used to watch Bob the Builder with my parents..

Although backing up your argument is, of course, essential, I think that leads many students down cul-de-sacs which they then can't get out of.  The key thing is whether it helps you to demonstrate depth of understanding, and whether it helps you to explore all of the implication of the point you're making. 

Getting students to understand examples

We have only just set our first proper AS- style essay.  So, what have we been doing in the meantime?

Using the examples in texts - and making the most of them
The first task is get students to recognise that each text is also presenting an argument, and a set of ideas.  Once we have battled through the comprehension, I get them to find the examples in a text.  I then ask them to summarise what these points can show. This is especially useful for statistics.  Take the example that 1/3 of German children have their own TV.  We came up with a long list of implications: parents can't supervise, parents don't have control, children can watch unsuitable programmes, children may watch TV too late and not get enough sleep.  This acts not only as a great way of re-using the language from the text, but really gets them thinking about the ideas, and gives them practice in thinking about how to use examples.  Asking students to summarise the key ideas in a text is also a great homework /starter for the next lesson.

Guided analysis of concrete examples
The TV topic is such a great one to start with.  The students were given links on Edmodo to lots of different German TV clips and asked to write about them using a series of prompts to help them think about how they may or may not benefit children. All students produced some great analysis of the pros and cons.  This will then help them with their essays.  Well, that's the hope, anyway.

In my next post, I'll look at structuring the essay

Welcome to sixth form! Bridging that gap

I started this post a few weeks ago, having met my new year 12 group for the first time.  I've taught these pupils since they were in year 9, and they have achieved great things at GCSE, yet this transition into sixth-form is potentially more difficult than the transition from primary to secondary or even from sixth-form to university, so it takes some longer to adjust than others. We need them to be independent learners, have the maturity to manage their own study time, and for A-level German, they need to discover a love of learning tables very quickly. That's before we even start on the more sophisticated thinking skills required for A-level. This has been in my thoughts a lot in the last few weeks, so it felt right that the first blog of the new academic year should be dedicated to them.

Vocabulary learning
When I first started teaching sixth-form, I was surprised at how many of these high-flier students admitted that they had spent very little time on learning the vocabulary for the weekly tests I gave during GCSE. The shock, then, of the volume of vocabulary learning was huge, and every year I have pupils who struggle to get to grips with this.

Of course, much comes down to the structure of the teaching and homework tasks set, so this is where the teacher planning comes in.  I try to diferentiate in my planning between "core" vocabulary and "nice-to-use" add-ons.  I still think the core vocabulary is worth teaching actively, and there are many ways to do it. Breaking words down (especially in German), matching the definitions, Call-my-bluff style guess the definition, looking at all the words associated with one verb (prefixes, suffixes, nouns, adjectives), using key words to describe a picture.  Once you have done a listening or a reading text, it is important that the pupils actively use the language from that text - cloze text, translation, match the 2 halves of the sentences, free-range speaking activities.  This will help to cement much of the learning, but I find that there is still a need for learning - especially when it comes to genders, plurals, irregular verbs.

Helping pupils structure this is important, and the "learning conversation" I find needs to be revisited to keep the momentum going, and to help those students struggling.  Some students really get into and make their own sets, especially if they have a tedious commute by public transport. Others use spreadsheets, some simply keep lists.

I'm not a fan of lists that have no rhyme or reason to them - I don't think they help students focus their efforts.  We use a word bank template divided into nouns, verbs, adjectives/adverbs and useful phrases.  This also has the benefit of making them look for words other than nouns, as a non-directed search for vocabulary seems to end up simply being a big list of nouns at the expense of everything else.

Generating a buzz and curiosity

I am often astounded at the number of pupils who come into sixth-form who think that after one trip to Germany and a good grade at GCSE means that they have this German thing all sewn up - that they have this thing sussed and apart from getting better at German, they have nothing else to learn. This is by no means the majority, but I do get more than I would wish for.

So - what to do?  This is where has come into its own.  It allows the teachers, and importantly the students to share videos and websites that they come across, and it allows us to generate a bit of a buzz.  It takes a while before the students want to put their heads above the parapet, but with encouragement, they will.  We start the topic of advertising next week, and it is always a good one for beginning the sharing process.

We also do weekly scrapbooks, an idea which I know quite a few schools use.  The pupils have to find an article of their own choosing, look up the vocabulary which is new, and summarise it.  I have also started asking the pupils to post their choice of article onto Edmodo.

Speaking skills

Speaking - ah.  I think students used to large groups suddenly feel rather exposed in smaller groups, and with the amount of grammar thrown their way, it can leave them tongue-tied.  This needn't be the case, and there is much to be said for adapting the strategies we use in earlier years.  Group talk? perfect!  Speaking bingo? perfect! Speaking mats for debates? Why not?

In the early days, it is about getting them to enjoy the speaking.  If we let them get too hung up on accuracy, they will never speak!

In the next post, I'm going to consider essay-writing *groan*
Essay writing skills
Getting them involved with younger pupils