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The problem with essays

The essay is a venerable form of writing which goes back centuries to the Japanese and later the Europeans. One simple definition from Wikipedia reads: "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion". We all have a good idea of what an essay is. It is also one of the main ways we use to assess a student's understanding of a subject they are studying. In A-Level modern language specifications, both at AS and A2 level, for AQA at least, it is worth a significant chunk of the marks available on the listening, reading and writing papers. Is it the best way to assess writing skill?

When we changed exam boards a few years ago, moving from OCR to AQA, I had one slight concern, and that was that AQA have traditionally used the essay as a means of testing language competence. I now feel that concern was justified. This is why: at AS level we ask students to write a piece on a subject such as television, advertising, cannabis, new technologies. The exam board come up with a mark scheme which rewards not just the variety and accuracy of the language, but, more importantly, the structure and content of the essay.

So, an able linguist who does not have an abundance of ideas on the subject at hand and who cannot structure an essay very coherently, gets heavily, very heavily penalised. The student is not being assessed on the right things. What is worse, if a student's content is moderate, then the marks for range and accuracy are severely limited. This results is a wide range of marks which do not necessarily correlate with the language aptitude of the students.

At A2 level, the situation is the same, except we also have the somewhat bizarre situation, with AQA at least, that an essay is assessed for structure and relevance, but cannot be assessed for actual knowledge. In theory, a candidate can write plausible nonsense, full of personal opinions and justifications, and still score a high grade. Now, at A2 there is a genuine problem for the exam board, because they want teachers and students to study a wide range of cultural topics, do not wish to prescribe topics (because teachers have told them they want the freedom to choose topics, authors, historical periods and so on), but have to provide some kind of worthwhile assessment to motivate candidates. I am not sure this problem is easily solved, all the while we cannot use coursework and allow students to create their own titles (as we used to do). But at least the mark scheme could reward, above all else, quality of language. It does not. Once again, as at AS level, the language grade is limited by the mark for relevance and structure. Why? I have never heard an answer to this question.

In conclusion ("pour conclure", "en guise de conclusion" etc), I would allow for other forms of writing beyond the essay and I would change the mark scheme to reward the important things: knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. Leave the essays to history, English literature and geography. In modern languages let's move away from the obsession with structure, opinions and ideas, and focus on the essentials.


  1. Just been writing sample essay for the AQA/Edexcel length on Ils partiront dans l'ivresse novel (Lucie Aubrac) and would concord that it's a very specialized exercise and not necessarily one which will be much use. It would probably be more useful/beneficial to teach persuasive writing for the purpose of producing advertising copy or writingemails/blogs of an explanatory/informative nature than trying to achieve a balance of content, reasoning and personal feelings which fit a set of arbitrary criteria. Having said that I personally enjoy writing essays-probably got a bit of the Gove in me. Steve G(l)ove(r)


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