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Helping A-level students become confident essay writers

Introduction

One of the challenges of the new A-level MFL specifications is that students have to write two target language essays on film or literature in two hours. This is, of course, not new, since in previous version of A-level this was also the practice.

I'd like to share some of my own ideas on how we can help produce confident essay writers. These ideas are coloured by training sessions I have been running for AQA with teachers around the country. See if you go along with my suggestions.

A scaffolded progression

I wouldn't advocate getting students to write essays from early on in their study of the book or film. The danger is that most students will struggle to write well, especially if they have little experience of essay writing. In this regard students of English literature or history, for example, are at an advantage. Although, as teachers have pointed out to me at meetings, many (most? all?) GCSE English literature pupils are used to the acronym PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link) when writing their essays.

If the first experience of writing an essay is a negative one (poor technique and large amounts of error) students are likely to have a sense of failure and fear writing essays in the future. The result could be dispiriting for both the teacher and student. Detailed corrections and feedback are unlikely to make things much better or sweeten the pill.

Better, therefore, might be to provide plenty of practice building up from smaller chunks of language to the point where the final essay feels like the natural end-point of a planned progression. You can get students to think of essays as built up of smaller, easier, less daunting chunks of writing.

My own practice (and that of my colleagues) was to set worksheets for students to do on chapters or parts of a film which would be done a week ahead as homework, then used for discussion/correction/feedback in class (a sort of flipped model, if you like). Worksheets could contain a range of tasks tailored to the class, for example:
  • TL questions focused on factual information and key parts of the text or film
  • False sentences to correct
  • Gap-fill (with or without options provided)
  • Sentence starters to complete
  • "Who could have said?" statements
  • Matching tasks
  • Vocab lists to complete
  • Lexical questions, e.g. explain what X means
  • Short summary tasks
Where TL questions are concerned I would encourage students to develop their answers with at least two sentences. Questions can be designed with this in mind. In this way students learn to build up a bank of short paragraph responses in their files which they can use when writing longer stretches later. TIP: once students have got used to your way of thinking, they can design their own worksheet for subsequent classroom use with the group or a partner. Think of it this way: you want your students to learn to think like you, or an examiner. So you need to model good practice all the time.

Building paragraphs

The new mark schemes for A-level feature no requirement for overall structure, including introductions and conclusions. Only AO3 (Quality of language) and AO4 (Culture) are assessed. This doesn't stop you teaching how to write a traditional essay, but for exam purposes, the best essays will have brief introductions and conclusions, and consist of a set of paragraphs put together in a coherently linked fashion, each paragraph involving relevant selection of material, development, evaluation and analysis (Ofqual's terms). Clarity is vital from the marker's point of view. Many essays can come across as confused with too much gravy and not enough meaty chunks.

How many paragraphs an essay should contain depends on the question, but it may be that about five to eight key points for development are enough. Examiners have a set of points they may expect to see made, but this list is only for guidance and a student may have other relevant points to develop. The guideline total essay length is 300 words, but many students will write more very effectively and could safely be encouraged to do so. weaker candidates would be advised to stick to around 300 words, but make sure their points are clear. Top marks can be achieved within 300 words, but it's a challenge.

Students need training in how to structure paragraphs and you can achieve this in a number of ways, for example:
  • Provide sets of four sentences to re-order coherently
  • Show models of good paragraphs
  • Do a whole group modelling exercise where you use the "think aloud" technique to get them thinking like you
  • Provide gap-fill activities using example paragraphs
  • Give sentence starters to complete
  • Provide simply written paragraphs to make more complex (for AO3 marks), e.g. replacing simple verbs in French such as avoir, être, causer, montrer and simple nouns and phrases such as problème, il y a, je pense que.
  • Showing how links form one paragraph to the next can be made (e.g. by using language such as ce qui, il s'ensuit que, cela signifie que)

"Unlocking" questions 

Students need training in how to recognise which is the better question to choose in the heat of exam and how to "unlock" the question they have chosen. If they are good at unlocking questions they will make the right choice. For the very first essay they write in term time you could model this process with them. One way is to get pairs of students to do this in English first, them bring together their suggestions, them write up their suggestions on the board in the target language.

It is good practice, I would suggest, to do this once students have already done considerable amounts of discussion on the issues suggested by the question. in this way they are not tackling the question "cold" and can feel confident in approaching the task. (Remember that writing an essay is a real challenge for some students, even in their native tongue.)

Planning

Once a question has been unlocked by brainstorming all the points it suggests, students then need to order their ideas before starting to write. In exam conditions most students neglect to do this, but it time well spent in most cases. They would be wise to write their points at the top of the page, along with language structures (e.g. fancy phrases and structures) they want to use. By this time, if they have been well-prepared, they will have a good repertoire of formulae they have used a good number of times previously. As they write they can tick of each idea of piece of language they use.

Assuming a student will be spending about an hour on an essay in the exam, they could easily devote 5-10 minutes on their planning. They need to be trained to do this when doing timed essays in class.

Concluding remarks

Research on error correction and feedback in language learning suggests that we overestimate the value of error correction and that many errors fix themselves in time and with exposure to comprehensible input. With this in mind, isn't it better to carefully scaffold the process of essay writing so that students produce interesting and largely accurate work of which they can feel proud? With careful preparation on the teacher's part students need not fear the process quite so much.

One final tip: you might like to encourage students to use a technique referred to by Gianfranco Conti (he calls it LIFT) whereby students leave a good margin to the side of their term-time essays and write in their own questions or comments about what they have written (e.g. uncertainties about ideas, choice of vocabulary or use of syntax). This can develop a useful dialogue between you and the student.


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