Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Say what you’ve said.
Three sentences. That was all the instruction I was given on essay technique back when I was sitting my GCSEs. These were three sentences that stood me in good stead throughout GCSE, A level, degree and postgraduate study. Nice and simple, I thought.
However, having marked my way through rounds and rounds of literature essays, I have since discovered that what I had thought was a straightforward method of writing an essay was just not working for my students. And the biggest problem was the introduction.
Despite all of the planning we did in class, the students were still incapable of saying what they were going to say, and I was inundated with a stream of snore-worthy introductions that were all just a waste of ink and paper.
"This essay will discuss the writer’s presentation of..." Blah, blah. Boring.
"In this essay, I will..." Zzzz.
Thinking beyond the text
While these introductions technically introduced the focus of the students' essays, they were frequently little more than a rephrasing of the essay question. And for my top set class, this was just not going to cut the band 6 mustard.
For high-ability students, the challenge of the new English literature GCSE is getting them to think beyond the confines of the text, while also developing conceptualised, coherent, critical responses. Not asking for much, then.
So, I set about finding a way to teach my students to write better introductions. Here’s what I did.
After teaching all the relevant contextual information (the traits of a tragic hero, the core principles of Marxism and so forth) that students would need to support their arguments when writing about An Inspector Calls, I started to encourage them to embed questions within their introductions, which they would then endeavour to answer throughout their essay.
I felt the benefits for doing this were two-fold. Firstly, if they knew the phrasing and structure of an introduction before entering the exam room, their cognitive load would be reduced during the exam itself.
Secondly, and most critically, it would allow them to prepare almost entire essays on key themes in advance, which they could then contextualise to the extract before them.
Brevity is key
To support this development, I taught the students that their introductions would consist of two sentences for the prose and drama texts. Concision and brevity were key in the teaching here.
Sentence 1: Define the key word in the question. Personalise it – what does it mean to you? Contextualise it based on the text you’re writing about.
Sentence 2: Identify a question based on what the author wants us to think of the key theme/character named in the exam question.
For example, take this exam question on An Inspector Calls: "How does Priestley present the theme of equality in the play?"
My model was as follows:
Sentence 1: An equal society is one in which there are no disparities between people due to gender, class, wealth or age – a Utopia that would signal the ultimate success of humanity’s super-ego over its id.
Sentence 2: In An Inspector Calls, Priestley's horrifying microcosm of a society ruled by its id, encourages us to question the lack of equality in an unjust Edwardian England.
By reducing the introduction to two critical sentences, my students were able to write a focused start to their essay, which also provided a shape and a direction that they could follow for the rest of their analysis, helping them to access the higher mark bands.
My class’s introductions improved and so did their essays, as they were finally able to say what they’re going to say and then to say it.
Now we just need to work on saying what they said. Next time, conclusions.
Sana Master is an English teacher at a school in Yorkshire. She tweets @MsMaster13
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I'm in year 10 going into year 11 in September, and I need help on how to get A*-A in GCSE English Language and English Literature. This includes what you need to be doing right in your coursework; most importantly the original writing task and An Inspector Calls essay.
thanks and your sound advice and opinions are acceptedLast edited by intellect212; 26-08-2010 at 19:18. Reason: to make it better
For English Coursework what the examiners are looking for are mainly orginality for the A*. This means, put something in that your teacher didn't tell you to that you think fits well to show you are capable of independent thinking. This is good for your exam as well, especially when it comes to poetry as the examiners are going to be reading many many papers full of the same opinions over and over again. And you should think about standing out in a positive way.
I've personally found looking at the markscheme for English Coursework very unhelpful. They are often too complicated to be too helpful and it is better not to structure your essay around a mark scheme anyway as it will be exceedingly obvious when your teacher marks it. If you are allowed, always write your coursework on the computer. Not only will spellcheck make grammar and spelling mistakes occur less often in your essays, I found that I find it easier than handwriting.
For orginal writing, try to use more complicated punctuation such as the semi-colon (correctly of course). Try to vary your sentence lengths and structures as well. Although reading something full of short simple sentences is boring, reading something with only complex compound ones are not much better. The story has to be engaging and gripping. You need a "hook" to draw the readers in, excuse the cliche.
For An Inspector Calls, I would suggest using sparknotes and other such materials to help you analyze. You shouldn't be copying anything from these though, but they are often very useful whilst writing your essay, especially if you have no clue where to start on it. If you are trying to get your coursework up to a higher standard, try to be more specific in your analysis, taking specific words or phrases to analyze instead of quoting huge sections and summing it up.
Good luck with your English!
weiaoyl pretty much summed it up but yeah originality is important