Developing an effective essay writing style is absolutely essential to success at GCSE English, and this is a process that needs to begin during the Key Stage Three years. There is no formula for a perfect English essay, and every student who is aiming to achieve the very top grades in English needs to ultimately find their own style. Having said that, students need guidelines and somewhere to start, and this is why schools teach the PEE method (it is known by different names such as PETAL, PETER, PEEL and so on, but it is always underpinned by the same principles). Here are a few guidelines for essay writing that you can use to support your child.
The first sentence of every paragraph in an essay should be the point, also known as a topic sentence. When planning out an essay, students should make sure that they know what each point in the essay is going to be, before they begin any writing. For example, imagine I were to answer the question: How is Charlie presented in Private Peaceful? My points would be as follows:
Charlie is brave.
Charlie is inspirational.
Charlie is reckless.
Charlie is loyal.
Charlie loves Tommo.
These would form the first sentence of each of my paragraphs.
Once I have set out the point of the paragraph, I need to be able to prove this. In English, this proof nearly always comes in the form of a quotation. If I were answering the point, Charlie is inspirational, this would be a lovely quotation to select:
“Being his real brother I could feel I live in his shadows, but I never have and I do not now. I live in his glow.”
The quotation must support the point, but there is also a knack to selecting the right one. You want to choose a quotation that is what I term, in non-technical language, “juicy”. You want a quotation that has literary devices to analyse and evaluate. The above quotation would work very effectively, as there are clear metaphors of light/dark.
Once you have presented the point and selected your evidence, the next stage is to explain how it supports the point, and then analyse the techniques that the writer is using to convey meaning. Analysis means breaking your evidence down, and this is where the real insight takes place. English Literature is not about the what, it is about the how and why.
For example, if I was analysing the above, I would say:
In this quotation, the writer presents Charlie as an illuminating figure who gives strength to others. Morpurgo uses the metaphor of light and darkness in order to emphasise the strength of Charlie’s “glow” and it implies he has the power to dispel the dark “shadows”. It presents him as an almost Christ-like figure, who selflessly redeems those around it by his mere presence. Rather than feeling inferior, Charlie makes Tommo feel powerful and significant.
Many students often fail to get the higher marks in English because this stage of the paragraph does not have enough depth. Again this links back to my notion of quotations being “juicy”. A high-mark answer will squeeze as much analysis as possible out of a quotation before moving on.
The end of the paragraph needs to be sharply focused in order to bring the analysis to a close and evaluate its significance. The last sentence of a paragraph should never be a quotation. Instead, this is where you need to link back to the question and also to the key point of the paragraph. Have you actually proved what you set out to prove?
Another key thing to do in this last section of the paragraph is to consider the effect on the reader. For example, in the above example, we could discuss the admiration that we feel as the reader for Charlie, and it heightens our sense of injustice at his fate in the novel (no spoilers!)
Sometimes, students will be required to consider contextual information in their essays. This means information that helps the student to understand the story in more detail. For example to understand the story of Private Peaceful, it is helpful to know about issues such as the use of propaganda to convince the men to sign up for the War, the conditions in the trenches, the psychological trauma soldiers suffered and the battle for posthumous pardons for men shot for “cowardice”.
At GCSE level, students will need to check the examination board requirements carefully, as some papers/questions will require context and others will not.
Introductions and conclusions can cause students a lot of anxiety, but this is often unnecessary. Examiners are ultimately going to be looking for clear points, relevant textual support, references to the writer’s techniques and analysis of how the writer creates meaning. None of this really happens in the introduction and conclusion. There is no need to have them at Key Stage Four, but if students really do want to include them (I know also that some teachers may have a different perspective on this and make them compulsory) then there are a few guidelines.
Introductions should do more than just repeat the question, which is what a lot of students end up doing. An introduction is where you set out the key points that you are going to be discussing in the essay. Think about it as a way of signposting. At university level, we refer to this as the thesis statement, and it is a vital way to help another researcher decide whether or not your essay is going to be relevant to their area of research. There do not need to be any quotations in the introduction.
Conclusions can be really tricky to do effectively. They need to draw together the main ideas of the essay, bringing it back to that thesis statement (the central line of argument). It is also sometimes effective to consider another idea/perspective in the conclusion. The reason for this is that you want the reader to feel that you have not said everything possible on the topic, and you have so many amazing ideas that you could have carried on writing for another two hours if the invigilators would let you!
As students move further along Key Stage Three and into Key Stage Four, they will develop their own style, and learn how to adapt it to the different examination requirements. Grade Nine students are not following a formula, they are writing intuitively, using the text to guide them and always keeping the focus on analysis and evaluation, in other words, the how and the why. However, even within Grade Nine essays, you will still see all of the above principles of essay writing, and these are therefore the place where every student needs to begin.
If you are interested in giving your child further support with essay writing skills, make sure you check out my new small group classes for Key Stage Three and Four, which are now open for September enrolments. For more information and to book, go to: