Active Learning on www.thinkinghistory.co.uk

Physical Essays:
Helping students see the shape of an essay

This is an idea, not a full-blown activity. And I’m hoping that you won’t need to use it because it only applies to students who don’t know how to construct essays and paragraphs. The idea stems from the frustration I used to feel when students couldn’t write in paragraphs or construct an essay from a series of paragraphs. The tell-tale sign of problems was multiple three or four line ‘paragraphs’ littered down the page, each an individual idea or sentence, not proper paragraphs at all. If this idea only helps one A level student a year to ‘see’ the shape of their essays then it’s been useful.

For these struggling students it’s no use simply commenting on their knowledge and understanding of the history. This won’t solve the problem which I think for some is caused by not having, in their minds, a visual picture of what an essay should look like.  Therefore some kind of visual solution is required so that they understand the pattern of an essay – what a paragraph consists of and how each paragraph links back to the title. Of course they still have to get the history right but if they can’t ‘see’ an essay structure in the first place then they’re not going to make the best use of that knowledge.

One obvious visual aid is to draw an essay as a model – creating a series of rectangles on your board, each rectangle consisting of a short opening section (which links back to the question, providing an element of the answer) and the longer section that follows, providing evidence to support the initial point. This needn’t include any content or detail initially – it’s the visual pattern that’s important for changing some students’ perception of how an essay is constructed.

Alternatively – and importantly more memorable and so having more impact for some students – is to create a physical essay. For example duplo and lego bricks can be used to construct paragraphs – maybe duplo for that initial sentence, lego for the supporting evidence – or use different colours of bricks for the two components. Then tie that initial duplo sentence back to the question with string to make a solid connection.

That may at first sound quite inappropriate for A level – but if it helps it’s worth doing, even if it’s only helping that one student a year. It’s the physicality that makes the impact and also providing an ‘empty’ (i.e. content-free) structure because it’s all too easy for the content to get in the way of the picture. If you want to try something really mad you could copy the variation I used a few years ago when running a course on A level teaching one December. Inspired by the onrushing Christmas festivities we used one of those jester’s hats with multiple ‘prongs’ to represent the question. Each paragraph began its introductory sentence represented by a person wearing a Xmas cracker crown and the rest of the paragraph consisted of a variety of tree decorations as the evidence. The final touch was added by using streamers from our tree at home to link from the beginning of each paragraph back to the prongs of the jester’s hat i.e. linking each paragraph to the question. Mad but difficult to forget!

From the physical plan (whether made up of lego or wilder ideas) it’s then a small step to introducing content to exemplify the nature of those introductory sentences and how they relate to the question and then how the rest of the paragraph supports those introductory sentences. ‘Talking essays’ in which students work together to fashion a paragraph and then say it aloud are another step towards understanding the structure of paragraphs and essays.

 

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