Improving English writing skills at secondary and undergraduate level:
Reflections of a Maths and Science tutor
Students’ writing abilities vary widely, and this skill will have a major influence on their levels of attainment across virtually the whole curriculum, most obviously in the humanities subjects, but also, though to a lesser extent, in the sciences where QWC (quality of written communication) is an element in the assessment of a proportion of questions in GCSE and GCE papers. In public examinations at 16 and 18 writing ability will have a critical role in determining whether, for example, the borderline grade D/C English candidate will actually be able to achieve a C, whether the A-level History candidate predicted B/A who has received an offer of a University place dependent on AAA will be able to take up that place, and whether, the University student in Psychology starting Year 3 with a 57% average can raise their game sufficiently to achieve the class 2:1 degree they need in order to meet the eligibility requirements for postgraduate training in clinical psychology.
Although I do not tutor English at GCSE or A-level I have encountered a number of students in situations similar to the three described above. Some of these students are individuals I have tutored in GCSE science, A-level physics or A-level/University psychology. Others, when I have been wearing a different hat as a psychologist, are students with whom I have carried out assessments for the purpose of determining their eligibility for reasonable adjustments when sitting examinations. This prompted me to seek out resources which might be of help to students at these different stages in their careers, where the outcome of a forthcoming examination in English, or one of the other humanities subjects, might have a critical impact on their future educational or career path. For the benefit of any students who might be in a position similar to one of those described above I have given details below of resources which they might find useful:
Key Stage 3
The revised National Curriculum in English places increased emphasis on grammar at KS3 and while there is a danger that a narrow focus on form will detract from the sheer enjoyment of reading and stifle creative writing, pupils need to be equipped to handle this aspect of the new regime. There is a wealth of resources on fostering reading comprehension and the mechanics of writing (spelling, punctuation and grammar) at KS3, so I have singled out just one which is a programme developed recently through a partnership between a team at Exeter University led by Professor Debra Myhill and the educational publisher Pearson.
The Grammar for Writing approach:
The resources include relatively inexpensive online and print materials designed to be used by an independent learner at home:
There is some very useful guidance for students who are borderline C/D in English on the website of an experienced GCSE/A Level teacher, Geoff Barton:
http://www.geoffbarton.co.uk/, pointing out both the weaknesses typically found in the D student’s answers and how they can improve their grade. Here are links to some of the resources that Geoff Barton has developed:
Why You’re C-D Borderline
English D to C Powerpoint Presentation
Get that C or Higher in English
C in English Guaranteed
Ten Final Hints on Getting that C in English
At A-level one is expected to already have a good grasp of English spelling, punctuation and grammar so that successful essay writing becomes much more dependent on the breadth and depth of one’s reading on the subject and how well one can present a coherent argument in response to the assignment.
A student often needs to refer to a number of sources, both primary and secondary, in planning an essay. It is important to spend time at the outset, researching the question, reading and organizing the material, and making notes before starting to draft the paper. Once one has built up a comprehensive picture of the relevant facts, issues and arguments in this way, it is then easier to see how a coherent response should be structured and organized.
A technique that can aid in the process of assimilating and organizing the content of texts is the SQ3R method developed by Francis Pleasant Robinson. The initials stand for Study Question, Read, Recite, Review, and an explanation of the technique can be found on the MindTools website:
The reading and writing aspects of an essay assignment are covered in depth in two excellent books authored by Jeanne Godfrey and published by Palgrave Macmillan:
Reading and Making Notes
How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays
There is also much useful guidance on the whole range of study skills, including reading and writing, on the Palgrave Study Skills website:
Many university websites carry extensive information and guidance on study skills, including essay writing. In order to achieve a good grade, however, the student needs to supplement a good command of written English with evidence of being able to bring critical thinking to bear on the subject matter. These two attributes are highlighted in a booklet on the University of Essex website:
"In a recent survey, academic staff at the University identified the interrelated skills of writing and reasoning as the two most important skills for success in higher education; when asked which skills students most often lacked writing was again at the top of their list."
The booklet goes on to set out useful guidance and helpful tips on how the student can improve their academic writing:
For the A-level or undergraduate student with a specific learning difficulty (dyslexia) essay writing presents a particular challenge. The following book, edited by Sandra Hargreaves, addresses the different sorts of issues that the dyslexic student in further or higher education often faces.
Hargreaves, Sandra (Ed.)
Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia (Second edition)
Sage Publications Ltd. 2012
Graham Richardson March 2014
Introduction to 20 mark essay writing
Essay writing in Higher History is very important. Overall, 70% of your grade will be ascertained from the essays you write, 30% from your extended essay and 40% from your 2 essays in Paper 1 of the final examination.
As you have advanced through the school in Standard Grade and Intermediate 2 you will have learned how to write short essays worth 8 marks. You will remember how daunting these essays seemed to be when you first started writing them. You will also remember how writing these essays became easier with practice.
Essay writing is a skill, something that has to be learned. You had to learn how to introduce your essay, develop the points and then conclude your argument when writing 8 mark answers.
Essay writing at higher takes you a stage further in your development as rational, discursive and deliberating beings and again you will have to learn how to write Higher Essays skilfully.
However, some words of warning! Your development of these “higher” skills will not come naturally, neither will they come from listening attentively to your teacher or copying your friends essays (it does happen and these people are invariably caught). Your development of these essay writing skills will be down to hard work, reading and practice. Simple.