Why students struggle with essay writing.

Effective essay writing has been on the decline for the past fifteen years in schools. Students struggle with their interpretation of questions, the harnessing of powerful evidence and structure and expression.

As schools and teachers are increasingly time poor, essay writing is left until students have major assessment tasks and trial examinations thrust upon them. It is my experience that many students in senior years scramble to incorporate teachers notes which appear on the white board, and are simply copied and pasted without any real consideration as to whether

  1. The notes make sense
  2. Whether they reflect the thinking process of the student.

The other major issue is the kind of feedback being provided. Comments such as your expression is poor, or you haven’t answered the question or pay more attention to techniques are too abstract for students to really comprehend.

Pre -written essays drafted by tutors.

Again, the presumption that a student can incorporate a tutor’s perspective and adapt their set essay to an unseen examination question is highly problematic. Firstly, the information and interpretation of the set text does not belong to the student it belongs to the tutor. Secondly, the examination questions set rarely correspond to the pre- written question. Students struggle to interpret the question and then they have the arduous task of integrating their own response, the tutor’s response and finally their own.

Incomplete study of the set text.

In recent years there has been a tendency on the part of students sitting their HSC to really only familiarise themselves with passages drawn from the set literary  text which are  selected by the teachers without a keen understanding on the students part as to why, what and how these passages convey the ideas embedded in their texts. Shakespeare’s works and significantly complex novels remain unanalysed barring some selected passages, leaving students with a superficial understanding of the depth of ideas and the possibility of exploiting other parts of the text.

The approach to structured responses.

The schools have attempted in recent years to introduce steps in the structuring of paragraphs such as PEAL : . Point, elaboration, example, link.

This approach helps in terms of superficially eliciting a seemingly structured paragraph response, but it does not help students determine what their point should be. What example to source and in fact how to elaborate on the example?

I have noted that when it comes elaborating on examples students are at a loss as to how to elaborate as they fall into the habit of explaining the evidence rather than analysing the nature of the example. A simple application of the question why and what the composer has chosen as his or her particular style of language eg : choice of words,  imagery , or tone will enable students to navigate the impact of such language and incorporate this in their response.

Techniques in text

A large part of writing essays is underscored by NESA’s requirement that students are able to understand that literary texts convey meaning- that identifying a technique such as a metaphor or simile does not exploit sufficiently why a writer may have selected this kind of literary device. Students need to understand why a writer has used this type of language; what it implies about the values and or attitude of the writer or character in the text. Language cannot be viewed in a vacuum or students run the risk of not understanding how language contributes to the intended meaning and interpretation of texts.

How many paragraphs

It seems absurd that students ponder how many paragraphs they should write in an essay and that the number of paragraphs is dependent upon an arbitrary perception on the part of educators. I have students ask me how many paragraphs they should write, or their teacher says they should write three paragraphs. The fundamental understanding of what a paragraph is seems to have been lost. No one can know how many paragraphs may be needed to produce a strong essay response. Such oversimplified and ill-thought instructions prejudice clarity of writing and prejudice the depth of essay response.

Note taking on texts.

Many students fail to annotate their texts; as such their notes are often in their note- books as they scramble to interpret fragmented notes and incomplete quotes into the body of their essay. The students, assuming they’ve read the texts, struggle to make sense of notes which are displaced and out of context.

Understanding the essay question.

Without an in depth understanding of the text it is impossible to directly answer an essay question. Students have to ask the following questions:

What is the question asking, how does it relate to the ideas in their text and what are the assumptions or ideas implied on the part of the examiner that have inspired such a question.

The job of the essay writer is to convince the examiner by way of structure and evidence that their approach is well thought out and explains their interpretation of the question and that their ideas are substantiated in the essay.


A fundamental failure in understanding essay writing lies in the composition of introductions. Students often fail to understand the question at hand and if they do, they need to set down their responses in such a way that they are advancing their own thesis and of course how and why they have adopted such a response.

An introduction is fundamentally a personal orientation and thought- out approach to an essay question. In my opinion it is the backbone of the structure to an essay and requires much planning and research before pen is put to paper.

Body of the essay

The body of the essay must support the thesis set down in the introduction. Each paragraph should correspond clearly to each idea set forth in the introduction acknowledging how what and why they have sited the evidence that they have chosen. Remember though,

if the introduction is not composed with depth and doesn’t directly answer the question, then the student is unable to link back to their thesis. Many students are unable to realise that the body of their essay should reflect the thesis established in their introduction.

Citing evidence.

Way before the essay commences students should have gathered quotations systematically and placed it under corresponding themes or ideas. Failure to do so will result in quotations and evidence which is irrelevant to the idea advanced. It is important to note that the analysis of evidence forms much of the content of the essay and what makes one essay stand out from another is the physical sourcing of quotes which display depth of thought and convince and support one’s thesis.

Structured powerful responses.

These lie in the ability of a student to not only offer well thought-out responses and evidence but what is also essential is that students link back to the question and opening thesis of the body paragraph, physically guiding and convincing the examiner that their response is logical and offers powerful insight on the ideas of the text.

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