School essay writing ‘as intellectually demanding as playing chess’

Essay-writing in secondary schools can be as intellectually demanding as playing chess, according to a new report.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research suggests writing extended answers also places a heavy cognitive burden on students.

It says this is because the tasks require pupils to use a wide range of knowledge and skills.

They must be able to write or type fluently at the same time as generating ideas and translating these into words, sentences, and structured texts.

Students must also use more complex and challenging thinking skills to plan and structure their writing, as well as motivate themselves, and then review and re-draft texts.

Autumn weather Sept 18th 2016
People play a game of chess while enjoying the warm weather on Tynemouth Beach in Tyne and Wear (Owen Humphreys/PA)

This writing process can result in students’ working memories, the parts of the brain where information is processed and combined, becoming overloaded, according to the EEF.

The report, which reviews the best available evidence, offers schools seven recommendations for improving literacy in secondary schools.

It suggests teachers can help students cope with the challenges of writing by supporting them to break down complex writing tasks.

Some practical tips include providing sentence starters such as “while initially it may appear that..”, or “on closer inspection”, in history class, to encourage students to analyse sources more deeply.

Young people who leave formal education without such skills find it much harder to achieve their goals in the world of work or further study, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds significantly more likely to be in this group.

Recent estimates suggest low levels of literacy cost the UK economy over £20 billion a year, the EEF says.

The report argues that instead of leaving the job of improving literacy to English teachers, it should be improved across the curriculum in secondary school.

Previous research by the EEF, for instance, has found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science attainment is how well they understand written texts.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, said: “Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of life.

“Their outcomes are poorer on almost every measure, from health and wellbeing, to employment and finance.

“Yet despite our best efforts, disadvantaged students in England are still significantly more likely than their classmates to leave formal education without being able to read, write and communicate effectively.

“Reading, writing, speaking and listening, are at the heart of every subject in secondary school.

“Focusing time and resources on improving reading and writing skills will have positive knock-on effects elsewhere, whether that’s being able to break down scientific vocabulary or structure a history essay.

“Writing tasks in secondary schools, such as essays, can be as intellectually demanding as playing chess.

“It should be no surprise that some students can struggle to get to grips with the complex skills expected of them.”

The other six recommendations in the report focus on:

– Prioritising subject-specific literacy skills across the curriculum.
– Teaching vocabulary to support pupils’ development of academic language.
– Developing students’ ability to read and access sophisticated texts.
– Breaking down complex writing tasks, likes essays and evaluations.
– Providing opportunities for structured talk, like preparing debates or presentations.
– Providing high-quality literacy interventions for struggling students.

LifeWeb editor