What if we’ve been teaching essay writing all wrong?

One of the courses I teach is English General paper (Cambridge curriculum). The main point of the course is to provide our students with the skills to write academic essays and to read thoughtfully texts of different nature. All in all, it must be a prep course for the uni-level Academic writing classes. The coursebook follows the traditional path shared by the vast majority of the books in the field: brainstorming, research, logical fallacies, types of appeal sprinkled with a fair share of grammar and syntax. Nothing unusual. Nothing about taking notes as well.

Thought-provoking book


How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers” by Sonke Ahrens is a book which is meant to help us to become better learners, thinkers and writers. I took a lot from it into my daily life, specifically, the way I read books and take notes, but right now I want to focus on another aspect.

Whatever I read, I also filter it through my teaching reality. Can I apply some approaches, can I help my students with some tips from the book I am currently reading? This book seemed to be a perfect book for a language teacher library so densely it talked about the material we teach.

Why traditional essay writing system does not work?

All books on academic writing try hard to squeeze the whole multi-layer and multi-dimensional process into a linear set of steps, which should eventually bring you to a finished essay (article, thesis, etc). The reality is more complicated; the classroom experience shows that there are problems on basically each step.

  • Choosing the topic. Luckily, there is always some choice. Unfortunately, in many cases, it does not help. Should you play safe and choose the topic you’ve been writing about earlier (which often is a better option, but with the lack of motivation and curiosity turns into drudgery filled with commonplace ideas) or, maybe, go big and pick something more exciting which you don’t know much about? Either option is not great, mostly because the learners are not given a chance to own the topic and the direction of their writing. They have to face whatever was offered which hardly ever matches their interests and inclinations.
  • Brainstorming. If the topic is totally new, probably, there is not much to brainstorm on. If the topic is already explored, what is the point to repeat what is already known? Plus, relying on our vague, half-faded memories is not always helpful. We may forget the source, mix up the names and numbers… Our memory is imperfect and we have to deal with it.
  • Research. Do you know how research is conducted most of the time at school? Easy! Go to Google, copy the topic, open a few pages. Pick relevant sentences, paraphrase, ta-dam! Maybe this does not sound realistic, but we have what we have.

The list may go on and on. The main point is that the process kills all the motivation along the way, feedback is limited. Not to mention that in exam conditions students have no access to their electronic devices and need to write a full-scale essay having just a pen and paper. No research allowed.

Writing an essay as the final step

The author of the book suggests a very different approach. We should start with notes. Our own notes within the information system which includes our ides on whatever we come across, and, even more importantly, the ideas we come up with when different sources start interacting in our minds.

Unfortunately, we do not teach our students taking notes. Sometimes we require the notes taken as a part of classwork assessment. Sometimes we assign a chapter here or an article there. But we never really teach how to work with the texts on a personal level. Highlighting and re-writing may look as if the student worked, but it does not mean anything. Probably this is the reason we have so many YouTube videos about notes taken on paper or using different apps and platforms.

And so I was wondering… What if instead of spending a few months from the beginning of the year on the stages of academic writing, we read a lot. We learn to take notes, organise them, combine and share them. By New Year everyone will have a set of materials to rely on when writing an essay. They will have sources and their own ideas to share. We can start small and make little posts of whatever curiosities we’ve come across and what we think about them. The more work is done, the more thoughts and, more importantly, questions will appear.

Having all of this at hand, how hard can it be writing a longer text? On the topic you have personally chosen, with the material you have been working with. The bibliography is ready, plagiarism is not required anymore as it is easier to put together the existing notes then looking for some fishy web pages, paraphrasing their sentences and trying to fit them in a somewhat logical way.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

I do not want to tailor the course differently just because the ideas from the book got me so excited. In general, I am happy with the results of this school year: my students write nice essays up to the standard. The system works; they are more or less ready for the university course of academic writing.

It is simply that I cannot give up on the idea that there is another smart way to bring learning to a new level. The book has shown me one option. Not to jump into conclusions I want to go small. First of all, apply the book principles in my own learning consistently. Also, I do want to introduce some of those big ideas to my students, no matter that the school year is finishing soon.

I will not make any plans now. Instead, I will share a quote from the book.

Don’t make plans. Become an expert.

As we are learners here, check these articles: Teacher’s approach to learning or Learning theory mindmap (priceless)

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