A route through… conceptualising the literature essay, and how to approach literature study.

For many students, understanding the purpose of a literature essay, and contextualising it within the bigger picture provides a clear map to mastery in literature.

Where did it go wrong? I’d provided structure strips; live-modelled the approach into answering an essay question; I had even recorded a second model that students could follow when doing their homework; the students knew how to write a paragraph, and yet… And yet, when they returned from the holidays, their essays were fragmented collections of paragraphs, with no central thesis, and bolted on, irrelevant context. Why?

Mostly, it was my fault. I had not adequately explained the purpose and structure of an essay, and they lacked a mastery concept. The solution? Back to the drawing board. Literally. I drew a picture on the board.

But first: I asked a ‘hinge’ question:

What is an essay? Think. Write. Share. Students worked to develop a definition. They understood it was an extended piece of writing that answered a question. Great.

‘What does that look like?’

‘It has paragraphs.’


‘To separate ideas.’

‘What ideas?’

And so on…

The result was returning to the big idea. I began to articulate the following schema for the students:

In literature, we can take lots of routes into an essay. We might want to explore an idea, a particular method, a ‘contextual’ influence on how the text was created. These are the big ideas ‘outside’ the text, they inform how the writer chooses to write and how we understand and interpret the text.

I drew a box at the top of the board, and put themes, context, purpose in it.

Then I began to draw an inverted triangle.

Here is what it looked like by the time we finished:

With apologies for the blurry quality!

You can see the idea is that the concept zooms in through different levels of text: whole-text, chapter and even paragraph-level, sentence level, phrase and word-level.

By itself, without the bottom box, I think this is a good way of thinking about literature study for students. And a good way to structure a literature unit. Too often, I have jumped straight into passage and word- level analysis in my teaching, without first ensuring students have a firm understanding of the whole text. This leads to ‘Trees Without the Forest’ analysis, leading students to analyse bizarre choices and make illogical interpretations.

Screen Shot 2018-11-07 at 17.28.26

Download the editable PPT:  Essay Structure

Taken with the final box, the chart is a good way of conceptualising a literature essay. Conclusions are difficult for students. I would argue they are much more challenging to understand, let alone master, than introductions; they are often neglected in teaching as a side-effect a misguided fetishisation of the body paragraph.

As a way into planning their essay, I ask the students to consider the purpose of literature: it aims to express universal human experience in a way that makes us think about it differently. Literature aims to make use better people as a result of reading it.

So a conclusion should answer the question: how are we different, or how do we think about the world differently, after reading the text with this interpretation in mind? As they plan their route through their essay, they progress towards answering this question. That is their final destination in literature study. This is something I am still working on with this class, but as we progress through the year, I am hoping they enter Year 10 with a firm understanding of how to write their essays with effective conclusions.

Now it is time to consider the noble paragraph. How is a body paragraph to be structured in this ideation?

Any damn way the student pleases.

We are writing an essay that explores an interpretation and a concept. I am not going to limit my students to PETAL or PEE or PEEZL. These can be useful frameworks for intervention, but should not be the starting point for instruction. Instead students will select the appropriate level from the inverted pyramid to support their interpretation; they may wish to use the whole pyramid as a suggested structure, starting with how an element has been used to reveal the big idea and then zooming into analysis at word or even punctuation level. They may choose to use WHAT HOW WHY as framing questions to develop close analysis and evaluation. But the aim is to develop a variety of tools and strategies to support the argument, not a rigid structure that must be followed.

Over time, as we experience success and are given feedback, we internalise a feeling for structure and this frees us up for more creative approaches, which are apt for the ideas we are exploring. Presently, this class is still developing strategies to develop their ideas and elaborate when analysing at the paragraph level of an essay. Again, this is something we will practise to mastery throughout the year. Primarily, my concern is that they understand the purpose of studying literature and develop an appreciation for it. Good analysis will develop as a result of that, and of seeing and experiencing what success looks like.

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