How to supercharge your students’ essay writing skills

I’ve always liked sharing the etymology of the word “essay” with my students. The word is derived from the French essayer, which means “to try”. This knowledge helps them to see essays not as fixed and formal, but as things they can play with, rethink and redraft.

Having specific activities for students to do before and after writing the essay also helps them to trial ideas, structures and arguments – while, importantly, not losing their own views along the way. 

Here are some that I use regularly that could be adapted for any essay subject: 

Before writing the essay

1. Pre-planning

Pre-planning gets students thinking about the task in a safe and well-resourced environment. It helps to build their confidence and allows them to break up the task of essay writing into manageable chunks.

“Three-minute planner” is a great activity to use here. Give students three minutes to jot down the three key argumentative points they’d make, plus a conclusion. You could also plot out the arguments on either side of a debate to help them recognise and analyse multiple points of view.

Another option is to use a snowball task. This involves one person starting an essay plan, then passing it on to another student who takes the argument a step further, before passing it on again, and so on. This helps students develop others’ views and build on them.

2. Argument card game

In this activity, students are put into small groups and are given an essay title as well as a card labelled with one of the following essay components: big idea, knowledge, evidence, agree and disagree. 

The student with the “big idea” card goes first; they should make an argumentative point as they put the card down on the desk. 

The other students then build on this, laying down their cards in a column as they do so. This provides a visual representation of the sequencing of ideas. You can take a photo of each group’s sequence to illustrate how there might be similarities or differences between groups.

This task is a great springboard for talking about structuring paragraphs and linking thoughts together.

Usually, I ensure that each student has the opportunity to use each of the cards. However, if you think that students need to work on a particular skill, you could have them use the same card across a number of discussions: for example, if someone needs to get better at thinking about points in depth, they can repeatedly use the “evidence” card. 

3. Mark an essay produced by AI

Students often feel they lack the authority to make their own contribution to the subject and question their ability to write something well-informed.  

One way to help students recognise the value of their contribution is to get them to use assessment criteria to mark an essay written by the artificial intelligence writing bot ChatGPT. 

For example, they might find an essay that ChatGPT produces on Plato and Aristotle’s views on mind and body is largely accurate, but that it lacks judgement or evaluation. This is not surprising, of course: such things take thought, and this is where students can add to and improve the essay.

This task has the added bonus of driving home the fact that AI writing tools aren’t always the simple solution they seem to be.

After writing the essay

1. Write an abstract 

Once students have written an essay, I get them to write a 200-word abstract to summarise the area of debate, the possible solutions and the position that is to be taken.

This really helps them to hone their line of argument, while also developing a sense of focus and precision in students’ work. If they don’t understand their essay, or they have forgotten what they wrote, this is a great way to get them to invest in their work and take ownership of it – all of which will help them to improve next time.

2. Dual coding

Many of us will be aware of the benefits of dual coding for students, both in terms of initial comprehension and retention of information. To capitalise on these benefits, try getting students to produce a “visual viva” – a picture or diagram to communicate their ideas about the topic or argument. Not only is this a way to ensure they fully understand everything in their essay, but it will also help them to remember the material, too.


Good strategies for producing essays encourage students to review and rethink their plans. As the root of the word suggests, getting students to try things out is, after all, what essays are all about.

Clare Jarmy is the assistant headteacher (learning and development) at Bedales School in Hampshire

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