Write That Essay: professional development day


Image: “Power of Words” by Antonio Litterio, shared on Wikimedia Commons with a Creative Commons licence

Today was a teacher only day at my school. Dr Ian Hunter was running a school-wide essay writing workshop, held in the library. Given that “teacher only” actually means “all staff” and the workshop was held in my work space and it was literacy-focused I thought I should attend. Because, duh, I couldn’t do anything noisy (like covering books), the library is all about student literacy and, well, some people actually like learning.

Here are some of the notes I took.

We need to model better writing.

Five types of sentences:

  1. Very short sentences (five words or less)
    • use in the middle of paragraphs – gets attention, OR
    • use at the end of a paragraph – emphatic
    • don’t overuse it!
  2. W-start: with, while, when / where as / where, who, what (progression of Ws)
    • they are the foundation sentence of analytical writing
    • holds attention to tell more significant thing
  3. Adverb (-ly words)
    • importantly, significantly etc
    • however, yet, now, often, moreover
    • adverb, comma, rest of sentence
    • introduces interest and intrigue
  4. Em-dash (long hyphen)
    • drop in phrase completely separate from the rest of the sentence for impact
  5. Explore the subject of sentence

Teach sentences in RHYTHM and STYLE – not parts of speech



Who’s the most important person on the page? The reader.


  • clarity means the reader follows every word and gets it.
  • author examples: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, C S Lewis, Hemingway
  • see The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis (available at Napier Libraries)

Barriers to exam essay writing:

  • writing speed / output (successful Level 3 and scholarship students are writing 160 words every 10 minutes – students need to know this, and they need to practise writing fast)
    • Level 2 = 140 words / 10 minutes
    • Level 1 = 100-120 words / 10 minutes
  • essay planning
    • mind maps are great for generative thinking – not for creating logical judgement and structure
    • list ideas in one or two words
    • choose your best three ideas
    • decide a logical order to present your ideas – start with your best idea ⇒ what logically comes next?
  • how students are taught to manage time
    • 10 minutes planning / 45 minutes writing / 10 minutes reading – this is not enough time writing!
    • instead: 2 minutes planning / 55 minutes writing / 2 minutes rest
  • legibility
    • while this may not be such as issue at NCEA level, at tertiary level if your handwriting cannot be read it will not be marked
    • help students now to write fast and legibly – practise, practise, practise


(Boys like rules, it is a structure imposed upon them, removes not knowing and increases confidence)

  • no essay longer than 1000 words. Ever.
  • no report longer than 1500 words
  • make six paragraph essays mandatory (where the fifth paragraph is a discussion paragraph → most important idea and why)
  • no conclusions shorter than 100 words


(not to repeat what you’ve already said!)

  1. RESTATE the argument.
  2. Tell how you PROVED it.
    • most significant point and why
    • new insight (not new evidence)
    • personal reflection
    • two things we learn from this
    • two things to bear in mind for the future
  4. POWER sentence – 12 words or less.


  • avoid three things approach (ie, Firstly, secondly, thirdly etc)
  • avoid detective approach (ie, suggests a big reveal, doesn’t reveal position)
  • if you ask a question in your introduction – answer it straight away

An introduction in four sentences:

  1. A neutral sentence.
  2. Write a context sentence.
  3. State your argument.
  4. Sum up.

ESSAY = the defense of a thesis statement (ie, what you say in your introduction!)

In order for students to demonstrate UNDERSTANDING and ANALYSIS, the questions you ask must FORCE A CHOICE.

Dr Hunter was a charismatic presenter. He kept 70+ staff (of varying degrees of receptiveness) engaged throughout most of the day. He came across as confident and knowledgeable, and was able to answer any questions that challenged what he said. However, he did say a couple of controversial things. And that’s all good if they’re true. But I don’t know whether they are or not as they were not offered with any evidence. Dr Hunter may have data that we are unaware of, this was not shared with us. Instead what was offered was anecdotal evidence and that just didn’t sit right with me. So I will investigate the controversial things.

Overall, this was an interesting and informative day. And I learned some stuff I wish I knew in high school!


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