For English teachers, there’s no escaping the essay. Yet, getting your students to actually write essays can feel impossible! In this post, I’m going to share what I’ve done to get students to complete their essays–even if they’re complaining the whole time.
Looking for more tips? Here are some ways to make teaching the essay easier.
Want to skip the prep? Check out my 5-Paragraph Essay Writing Resources!
Get Your Students to Actually Write Essays Tip #1: Break Down the Essay Into Small Steps
During my first year of teaching, I made a big mistake. I assigned an essay at the end of our unit.
This only left a couple of weeks for students to brainstorm, outline, and write. Worse, it only left me a couple of weeks to help problem solve any difficulties.
I had assumed that my sophomores had been writing five-paragraph essays since middle school. I expected them to know the basics and be able to fill out an outline.
Boy, was I wrong.
Almost no one turned in an essay that quarter, and I had to do some extreme grading gymnastics to recover from my mistake. What I should have done instead was assign the essay early and broken it down into its tiniest possible steps.
Instead of expecting students to write an outline, I should have had them write a thesis statement one day. Then, on another day, I should have had them write their claims. On yet another day, I should have had them find their evidence.
And so on and so forth.
For students who aren’t confident writers, asking them to write, or even outline, a whole essay at once is just too overwhelming.
Instead, give yourself plenty of time to teach and your students to work–one baby step at a time.
(Want to help break down the essay into tiny parts? Check out my 5-paragraph Essay Slideshow!)
Get Your Students to Actually Write Essays Tip#2: Give a Grade and a Deadline for Each Step
This is so obnoxious, but I promise it helps. My students were largely procrastinators. Worse, our school didn’t allow point deductions for late work, so students knew there were no penalties for late work.
This made for an environment in which students waited until after the last possible minute to start assignments. But when an essay is due a few days before the end of the quarter, that window of time in between isn’t enough.
Instead, I started grading every step between brainstorming and the final product. Sure, there was still no penalty for doing every late, but a lot of students didn’t like seeing Fs in the gradebook so close to the end of the quarter. Or their parents didn’t.
So I would put two points in the grade book for students when they chose a topic. Then, I would put five points in the grade book after I checked off their quality thesis statements.
Each step built up in points until the outline, which was worth fifty points. At that point, it would be one of, if not the, largest assignments in the gradebook.
But, all of that was in my formative category, which was a much smaller percentage overall compared to my summative category in my gradebook. Once the final essay went into the summative category, it pretty much overruled any grades they got for the smaller essay steps.
Find a way to incentivize students to get the parts of their essays done in a timely manner. When students miss a deadline, put that zero in immediately (even if they can replace it with an unpenalized score later).
Grades don’t work for every student, but they work for some. Plus, students will eventually realize that writing one essay will fix several missing assignments. They may do the paper just to avoid doing a ton of other assignments to try and compensate.
Get Your Students to Actually Write Essays Tip #3: If Necessary and Possible, Don’t Be Above a Bribe
Look, I hate telling teachers to spend money on their classrooms. You shouldn’t have to.
But, if you do happen to have a pack of stickers or candy or pencils sitting around in your closet, try trading those for work done on time.
For example, if you expect students to have their thesis statements perfected by the end of class, you can offer each student who meets that expectation a Tootsie Roll or lollipop.
Sure, there’s no punishment for taking longer to write their thesis statements, but there’s no reward either. Many students will wise up and just do the assignment on the day rather than do it later when there’s no prize.
As always, ask your school if there’s money for such things. See if you guidance counselors on sitting on bags of cheap prizes you can have. Even high school seniors will be sad to miss out on a free sticker or temporary tattoo.
Get Your Students to Actually Write Essays Tip #4: Try to Make It Fun
Sometimes, teaching the essay is going to be boring. At some point, students will have to sit and listen to you explain the process, and at some point they will have to write.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be any fun!
You can also add some fun to the assignment by letting them have as much choice as possible when it comes to their topic.
For a literary essay, their topics might be limited in scope. But if you’re teaching how to write a research paper, you may be able to give students more flexibility in choosing topics that interest them.
And, of course, using funny examples when explaining the process can help, too. You can model writing a whole essay based on a question like, “Which fast food restaurant serves the best french fries?”
Choose examples that will get students laughing or arguing. Either way, they’re engaged!
Get Your Students to Actually Write Essays Tip #5: If Students Struggle With Writing, Offer More Scaffolding
Many students avoid writing essays because they’re lazy or choose to procrastinate.
But I’d argue even more students avoid writing essays because they’re not confident in their ability to do so.
If you feel like a lack of skills is the real reason you’re not getting essays from your students, try adding more scaffolding options for them.
Breaking down the essay-writing process into smaller steps will surely help. But there are other ways to assist students, too.
For example, if they’re struggling to write a thesis statement or claim, offer them sentence starters.
If the clincher is causing writer’s block, give students a specific way to end their essay. You can, for example, tell them to end with a call-to-action and let them choose one for their reader.
You could also brainstorm evidence as a class, model how to cite it, and then let students choose which ones they believe are best for their essay.
It’s especially frustrating when you have older students and you feel that they should be able to write a measly five paragraphs on their own. However, some students truly do need these additional tools to help them be successful.
If you have students all year or for several essay-writing units, start the year with more scaffolding. Then, with each additional writing assignment, remove one or two.
Getting students to actually sit down, pick up a pencil, and write a sentence can sometimes feel impossible. I know. I’ve been there.
Instead of getting frustrated, however, get curious instead. If you can nail down why students aren’t making progress on their essays, it may give you some ideas on how you can help.
Slow and steady wins the essay-writing race. Give you and your students plenty of time to work on their paper bit by bit.
Need some essay-writing mini-lessons? Want some fun activities you can do with your students? Check out my 5-Paragraph Essay Writing Resources!