Negotiating the Difference: Learning to Write A-Level Essays in the Humanities

Charlotte is an English teacher in east London and carried out this research during the 2013-2014 academic year. This explorative study provides a snapshot of the process of learning how to write academic essays at A Level. The research involved three sixth form students who studied one or more of the following Humanities subjects:  English, Geography and History. Charlotte sought to understand the differences in essay writing across the various Humanities subjects, and how well students negotiate these differences. In her conclusion she outlines a series of practical ideas that could create a more joined-up approach to teaching the essay across the Humanities at her school.


RPBE 3Where are there similarities and differences in essay writing across the Humanities?

The evidence I’ve collated suggests that there are key crossover areas across all three subjects, in command words and skills that the students are expected to apply.  The two words that students and staff keep returning to are ‘analysis’ and ‘evaluation’, And while there is a similarity in terms of the command words used, there does seem to be a difference in what they are intended to mean.

I found that in English analysis was given prominence over any other skill. Students received feedback relating to the specificity of their analysis: were they “searching” the text for meaning and were they accurate in pinpointing how this meaning is conveyed to the reader?  This was made clearer when I looked at the type of exam questions that English students were asked, such as ‘Comment on and analyse how the writer’s choice of structure, language and form shape meanings’. I realised that they were simply being invited to carry out a critical examination of the text. This foregrounds analysis as the key skill, but asks something quite different to History and Geography where analysis implies an examination to identify causes, key factors, possible results, and expound an argument.

RPBE 2The fact that English students aren’t asked a question at all makes it quite difficult for them to form an argument in response:  they are not being asked to assess an author’s success—that is already an established fact by the very nature of their being on the syllabus—rather they are invited to explain how they achieve success in their writing technique. This provides quite a contrast with the students’ experience of History where they are encouraged to take a position on the essay question in their introduction, making a preliminary judgment and scrutinizing the evidence. Although there is a contrast in both of those actions—‘scrutinize’ and ‘uncover meaning’—they are both accepted definitions of the word ‘analyse’, but they do involve quite different processes, and that is perhaps not what is made clear to students.

The other word that appears time and time again in the margins of students work is ‘evaluate’. Similar to the multiple meanings of analysis, evaluation seems to be spoken of as a skill or style, and as a particular act. That is, a student may be encouraged to evaluate the particular significance of a geographical case study, but there is also the encouragement for students to write in an evaluative style, where they assess the relative importance of various forms of evidence as their essays progress.

RPBE 1There is also a sense of ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ evaluation in English. Even when students start out from a point of critical appreciation they are still able to evaluate the efficacy of one author’s language choice when compared with another. But again, there seems to be a dividing line between English and the subjects of Geography and History. In English each time the teacher’s marginal notes ask the student ‘for what purpose?’ or ‘why are they important?’ they are really asking for evaluation; however, the word ‘evaluation’ itself doesn’t appear as regularly in the feedback on English essay as it does in Geography and History essays.

What do students understand about the differences in essay writing between their various Humanities subjects?

I think what became evident as my research progressed was that students weren’t in the habit of thinking about the similarities and differences between their subjects; they certainly weren’t in the habit of consciously transferring those skills.

On the whole I got the impression that students thought about writing essays as a distinct process for each subject. This was confirmed in the questionnaire when Student B, who found writing History essays harder, stated that structuring a Geography essay is more straightforward because, ‘in Geography we are given a booklet that explains the basic structure and generally we are taught how to structure essays.’ So maybe it shouldn’t be assumed that students will automatically transfer these skills between subjects—even where there are similar command terms being used. And perhaps, further, that whilst one department may be very efficient at teaching essay writing style this only seeks to further compartmentalize each discipline.

What aspects of essay writing do students find most difficult?

Looking at the classroom observations, lesson time is mostly given over to unpacking questions, which suggests that teachers know this to be a difficult aspect of essay writing and hence they apportion more classroom time to it.

In contrast, the aspect of essay writing that students acknowledge to find the most difficult is the introduction; all three students agreed that this was the trickiest part of writing an essay. Student B and Student C are more reserved in the way the express their opinion, but Student A is obviously quite adamant that “INTRODUCTIONS ARE THE HARDEST THING IN THE UNIVERSE.”

For teachers, however, their essay feedback always seems to focus on the conclusion and the students’ ability to synthesise or give an overview of their argument. These two words, ‘synthesis’ and ‘overview’ illustrate where Humanities subjects are asking for the same skills to be applied but using different terminology. All teachers want their students to draw a conclusion, to reach a final judgment on the topic in question in a way that rounds off the process of analysis, but the use of different command words often prevents students from transferring skills from one Humanities subject to another.

From this point onwards I was able to make three recommendations which relate to the creation of a command word catalogue, the use of exemplar material, and the development of planning strategies. The details of which can be found in my full dissertation, here: Dissertation Final Draft.

Pegz (B&W) SmallCharlotte_pegram@hotmail.


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