Post: Five ways to help students struggling with essay writing



Five ways to help students struggling with essay writing

“As cognitively demanding as chess”. Essay writing in secondary school English is a challenge. Particularly so for students struggling with literacy skills. This blog outlines five ways to support struggling students with essay writing.
Five ways to help students struggling with essay writing

Improving students’ essay writing skills helps them to succeed inside and outside the classroom. It is estimated that 70% of salaried jobs require writing skills. Yet, many of our students are underachieving in reading and writing as they progress through secondary school.

Let’s face it though, writing is complex. American literacy expert, Kellogg, argues that writing tasks can be as cognitively demanding as chess. Writing, particularly essay writing, requires students to combine several processes.

Firstly, they have to be able to transcribe. That is, physically write or type the words. Students must also apply their literacy skills and knowledge correctly. Thirdly, writing requires critical thinking skills such as summarising findings, organising ideas and reviewing texts.

This leads to our first way to help struggling students with essay writing.

Break essay writing down

A common theme through effective writing instruction is to help students break down complex writing tasks.

Secondary English students should become proficient in as many of the individual processes as possible, from the word level to the text level. Support this by:

  • ensuring adequate instruction and opportunity to practice handwriting, spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • providing sentence starters (for example, “While it initially appeared that…, upon closer inspection…”).
  • explaining what essay questions mean (for example, evaluate versus outline).

Focus on purpose

It isn’t easy to start writing without a central idea for the essay. Teachers should support students in determining a clear purpose for their essays before they begin writing.

Secondary English students are expected to write for various purposes such as different types of essays (informational, persuasive and narrative) and audiences.

Educators can improve students’ writing by teaching them how to structure various essays. Research into writing frames showed students are better equipped to generate and organise ideas once they have a structure.

Similarly, students need to know which writing conventions are suitable for different essays. For example, while an emoji is welcome in a blog post, it may not be ideal for a formal essay.

Combining reading and writing

“Writers learn conventions and different characteristics of various text forms through reading and writing” (Ministry of Education, 2003). Effective teachers make connections between reading and writing.

To clarify research showing boys under-achievement in writing, Essential Resources author Frances Adlam highlights that:

“Clear links are evident between boys’ level of writing success and their reading abilities and behaviours. (Boys who write at a high level are generally avid readers).”

In secondary English, reading will help students understand how writers use structure and language to form ideas within essays.

In Narrative Fiction Writing, author Phillip Simpson says exemplars are “worth their weight in gold.” Exemplars encourage shared reading and discussion. Simpson’s writing resource says reading and discussions “encourage students to reflect on the structure of the text (both surface and deeper features).”

Check as you write

Traditionally students have been taught that essay writing is a linear process – plan, draft, edit and publish. As part of this process, the first draft is “free-flowing.”

However, in her blog, Learning to write – it’s time to change how we teach, Essential Resources author Helen Walls describes the writing process as a juggling act:

“[Skilled writers] re-read and revise throughout the drafting process – from the very first sentence. This continual checking and refining increases self-awareness, which leads to higher-quality writing for both surface and deeper features.”

To help struggling writers, English teachers should encourage their students to check their work as they write. Does the sentence sound the way it was intended? Is the punctuation correct for the sentence?

Modelling essay writing

Writing strategies should be taught to struggling writers through a gradual release of responsibility. Firstly, the strategy needs to be introduced to the students and then be modelled by the teacher.

Sharing is a great way to model. By thinking aloud, teachers can share their thought processes with students. For example, model the revising process by asking, “Which synonyms could I have used instead of…?”

Writing frames are another tool for modelling. They can be used as a way for the teacher and students to co-construct the structure of the essay.

Critical Essay Writing provides writing frames as outlines for the essay topics. The secondary school English resource also has writing plans and exemplars as models for students.

Why essay writing skills are so important

From 2024, secondary students will need to pass either a Te Reo Matatini standard or the two Literacy standards to be awarded their NCEA qualification at any level.

The Literacy standards focus on reading and writing. The writing standard (US32405) requires students to “write texts to communicate ideas and information”. The Big Ideas to support the standard ask learners to:

  • Write meaningful texts for different purposes and audiences.
  • Use written language conventions appropriately to support communication.

These five strategies will help struggling students develop essay writing skills to meet the new writing standard for NCEA. Once they master essay writing, it will be a skill for their future learning, life and work.


Enrol Now

How to Teach Writing, Spelling and Grammar

Enrol Now

Building Social and Emotional Skills and Wellbeing

Enrol Now

Cultural and Social Inclusion

Enrol Now

Foundations of Communication, Language and Literacy