Planning is an essential writing skill, but one that is often overlooked. It is something that we assume students know how to do and is therefore rarely explicitly taught. In reality, many students understand that they need to plan, but few actually know how to produce one that is effective.
Why do we plan?
At GCSE and A Level, the English examinations in both Language and Literature are looking to award marks for the structure and organisation of a piece of writing. They want to see a clear sequence of ideas that are linked together effectively. It is very unlikely that a student is going to be able to write with the correct level of focus and clarity unless they have first produced a plan. Writing an essay without writing a plan is like trying to travel somewhere new without directions. You may somehow stumble across the right path, but it is going to take you a lot longer, and can be a highly frustrating process. You are likely to repeat yourself, confuse ideas and contradict your own argument. Many students often end up struggling to write enough, as the flow of ideas dries up.
Mastering essay writing means learning how to produce points that are simultaneously concise and detailed – not an easy thing to achieve! It requires a razor sharp level of focus and this is where you rely on your plan to remind you exactly what it is that you are hoping to achieve. Many points in students’ essays either lack sufficient detail or become too drawn out and confusing. Students sometimes end up trying to make two or three different points in the same paragraph, meaning they do not give each idea the space it is required in order to develop.
How to plan?
There are many different styles of planning and everyone has their favourite way. Post-it notes can be a useful tool in planning, since they can be used to brainstorm ideas and then rearranged later in order to create the structure of the essay. One tip is to get students to different coloured post-it notes, so that they can build up each paragraph, for example one colour for points, one for evidence and so on. This strategy is also a great one for students who are kinesthetic learners.
Mind maps also work well, since they are a visual way of creating the structure of the essay. Each part of the mind map represents a different point in the essay, and students can then add on evidence, techniques and explanations. It is easy to see where links could be made between different ideas, and it helps to see how their essay will flow together. Bullet points also work, and are probably the simplest way to plan in an examination, where space and time are short.
When you are producing an essay plan, you should always begin by establishing the key points. These points are your very basic answer to the question and should never be longer than one sentence. Once the points are down, then it is time to look for evidence. Some students try to bypass the point and go straight to the evidence stage, but they do need to establish their point first. In English, evidence will nearly always be in the form of a quotation. In other subjects, it may be research facts or statistics. After the evidence, then the explanation/analysis can be added.
When students are planning, they need to have the assessment objectives in mind as well, to ensure they are not leaving anything out that could cost them marks. For example, in English, there is a need in some questions to consider the historical context of the piece.
If a student is planning a piece of creative writing, the same principle can be used. They need to establish the topic/focus of every paragraph in their piece of writing and the secondary ideas that will follow. Some students will put devices into their plan, but there is no point in having a list of devices and no actual story structure to follow!
Students also often feel (very logically) that the first thing they should plan needs to be the introduction. However, it is very hard to plan an introduction until you know what it is that you are actually introducing. Thus it is necessary to get the points of the essay set down first of all, so you know what the overall line of argument entails.
How can my child get better at planning?
Like any skill, it is only going to truly develop and improve with practice. Practising planning needs to be incorporated into a student’s revision timetable. Sometimes they may go on to write out the essay in full, but at other times, it may be enough to just produce a detailed essay plan, as this will take them through the thought process they need to have in the examination.
Planning can be a collaborative process, and working in a small group to share ideas can really help some students. Encourage your child to study in small groups with their friends, and work on planning together. When I am working in small groups or one to one, I also find it can help if I act as the scribe for the group, recording the ideas and points as they are made. This is so that the students can concentrate on idea generation, and are less likely to get distracted by the actual writing process.
Another benefit of planning in a group is that students can talk through their essay plan. This is a really important way for them to check that it actually makes sense! It can highlight sections that do not flow together or areas where their points are not actually that clear. Discussing the plan first can also make him/her feel more confident about what they are about to write.
Are you looking for additional English support for your child? Bright Sky Tutoring offers one to one and small group sessions for KS2, KS3, KS4 and KS5. To find out more, email email@example.com today.