We've probably all been freaked out by essay writing at some point in our lives.
It used to be that 'essay' was a general term for any written piece of substantial length, including creative/narrative writing. But these days the term refers more to a formal or relatively formal piece of writing that sets out an argument (an opinion) on a given topic.
In terms of English, there are two main types of essays: the literature essay and the 'argument/discursive' essay. Literature essays are written in response to a literature text e.g. after reading a poem, novel, short story, (and in the case of NCEA, a film is also considered a literature text). A basic literature essay question could be 'Describe a character and explain why he or she was important in the text you have studied'.
An argument/discursive essay is usually based around a topic that is current to society today, and the student will need to decide whether they agree, disagree or partly agree with a particular standpoint on that issue. An example of an argument essay topic could be 'People waste too much time on electronic devices. Do you agree?'
Essays are challenging to write because there are many things that need to be kept in mind simultaneously e.g. using formal vocabulary while at the same time focusing on a tight structure that argues the point effectively, so I wouldn't usually start teaching basic essay writing to a student until they are about 12 or 13 yrs old. Prior to this age, I've found that even the most able students have difficulty grasping essay writing.
So, are essays really necessary to an education, or can we just skip learning about this type of writing altogether and still be successful? I would argue that essay writing is an extremely worthwhile skill for a number of reasons:
1. Essays place value on individual opinions
Essay writing doesn't have to be dry and boring; in fact, if it is, we're doing something wrong. Essays can and should be a vibrant platform for students to express themselves, decide what their values are, and how they want to change the world for the better. In argument / discursive essays in particular, I would cover a wide range of current issues with students. Just a small sample of the many questions we might discuss are: Do we need more limits on Artificial Intelligence and robotics? Should we make more effort to reduce plastic? Should we be doing more to help refugees worldwide? Writing essays prompts students to think about the issues the world faces, and how often we can be proactive in solving problems even on an individual or household level. They learn through pre-essay-writing discussion that it's okay for them to have their own opinion, it's okay to disagree with others (even the tutor!), and it's great practice for them to be able to use their voice, and give reasons for their views. Many of the most ground-breaking, famous sermons and speeches in human history have been based on an essay structure - persuasive and compelling writing at its best, read out loud or recited for the world to hear.
2. Human behaviour and self-awareness
Literature studies provide a great way for students to reflect on human relationships, and even on their own strengths and flaws. When studying most types of literature, there is a lot of discussion around characters - what are their positive and negative traits? Why do characters behave they way they do? Literature essays often revolve around these considerations, and I believe they can help students process ideas around relational complexity in the world, and allow students to think consciously about which character traits they value the most in themselves and others.
3. Essays are inescapable
Essays are not restricted to the subject of 'English'. No matter what subject a student pursues in higher education, it's guaranteed that, most of the time, essay writing will be required. Essays are a tried and tested way for educators to see whether students have absorbed, synthesised and evaluated the information and skills they are learning about. From a nursing degree to a diploma in youth work to an engineering qualification, whether given as coursework assignments or part of an external examination, essays will be needed. Learning the foundational skills for essay writing at the age of about 13 gives students an excellent springboard to leap from when it comes to writing essays in higher education. I've sometimes taught students who have never written an essay prior to the year they sit their first formal examination (e.g. at the age of 15 or 16 for NCEA Level One or Cambridge IGCSE) and it's a real struggle for them to learn the basics of essay writing in such a short time frame (usually only 3 terms, given that the academic year finishes in Oct/Nov). To be fair on the student, I think it's best to start essay writing skills at around 13 so that they have time to get used to the formal writing register, and experimenting with different ways of constructing robust, convincing argumentation, addressing counter-arguments, etc.
4. Essay skills are relevant to everyday adult life
Time and again I've used the basic essay model in everyday life. I've had to write the occasional formal complaint about things I feel very strongly about to people in authority; the essay structure and register has served me well when emailing or writing letters in a professional or weighty context; businesses are far more likely to take a letter of complaint seriously if the writer takes care to present a reasoned argument with evidence compared to an emotional rant. I've also made a couple of submissions on proposed law changes that I was opposed to through an essay-like structure, giving feedback on the bill and providing reasons for my views. I've also found that having a grounding in persuasive writing helps me to put my views into words in conversation with others; when I disagree, it's easier for me to express my counter-argument (not in formal language of course, but in a way that's clear and tells the other person where I'm coming from). The ability to express a view clearly and concisely and persuasively is extremely valuable in our modern world.
So, whether you're an adult student who is just learning about essays now, or you have a child of your own who is reaching their teen years, essay writing is a skill that is totally worthwhile. It takes time and patience to learn how to write a good essay, and plenty of practice, but the benefits of being able to express a unique point of view on any subject are priceless.
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