Episode 4: Essays That Actually 'Answer the Question'
LISTEN AND FOLLOW ON:
Essays don’t have to be quite so overwhelming, long, and arduous.
The 2-step Topic and Focus system is a proven, simple and super-effective way to get your teen on the right track in their response and ensures they ‘actually answer the question’. ;)
In this episode I share a real life essay question and how to use the Topic and Focus system to help your teen avoid the ‘Topic Traps’ and answer the precise Focus of the question - even if you have no clue about the subject yourself!
You will learn:
- The most common pitfalls affecting students’ essays.
- How to help your teen avoid major re-writes, waffling, and low-level responses (all of which can happen, even when the info they include is factually correct and there’s lots of it!).
- The trick to checking the focus of the essay and making it super-clear to answer.
- How this will help your teen to make strategic decisions on what points to include or evidence to select for their essay.
You’re listening to The Parents of Hardworking Teens Podcast, episode number 4 - and today we’re deep-diving into ESSAYS and the ONE system that solves all those common issues like going way over the word count and then having to spend almost as long cutting half of it out again, handing in 3 solid pages of writing, but still getting told they need more detail or handing in a draft, but then having to pretty much re-start and re-do the whole thing when they’re told they’ve gone down the wrong track. Argh!
Hi VIP’s! I’m SO glad to be here with you today because I’m going deep into those tasks that can feel overwhelming, long, time-consuming and well kinda arduous. And that’s just for you watching from the sidelines. ;)
Yep, we’re going to be hanging out and talking essays - specifically - how to help your teen break down and dissect the essay Q or title - even you have no idea about the topic yourself - so they can get on the right track in their response, select the best quotes or evidence and prevent the need for any major word culls or re-writes.
Now, there is so much to cover on essays - I literally just ran a 4 week Essays Bootcamp for our Next Level Coaching Students, on top of everything I had trained them in, in the 10WGT - that’s our short-speak for the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program. Just so you know… Next Level Coaching is a monthly coaching program I run for students who’ve completed the 10WGT, loved it and want to take things further with personal coaching with me and our English-Focus Coach, Gemma, with advanced trainings and mini challenges and workshops - like the Essays Bootcamp, all included. They come to as much or as little as they like - kinda like a monthly gym membership. And the 10WGT is my core training. It’s my flagship program. It’s where I train students in all the concepts, skills and strategies they need to achieve their maximum success, with less stress, including Module 9: Essays Made Easy.
Because, it’s no wonder that essays can turn into mammoth tasks. There’s the researching - that in itself can be a major time sap, analysis the evidence, coming up with the thesis statement… and then there’s how to make the conclusion high quality - so it does more than literally just repeat what’s already been written,
How to structure everything - the paragraph structure, the order of the points being made.. Hey, it’s no wonder these things can feel overwhelming!
But as you’re getting to know by now, I’m a big fan of breaking everything into do-able chunks and I’m also all about ALSO addressing the things that make the biggest difference, FAST - first.
AND that’s why I want to talk to you about my TOPIC and FOCUS system for breaking down essay Q’s here today. I’ll for sure be doing more episodes in future around essays and extended responses, but learning and using the TOPIC and FOCUS system is what makes the biggest and fastest difference to students and how they tackle essays.
It’s what ensures they ARE actually answering the Q.
It’s what STOPS them drifting off into the waffle zone.
It’s what helps them determines which are the best pieces of evidence to select, so they achieve more of those criteria that use words like ‘discerning selection of quotes’ or ‘sophisticated use of evidence’.
Now, I have a special Topic and Focus resource - my Essay Title Swipe File - that I sometimes run give-aways for as a thank you reward or as prizes, so make sure you’re on my email list to hear about any of those opportunities.
And, for those of you with teens already in the 10 Week Grade Transformation Program - they are trained in this system in detail, with real life examples, among all the other aspects of successful and smooth essay writing, in Catapult 9 of the program. And if they’ve completed the 10WGT and you want further and deeper COACHING for your teen in essays then get them into Next Level Coaching right now as we’ve just put up the whole of Essays Bootcamp - all the recordings of every session - so they have access to everything immediately, and can go even further with this for every subject or extended response.
And right now, I’ll use a specific example from my essay title swipe file as areal life question to explain this 2 step process here, today, so that you can support your teen with their essays, in a way that means they’re still thinking everything through and writing it all for themselves, but you both know that they’re on the right track, going in the right direction.
So, first - the TOPIC. This is the general topic, subject or theme the essay is about.
For example, if we take the Modern History essay Q:
How successful was the New Deal in getting the USA out of the Great Depression? we could read that and immediately say the topic is the Great Depression. But… even that would be starting off on the wrong track.
The Great Depression is part of the Q, but actually, it asks how successful was the New Deal in getting the USA out of the Great Depression.
So the topic is REALLY the New Deal.
And most students I’m sure would figure that out.
And that’s great. We do need to identify the Topic. The problem is that this is often where the dissection of the wording ends. Which means that this the point that most students then start writing. And therefore, this is the point where they start to go down the wrong path and start the long winding journey to re-writes if they are able to get draft feedback, or the shorter but still painful path to a disappointing mark if it’s an exam or assessment.
Because, the TOPIC is just the first step.
We then HAVE to identify the Focus. This is the critical step. But many students miss it. And this is why the markers for this Q would end up with lots of essays telling them about what the New Deal was, why it was created, by who, and when, what the policies were and what the outcomes were.
All factually correct information and we could probably fill 1500 or 2000 words with all that. Plenty of stats and quotes to back it all up as evidence too.
BUT - and you knew there was going to be a BUT, right?! All of that information is just that. It’s facts - it’s DESCRIPTIVE. It’s just stating information.
Now, I talk a little about this in episode 3 all about exam technique, about the different levels of responses. And so definitely listen to that episode if you haven’t already. (And this is why I always say, if students can nail exams and their exam technique, they can nail everything , because these skills are universal, they apply to every type of task and every subject). And it’s why these skills and strategies are SO effective. They overlap and so have multiple benefits… and this is the case here.
Your teen needs to figure out the FOCUS of the essay - what the level of the command is - and exactly what the Q is really asking.
In this case - How successful was the New Deal in getting the USA out of the Great Depression? Is actually asking us to make a JUDGEMENT. It’s asking ‘How successful’ was it? It’s not saying ‘hey, tell me all you know about the great depression or the new deal’. In fact that is something I really want to emphasise here.
No essay Q EVER says ‘Write all you know about subject X’.
So there’s always more to answering any essay than doing that.
So if we’re making a judgement - We’re having to look at all the evidence and then make a DECISION about how effective the New Deal was.
Extremely effective, not at all effective, or somewhat effective. That will be our ‘answer’, our thesis statement.
And notice how we aren’t giving a personal opinion. We’re just looking at the information we’ve studied on this topic, analysing the evidence, and making a decision based on that.
This is how we can then be sure to pick out the most relevant evidence to include in our essay.
And in every single paragraph: the intro, the body paragraphs, the conclusion, we make sure that we’re tying back our points, our explanations and analyses and our linking sentences to our answer to that Q. HOW this point or this evidence SHOWS that the New Deal was extremely effective, or not at all effective, or somewhat effective.
But we can’t do that if we aren’t clear on the FOCUS of the question in the first place.
One of the best ways to have your teen check they really do understand the focus is to have them re-write the Q in their own words, and wording it so that they put all the emphasis on the FOCUS.
If you want to see this in action, in real life, on my blog there’s an excerpt from a Next Level Coaching Call with me doing this exact thing with Daniel for his English essay. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes - and if you want to get the transcription of this episode, so you can download this essay question example and the breakdown of it all, that will all be in there too. Just go to www.rocksolidstudy.com/4 or scroll down to the link in the description of this episode your podcast app.
Anyway, Daniel was working on an English Essay and together we went through this exact process. It immediately stopped him falling into a Topic Trap and made sure he set off on the right path in his planning, his quote selection and his actual writing.
So, what could that look like for our Modern History example? Given that we know the focus is all about judging how successful the New Deal was, we could change it to something like: Was the New Deal effective in ending the Great Depression, or not? - And we can add ‘and why’ - as that will be all the reasons - our body paragraphs explaining that judgement. Or we could write it as: In what ways did the New Deal succeed and in what ways did it not succeed in getting the USA out of the Great Depression?
I prefer that first one though. Because it’s simpler and more like ‘student-speak’. We could even say something like:
The New Deal - did it work? Yes or no?
Notice how this also makes the whole thing feel a lot less daunting and overwhelming too!
The easier it is for your teen to really understand the FOCUS and then answer it, the better. Because although of course they can’t get a top mark for a poor quality response to the FOCUS of the question. They HAVE to address the FOCUS to achieve maximum marks. They can NEVER get top marks, no matter how amazing their writing, their evidence, their paragraphing or discussion, if they don’t address the FOCUS of the Q. They’d max out at something like 14 or 15 out of 20… and end up with the feedback of ‘great analysis - now answer the Q’!
So, like I said, a deep-dive episode today. This is one you might want to listen back to again, or use as an example to work with sometime. Remember, you can get the full transcript and the coaching excerpt video at www.rocksolidstudy.com/4 if you want to see this in action.
And I want to leave you with a real example of a parent taking this system, and passing it onto their teen one day, and them putting it into action the next. Janine is a parent who came to a free 5 day Facebook Group parent event I ran last year. I have another coming up soon - mid July - so make sure you’re on my email list if you’re keen to be a part of that - and Janine won a copy of my Essay Title Swipe File, with the full variety of real life essays across different subjects, with me breaking them down step by step. She posted this comment in the group the next day: She said “Lauren [her daughter] Lauren has been using the … essay writing skills on topic and focus to finish her latest English Literature essay last night. She had received feedback on her draft that it had gone a bit astray, so last night she went back a step to review the topic and focus and reworked it a little.
Well today she got her grade: an A!!!!”
So, I’m excited to hear how you and your teen go with this. I hope you’ve found this episode useful: I like getting into the nitty-gritty details sometimes, so I hope you do too… and I hope that you use this 2 step strategy to help guide your teen with essays, no matter the subject. Thank you so much for listening, please share this with anyone else you know who could benefit, and I’ll see you back here soon.