What makes great analytical writing?

Picture2The ubiquitous PEE paragraph – and its errant siblings PEEL and PEAZLE – have become so reliant a method for developing some foundation stones of analytical writing in our students – showing understanding, selecting evidence and explaining the ‘effects’ of quotations – that for some students, they are fairly representative of their whole English experience at secondary school.

It’s easy to see why. They are a way to capture thinking and a method of scaffolding a potentially difficult process. For English teachers under pressure to coach students to pass their exams, they are a multi-tool. They give us something to assess. Consequently, there is perhaps a perception that PEE paragraphs are somehow the only valid way to respond to a text.

In fact, there is a variety of much more exciting things to do with a text we might encounter in the classroom. We can re-imagine it; discuss it; sell it; blog it; debate it; restructure it; question it; map it; visualize it or dramatize it.

But all this said, analytical writing is important. It is a ‘threshold concept‘. It is arguably the primary way of responding to texts and ideas in the real world – in the media; in politics; in society and in culture.

I’m not sure I always taught analytical writing well earlier in my teaching career. For me, like many, the PEE paragraph was a formula to get students through coursework essays and to use as a model for exam-style responses. Even later on, when ‘bolt-on’ techniques like ‘the zoom technique’ and ‘this also suggests’ helped me to encourage students to focus more on language and on making more developed responses, I’m not sure I was teaching analysis at its core.

I conceded that if I was going to teach analytical writing – and I think we should – I could make it much more engaging. Using the resources in my earlier ‘How can Katy Perry help us to write about poetry’ post, I began to work on further materials to exemplify good analytical writing.

Working with my Year Eleven class, I established some maxims for great analytical writing. Sometimes, analytical writing is formal. Sometimes, it’s informal. Individual response is essential. As is personal voice and precise, cogent expression. We looked at Carol Rumens’ analysis of Richard Blanco’s presidential inauguration poem, ‘One Today’.

Students then chose a subject of their own to write about. These ranged from the ‘shower scene’ in Psycho to Family Guy; from Radiohead’s OK Computer to the work of the German Industrial metal band Rammstein.

Results were pleasing. The students’ responses immediately felt more individual and their voices more personal. The students began to evaluate in a way they hadn’t done before. Through the choices they made about grammar and sentence structure – and the discussions we had around these things – precision and cogency began to characterize their writing in way the PEE paragraph had never allowed for.

There’s still work to be done. But by acknowledging the limitations of the PEE paragraph and allowing the students to become engaged by genuine personal response, we feel we have begun a process that feels perfectly matched to our vision for an engaging, diverse and rich curriculum. And students and teachers are all the better off for it.


Featured image: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash