How to write an essay (hacker-style)

Learning from the neck upwards always has its limitations, I find. Get the body involved and somehow we seem to understand things – and remember them – better.

Getting out of your seat, standing up and performing different actions to explain and embed a variety of writing skills can work wonders, including essay-writing, tackling reading comprehension, mindmapping, story-writing, revising parts of speech and learning how to study and write poems.

In this first in a series of short blogs, I tackle essay-writing. Many children are not short on things to say; what causes them untold problems is how to structure their thoughts – how to begin, where to go to next, how to round it all up and so on. Precious minutes can be lost in English examinations through time spent deliberating how to structure a response to studied literature.

So when it comes to structure, I get the children to ‘dance it out’. For some children I sell it as a rugby hacker, for others it’s a dance or a set of exercises to keep us fit.

Each action accompanies a statement to be shouted out at the same time. I’ve listed them below, with a short rationale for each one.


1. Define the terms

Every good essay begins with a definition of terms – an explanation of what the question is asking you to do, in your own words, defining any key words and setting out what your essay is going to address.


Palms together, out front, in the shape of a book. Open the book (palms out) as if opening a large dictionary.

Shout out: ‘DEFINE THE TERMS!’


2. Set the scene

It’s always good to offer a few lines of context here. If writing about a book or a scene, explain the place, time period and so on – any political, social or familial background that is important and any key themes that are relevant to your essay.


Arms stretched out ahead of you, hands together and then move arms/hands apart as if mimicking a wide, panoramic photograph in front of you.

Say aloud: ‘SET THE SCENE!’

(I always find it’s especially good to emphasise the alliteration here. Set the Scene


3. Introduce the characters

Next, say a little about the central characters in the story or scene you are writing about. Introduce the main protagonists, heroes or villains, who are particularly relevant to the central point you have been asked to write about.


Right arm out stretched, turn to the side, as if introducing an imaginary person you’ve just arrived at a party with.



4. Three main points

It’s the magic three here, like every good essay or speech, try to make three main points. Any less is too few, and any more can be unwieldy and prevent you from exploring each one in any depth (particularly if you’re writing against the clock).


One fist out, second fist below it, then move the first fist and place it below the second fist – creating the three lights on a traffic light.  


(Move each fist as you say each of the three words above).


5. Give evidence

Every good essay needs evidence from the text to support your views and observations. To be exact, you really need point/evidence, point/evidence, point/evidence. But performing each action like this (with ‘three main points’ followed by ‘give evidence’ will ensure you remember to include both elements in your essay).


You are in a court room, giving evidence under oath. So, right arm extended, palm up.

Say aloud: ‘GIVE EVIDENCE!’


6. Round it all up

You need to write a conclusion to your essay, in which you return to the opening question and make sure you answer it directly. Effectively, you need to round it all up for the reader.


Index finger extended on each hand, arms out and together so fingers meet. Both hands then work down each half of the circle, meeting together again at the bottom.

Say aloud: ‘ROUND IT ALL UP!’


Now that you have learned each step, it’s time to put it all together as one dance/rugby hacker…







Over the years, I have seen countless children sat at little tables in large examination rooms, silently performing these actions in miniature, in order to remind themselves of the ingredients and structure of a good essay. They won’t get stuck again.

It works. They never forget it. Never.

Next blog – How to tackle reading comprehension.





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