Why Students Today Can’t Seem to Write Essays and What We Should Be Doing About it

Essay writing is hard for students, and dismal test scores bear this out. essaypop simplifies the teaching and learning of writing an essay by compartmentalizing the parts of the essay into easy-to-handle frames that, when combined together, form smoothly-written, organized papers. It also features an interactive environment called the Hive that allows teachers and students to collaborate and receive crowdsourced feedback and advice.

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The Problem – Students Are Not Being Taught How To Write Essays. 

Has traditional essay writing fallen out of fashion? By “traditional essay,” we refer to the multiple-paragraph paper that begins with a focused introduction that presents a thesis, followed by several body paragraphs that support the thesis, and a conclusion that sums things up and puts matters into perspective. The well-known, five-paragraph essay is one such paper that falls into this category, but certainly is not the only variation. A three, six or even ten-paragraph paper would also qualify. There are those who suggest that this type of writing is a quaint, but outdated skill; a held-over practice from a more conventional time. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Traditional essay writing is being emphasized more than ever before. 

The Standards Call for Structure, Evidence and Coherence

Consider what is prescribed by the Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing. Students are asked to:

  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1).
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.  (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2)
  • Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4).

And take a look at what the Smarter Balanced Performance Task (The writing portion of the Common Core State Standards-aligned test used in 15 states) assesses in its rubrics:  Both the 4-Point Informative-Explanatory Performance Task and Argumentative Performance Task  (Grades 6-11) require that “the response has a clear and effective organizational structure, creating a sense of unity and completeness. The response is fully sustained, and consistently and purposefully focused.”  The rubric additionally asks that, “the response provides thorough and convincing support/evidence for the controlling idea and supporting idea(s) that includes the effective use of sources, facts, and details. The response clearly and effectively elaborates ideas, using precise language.”  

As you can see, these summative performance tasks require students to write evidence-based compositions, organized into structured paragraphs in order to demonstrate their language arts competencies. In short, they are being asked to write traditional essays. But are today’s students prepared to produce such writing?  Much of the research suggests that they are not. 

The Numbers Aren’t Good

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) most recent assessment, only about one-quarter of students, grades 8 through 12,  perform at the Proficient level in writing. The Atlantic Monthly’s, Peg Tyre, writes that, “based on the Nation’s Report Card only 1 percent of all students in the 12th grade nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-­organized essay.” She goes on to comment that “high schools are still graduating large numbers of students whose writing skills better equip them to work on farms or in factories than in offices.” The research consistently shows that achievement rates in writing remain low, and this doesn’t change when students enter college. 

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Universities Are Concerned

Universities are perplexed by newly enrolled students’ inability to craft a basic written argument in their research, persuasive and analytical essays. As Soheila Battaglia of Demand Media points out, “Even before students are accepted to universities, they have to be able to write essays as part of their applications. Once accepted, they continue to write essays in courses across the humanities. Essays are assigned by instructors as a method for measuring critical thinking skills, understanding of course material, and writing skills.” But many new college students simply aren’t prepared or able to produce these types of sustained and coherent multiple-paragraph compositions .  

According to Daniel DeVise of the Washington Post, “more than 80 percent of freshmen have never written a formal five-page paper. Instead, they’ve churned out short essay after short essay after short essay. When asked to develop an idea or argument beyond two or three pages, they look dumbfounded.” Take a look at any college or university website and you will find style guides for basic, academic writing that, more or less, focus on the same things — a tightly constructed introductory paragraph with an unambiguous thesis statement, several focused body paragraphs that present some sort of evidence that is coherently explained by the writer, and a conclusion that revisits the essay’s main points. So why aren’t students able to write these kinds of traditional papers?

Who is Teaching the Teachers?

Some say the reason behind the problem is that students just don’t spend very much time writing in middle school and high school, and when they do, it’s either creative writing, journaling or short expressions of personal opinion. The Common Core education standards for ELA were developed, in large part, as a reaction to this, explicitly requiring students to write substantial, evidence-based expository and argumentative essays, not only in their English classes, but in their history, science and math classes as well. 

While well-meaning and carefully-constructed, the problem with this new approach is not the standards themselves, but, rather, the fact that teachers aren’t necessarily trained on how to teach them. As Natalie Wexler of the Washington Post points out, “the authors of the Common Core focused just on the skills that students should have at each grade level, not on how to impart them. And few teachers have been trained to teach these writing skills, apparently because educators believe that students will just pick them up through reading. Obviously, most don’t.”  

So, essentially, the  writing standards are solid; they’re comprehensive and are what the university and business communities are asking for. What’s missing are the methodologies and the training to provide teachers with the skill set to teach these standards. The teaching of academic writing is not explicitly covered in Bachelor of Arts programs, nor is it taught in secondary credential programs. And, ironically, when new teachers hit the classroom for the first time, it is assumed that they arrive with a certain set of pedagogical tools, one being the ability to teach kids how to write. Some teachers figure it out on their own, but not all do. Others are fortunate enough to receive informal mentorship from more-experienced teachers at their school sites, but not everyone is fortunate enough to receive such coaching. The fact is, most teachers who we entrust to teach our kids how to write simply do not receive formal training on how to do so, and herein lies the problem.

Teaching Essay Writing is Not Easy

The challenge is that the essay-writing process is very complex; it is not easy for the instructor to teach, nor is it simple for the learner to master. The textbook companies have given a nod to formal essay-writing instruction, but, really, they are more focused on reading development and standardized test preparation. Sure, they provide end-of-chapter questions and short-answer prompts that they expect teachers will be able to guide their students through.  But if the teachers don’t have the training to create writing experiences that produce substantive papers, or multiple-paragraph responses that resonate, then the cycle of not knowing how to teach the skills and not learning how to write to the standards is perpetuated.

1,000 Pages a Week = Teacher Burnout

What’s worse is even if teachers do discover a way to teach essay writing, they soon realize that with this success comes a grueling grading burden. The image of the dedicated english teacher loading crates of papers into the trunk of her car to take home for the weekend is not over-exaggerated. And this burden takes its toll. Many experienced teachers will tell you that, over time, they assign fewer and fewer long-form papers because there simply is not enough time to grade them. This is especially true in an era where it is not uncommon for class sizes to swell to 40 students per class or more. Imagine, having 200 students, all of whom produce a five-page paper, once per week. That’s 1,000 pages per week that need to be read, commented on and assessed — a Herculean task by any standard.  It’s no wonder that even dedicated teachers back away from assigning essays to their students on a regular basis.

What Can Be Done?

What is needed is a uniform system of writing instruction that explicitly helps instructors teach students how to compose the types of essays that the standards require. It could be used independently by students who want to learn on their own, and of course work well in  collaborative, classroom settings. The technology would take the pressure off of teachers not only by giving them a comprehensive teaching method, but by lessening their grading and assessment burden. Such a system would be accessible, equitable and affordable. It would also be interactive, user-friendly, social and fun. And it would be responsive to the needs of students, teachers, parents, schools and districts.

The essaypop solution

Essaypop is a cloud-based essay writing tool that allows beginning, developing and accomplished writers to compose traditional essays, lab reports, news articles and other types of academic writing on their computers, phones or tablets. It is a flexible, interactive technology that provides young writers with a digital platform that provides the scaffolded instruction students need to tackle the complex task of composing and organizing any type of academic paper. essaypop is effective for two key reasons:  

  • The platform utilizes a common-sense, frame-writing method that breaks down and compartmentalizes complex academic papers into their elemental parts.
  • The platform’s users are gathered together in a social and interactive environment called the Hive, and this environment is a place where users can collaborate and receive useful feedback from multiple sources.

The Frame-Writing Method

Essaypop is fundamentally different from other writing systems in that the platform smartly breaks the paragraphs that make up an essay into its elemental parts for the writer. Each part becomes a discrete, color-coded writing frame or box in which the essayist composes his or her ideas. A basic body paragraph, for example, is subdivided into a bridge or topic sentence, a research detail (text evidence), an interpretation (analysis) and a closer. The teacher teaches and the student writes each paragraph one element at a time, box by box, until the paragraph is finished. The end result is a structured piece of writing that is coherently constructed and which makes sense.

Frame Writing


These boxes are not static; they can be rearranged and modified by the writer at will.  Also, within each writing frame, students can access explanations, instruction, sentence starters and  models of good writing. When finished with a frame, the student then moves on to the next one until the paragraph is finished. Meanwhile, the
essaypop system stitches the frames together in real time into a perfect, MLA-formatted document. Over time, students internalize the structures that these frames provide, and they begin to create organized compositions on their own.

The Hive: A Social and Interactive Environment

Writing is, first and foremost, a human endeavor. It is an interactive and organic exercise. The best writing ideas come through discussion and the interplay of ideas. It is a conversation with other thinkers and writers who are perhaps trying to solve the same problem as you. Accomplished writers do not write in a vacuum, and they tend to seek advice and even criticism from their peers.  

Think of a writer’s room in Hollywood where different writers are gathered together around a large conference table in front of a whiteboard. Ideas for an upcoming production are written down and concepts are submitted, negotiated, blended together, argued over, and eventually accepted or ruled out. 

This type of interactivity is a process that young writers crave, and it’s a process that can be assisted with technology to a degree, but because the act of writing is such an organic endeavor, it cannot be digitally replicated or even digitally assisted in its entirety. Artificial intelligence, for example, is fantastic, and it has shown promise in terms of helping kids address issues of spelling, grammar, syntax and the overall organization of academic papers. What AI has fallen short on, however, is identifying conceptual depth, humor, figurative comparisons, subtleties, satire, nuance and shades of gray, all things that accomplished writers utilize as a matter of course, and which emerging writers should be learning and developing in school.

Essaypop is a technology. It is a digital platform. However, what makes the essaypop system different is that it leverages technology to facilitate the social, human and organic nature of writing and the writing process. The Hive feature organizes students into interactive clusters where conversations and connections can occur. It is a teacher-controlled environment that can be configured for any group, size or purpose. It allows students to receive multiple perspectives about their writing and provides an opportunity for students to crowdsource feedback, suggestions and advice.

essaypop hive

Additionally, the Hive is not merely social; it actually shows kids how to give substantive and meaningful feedback by providing sentence stems and builders that students use to craft useful remarks and suggestions that are on par with the teacher. The essaypop team is currently working on features that will provide incentives and awards for students who provide useful feedback to their peers. It is also working on gamification features that will make providing others with substantive advice a delightful endeavor for all involved. By valuing and incentivizing peer-to-peer feedback, essaypop is not only creating proficient writers, but developing sophisticated student mentors and coaches as well.

The Hive environment also allows the writing process to continue outside of the classroom and the school day. Even at home, students have access to the clusters in which they are grouped and they can continue connecting and interacting as they create. Because of this, The Hive is also a perfect vehicle for remote learning.

By leveraging the social, interactive and collaborative nature of writing, essaypop is cleverly tapping into the very human nature of the practice itself.

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Why essaypop’s Popularity is Rising so Quickly

Students who have used essaypop have expressed an enthusiasm for the kid-friendly interface that’s intuitive, attractive, customizable and fun. They appreciate the simple, step-by-step approach to essay writing that removes the naturally intimidating prospect of staring at a blank piece of paper and the daunting prospect of composing a long piece of writing. They enjoy approaching essay-writing without the pervasive fear of writer’s block. 

Parents have noticed that their childrens’ writing skills are improving demonstrably. They’ve pointed out that they appreciate a system that works in conjunction with direct teacher instruction, but that is not teacher-dependent. They’ve also reported that their children are more engaged in their writing due to the social and interactive nature of the platform.

Teachers are rapidly adopting essaypop as a regular classroom tool across the country. Many users have pointed out that the system has actual utility and is not just another esoteric or gimmicky educational widget soon to be shelved and forgotten. They appreciate how the platform guides students, one step at a time, through the creation of academic, multiple-paragraph essays in a way that is completely scaffolded. They’ve reported that the Hive’s crowdsourcing effect relieves the assessment and feedback load, and that they’re actually assigning more essays with essaypop. They also appreciate how easily it integrates with Google Classroom. 

Conclusion

Essaypop is a writing platform with real utility, and the frame-writing method that smartly guides students through complex, academic papers one step at a time is a common-sense approach that works. It is a sound and scaffolded approach to learning that student users find highly engaging and that teachers are embracing nationwide because they find that it not only  works, but it saves them time. essaypop is a digital software that, at its heart, embraces the human and organic side of the writing-creation process. It is a relatively new product, created by a three-person team, including an English teacher with 26 years of experience, in a little less than 18 months. With further development and investment, essaypop has the potential to become the most widely-used writing tool in classrooms across the nation.