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TWR: Embracing the Writing Revolution

With more topics to cover after the specification changes, it is sometimes easy to prioritise content over teaching the skills needed at A-Level. However, for many students, it will be the first time that they write an argumentative essay. I have often found that I've made a number of assumptions about what my students know about essay writing and when I have explicitly taught them how to write, too often it has been an ad hoc response rather than planned in a deliberative way. Reading Hochman and Wexler's The Writing Revolution(TWR), has made me reevaluate my entire approach. Their starting point is that teaching writing must begin at the sentence level. This is revelatory and often forgotten for older students.

Activity 1: Because, But, So

In this activity, students are given a sentence stem (which can be adapted from an exam question) and then they are asked to turn them into three separate complex sentences, using the simple conjunctions 'because', 'but' and 'so'. It is important to explain the meaning of each conjunction: 'because' to connect a claim with evidence; 'but' to introduce a counter-claim; and 'so' to describe a cause and effect relationship. Besides encouraging students to think analytically, this makes an excellent plenary and revision activity.

Activity 2: General, Specific and Thesis Statements

I have found students find writing introductions, especially crafting their thesis statements, challenging. The St Martin's Handbook suggests the GST formula for introductions. Adapted for Philosophy and Ethics, this may look like:

  1. General statement referring to the key concept or issue referred to in the question.

  2. Specific statement outlining the scholars for and against the issue.

  3. Thesis statement stating the direction and aim of the essay.

Before students write their own introductions, it is helpful if students can distinguish the different types of statements. One way to do this is for students to be given a sample introduction and ask them to mark G, S or T as indicated below. Dunsmore, Capone and Baron's recently published OCR GCE Religious Studies Model Essays makes an ideal bank of essays for such activities.

Once they understand the different type of statements they can then begin writing their own introductions. For those with weaker literacy, you can provide students with a general statement or topic, and then ask them to write a specific and thesis statement to go along with it, before asking them to write introductions independently.

Conclusions are similarly formulaic.

  1. Thesis statement should be restated and a judgement reached on the question.

  2. A specific statement giving a summary of what has been argued and justifying the position.

  3. A general statement presenting the implications of your argument or posing questions that it provokes.

Again it is worth students practising writing conclusions. They can practice rephrasing their thesis statements in their conclusion by using common synonyms or transition words.

Activity 3: Topic and Concluding Sentences

Each paragraph in the body should begin with a topic sentence referring back to the question, and end with a concluding sentence. Students can learn to create topic statements using subordinating conjunctions that acknowledge a counterclaim and state a claim, such as 'while', 'although' and 'even though'.

Students can then brainstorm supporting details that support the topic sentence.

Activity 4: Identify and Rank the Reasons

One activity to help students construct arguments both for and against is to give them two 'single paragraph outlines' that have the topic sentences already filled in, and list a number of supporting statements, both for and against, below. Students then have to match each supporting statement to the correct topic sentence.

Once students are familiar with matching details with appropriate topic sentences and evaluating their strengths, they can write their own single paragraph outlines and paragraphs, both for and against the statement, backed by evidence.

Activity 5: Planning an Argumentative Essay

I've always asked my students to provide an essay plan for every essay that they've written. However, they have often varied widely, either being too detailed or too sparse. TWR's 5 paragraph essay plan encourages students to lay out both sides of the argument and argue towards their thesis. The first body paragraph lays out the problem and introduces the student's argument supported by scholarly evidence. The second paragraph presents the counterclaim and the scholarly evidence that supports it. The third paragraph rebuts the counterclaim and defends the student's argument. While formulaic, for many students, it will make an ideal starting point.

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