8 ways to help students generate ideas for an essay
Students often overlook brainstorming ideas before starting to write their essay, so their work lacks interest, clarity, and coherence…
Having taught exam classes since 2014, I have found that a common problem across all ages and levels, was the lack of a brainstorming and planning stage before writing an essay.
Although I would often remind my students that planning goes a long way, and encouraged them to brainstorm and organize their ideas, they would overlook this stage and start writing their essay immediately. As a result, their work lacked interest, clarity, and coherence.
“But nobody will be there to help students generate ideas during the exam..”
Some teachers believe that students should have no support at this stage, because it cushions them against making real effort and does not mirror real-life situations. I would argue that although students need to learn to cope, the classroom should be a place where they receive training and develop confidence before they can do so.
In this article, I will propose eight different and engaging techniques you can use to help your students generate ideas before writing their essay.
1). Teach the basics
Remind students that when they start planning their essay, they need to:
- Brainstorm and write down ideas, e.g., by using a mind map, a list, or a diagram
- Select the ones they will use
- Prioritise: which one is key, and which one is secondary?
2). Group brainstorming
Give students the topic and elicit ideas. This can be done in a variety of ways:
- Students write their ideas on the whiteboard, e.g., a mind map or a diagram
- Students call out ideas and the teacher records them on the whiteboard
- Students use a collaborative whiteboard like Google Jamboard and type their ideas on sticky notes
Why is this useful?
Students joining forces can be hugely beneficial for generating ideas, especially if it is a large class.
3). Give them something to read
That could be a relevant social media post, or a short article on the given topic, which would help produce ideas. There are a lot of free resources available online. Twitter and Facebook are packed with controversial posts, so keep an eye out for them.
Students will be exposed to topic-related language input and will ill also notice spelling of words they intend to use. The content might trigger reactions and stimulate more ideas.
4). Give them something to watch or listen to
Play a topic-related video, Ted Talk or podcast. Use the accessibility versus acceptability sequence (Anderson and Lynch, 1988).
Ask them to first focus on factual content, i.e., what ideas are presented in this text/video?
Students react to the text: Do you agree or disagree? What suggestions can you come up with?
It ensures a balance of skills: listening or watching, speaking and later writing and reading their draft.
5). Use pictures
Give students the topic and then show some relevant photographs that you have found online. Ask them to describe what they see and how the scenes are connected to the topic.
Pictures can trigger imagination and stimulate creative thinking. They are also ideal for mixed ability classes, as there is no language input, only a visual element that needs to be translated into words. Finally, pictures encourage learners to visualize when writing, seeing with their “mind’s eye”.
6). Use the Jigsaw technique
For controversial issues, I recommend the ProCon.org website.
- Select a category, e.g., Health, and choose a topic, e.g., Vaccines for kids
- You will find a list of pro and con arguments. Select some that you think are the most relevant or interesting and create a handout. You will need to adapt/simplify the text for lower levels
- Cut up the handout into parts for a jigsaw reading activity
- Divide students into pairs or groups. Give them a different part so that each student reads a different text, for instance, two advantages or disadvantages of a given topic
- They get back together in pairs/groups, exchange information about what they read, select the key ideas they would like to use, and write a group essay together
Alternatively, you can record yourself or another colleague reading the texts and make this a jigsaw listening.
ProCon.org is a rich resource from which students can benefit in class or use for homework. The jigsaw is a communicative activity that will make this stage more interesting and motivating for students.
7). Web search
Provide the topic and give students five minutes to use their mobile devices to carry out a quick web search.
There is an abundance of resources online. Web quests are constructive and authentic, something we do in real life when looking for information. Students will be exposed to a lot of input quickly and will learn to filter out unimportant details and focus on the key ideas, thus developing critical thinking.
8). L1-L2 group brainstorming
Provide the topic and give students five minutes to brainstorm ideas in groups.
- They can talk in L1 if they prefer
- Or they can talk in L2, and switch to L1 when they do not know the L2 equivalent (code-switching)
According to studies, code-switching or using L1 can facilitate brainstorming (Blot, Zárate and Paulus, 2003). Students will realise that they can use L1 as a resource from which they can pull ideas.
To sum up
It is hoped that students will gradually form the habit of generating ideas about a topic before they start writing, by reflecting on whether they have:
- Read a relevant article or social media post
- Watched a relevant ted talk or listened to a podcast
- Seen any topic-related pictures and if not, try to create mental images about the topic
At the same time, by doing these activities, they will be exposed to language input which will help enrich their vocabulary.
- Anderson, A. and Lynch, T. (1998). Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press
- Blot, K., Zárate, M. and Paulus, P., 2003. Code-Switching Across Brainstorming Sessions: Implications for the Revised Hierarchical Model of Bilingual Language
- Processing. Experimental Psychology, 50(3), pp.171-183