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Inspire a love of history: How to write Common Entrance history essays
By Paddy McKeating
04 Sep
Paddy McKeating is Head of History at Junior King's, Cantebury and is the owner of the yourhistoryteacher.wordpress.com blog. 

The Common Entrance history course is a joy to teach. Fundamentally this is because it should ‘inspire a love of history’ and ‘stimulate curiosity’. The course offers a range of opportunities for fluid and engaging writing. Furthermore, it allows pupils to write about a particular passion of their own from people to events or even buildings. Now I would like to address the most challenging task for pupils of all ages: writing essays.
 
One of the most common pitfalls is telling the story instead of answering the question. Of course this is natural as we are all storytellers and have a similar urge to share what we know. So the goal of history pupils is to balance love and curiosity of their topic with the higher order skills of explicitly addressing the question.
 
Let’s begin with a popular question in Common Entrance exams:
 
Choose any war or battle which you have studied and explain its most important consequences
 
Now if you bear with me, we are going to focus on the least known and rarely referenced battle in British history – The Battle of Hastings in 1066.  
 
When William of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson in this battle he was in a precarious position. He was an unpopular foreign invader with a relatively small army, yet through his actions in the coming years he became arguably the most powerful monarch in British history. How did he do this?
 
  1. He confiscated almost all land of Saxon lords (97.3% of it to be precise) and gave it to his loyal followers
  2. He built castles in strategic positions (Between 500 and 1000) using local labour
  3. He ordered a census (The Domesday Book) to ensure that he was collecting all available tax revenue
  4. He brutally suppressed a rebellion in the north of England by destroying all towns, livestock and crops between Durham and York.
 
Now that we have refreshed our memories, let’s discuss how to answer a question such as this. Primarily you must use the evidence to explain which consequences were the most important and why.  For example:
 
The confiscation of land off Saxon lords was an important consequence because it enabled William to reward his own followers, which in turn put him in a more secure position as monarch. Consequently, this freed him up to pursue acts which would make him more financially secure, thus showing how important it was to replace Saxon nobles with Norman ones.
 
As you can see, this paragraph clearly answers the question and avoided the common pitfall of telling the story. Words such as ‘consequently’ and ‘thus’ helped the pupil to develop their point and they used the key words from the question to ensure that the answer stayed relevant.
 
The next paragraph is well written and uses relevant evidence but does not clearly answer the question:
 
The Domesday Book of 1086 was a great survey of the country ordered by William the Conqueror. It was so comprehensive that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle wrote that, ‘Not one ox, nor one cow nor one pig was left out.’ Once completed, this vast document which included two million words on 900 pages of vellum describing 13,000 places in England and Wales. It then gave William considerable power because he could now efficiently collect all of the taxes he was due.
 
Interesting isn’t it? I particularly like the inclusion of a quote from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However this pupil didn’t answer the question. However the addition of a sentence using the wording of the question would considerably improve the quality of the answer. For example:
 
This shows that the Domesday Book was an important consequence of the Norman Conquest because…
 
Or
 
This displays the importance of the Domesday Book because…
 
So the golden rule for writing essays in history is to clearly answer the question. In order to help pupils follow this rule we can encourage them to:
 
  • Before writing, underline the key words of the question such as ‘cause’, ‘important’ or ‘change’
  • Use the key words of the question in every paragraph
  • Read over their paragraphs and underline where they think they have answered the question
  • And of course practice as much as possible!
 
I hope that this post has addressed a fundamental in essay writing for history. But of course we should always remember that curiosity, passion and love for the subject are the most important.


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Explore our History materials for Common Entrance at 13 plus - revision guides and practice papers that provide essential support, guidance and practice for thorough History exam preparation. 


        
 

Tags: history, history for common entrance

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