Tiered Essays – Giving students choice and challenge in the writing process.

I was sitting at my desk, thinking about the upcoming essay and feeling very uninspired by the prompts I was considering giving my kids. I wanted to give them more freedom and creativity that still allowed them to focus on a few key skills. But I felt like I was at an impasse. 

Then, the idea for “tiered essays” popped into my head.

Instead of giving all my students prompted essays, I could offer choice. Those choices could vary in difficulty but still focus on a few key skills. When it came time to assess, I could see each students’ unique approach and grade fairly because I had asked them all to look at specific aspects of the essay writing process. 

It was an absolute success.

What are they?

Tiered Essays are essay options at three levels of difficulty. I paired up these tiers with an outdoor/backpacking theme and used varying terrain to describe each level. All the students knew about the different levels was that the format of the essay was different. 

  • Tier 1 = The Glades
    • The Glades was meant to be the most structured essay with the easiest approach: prompts. For a lot of my students, this is the kind of structure that they needed in order to be successful. 
  • Tier 2 = The Hills
    • The Hills offered slightly more complex and critical thinking and was a definition essay. I have done this essay with all my students in a previous level and loved it, so I was excited to bring it to my Sophomores. The definition essay has students choose a word and then focus on supporting their definition of the word rather than the dictionary definition of it. I adjusted the objective of this essay from what my team has done in the past to match the persuasive components we were working on.
  • Tier 3 = The Summit
    • This essay was a new experiment. The Summit is a metaphorical essay. I structured it very similarly to the definition essay, but the students are defending their metaphors instead of a word. This essay is written in a similar style to an extended metaphor poem, where the metaphor is the main focus and everything elaborates and exploits this one idea. This was the most complex of the essays as it required a lot of critical thinking to pull it off.

How does it work?

My classes were focused on persuasive writing so the whole goal was to identify an arguable position and then support it. 

I started the unit by having students read model essays in each of the categories. Each model essay was followed up with questions for students to consider about the author’s argument, rhetorical devices used to support their point, and whether or not the author’s argument was effectively supported. These notes all went into a handy brochure that they could tape into their journals. That brochure also had what I termed BASE CAMP. BASE CAMP was the essentials that every essay needed to have in order to be an effective persuasive essay.

After reading and discussing the different models, I gave each student a half sheet with the three tiered options (and the prompts for Tier 1). It asked them to identify the essay tier they would like to write, their argument (response to prompt, word, or metaphor), and their thesis (put it all together).

While they were selecting, I was able to walk around and suggest tiers of essays to students who I felt would be successful at certain levels of difficulty. I encouraged my strong writers to push their limits with Tier 3 and allowed my struggling writers to gain confidence in their position by utilizing Tier 1 or Tier 2. There was so much freedom in their choices that most students had a lot to say about their topics. 

Then, we got to work on the writing process. They drafted body paragraphs, counter arguments, introductions and conclusions, and revised before submitting their essays. This all took about two weeks from start to finish. It could easily have been adapted for more revision work and peer discussion. 

Why use it?

Not only did I see a whole new level of confidence in all my writers, but they were able to utilize choice. I did recommend certain tiers for a few of my students, but most of them picked the tier that was appropriate to their level of writing ability and current comfortability with the process.

Because I was focusing on a few specific skills (thesis, supporting paragraphs, counter argument, and rhetorical devices being the big ones) I was able to hone in my mini-lessons and still give support to students. Our class took on a workshop model for those two weeks and we worked in chunks – which further reduced stress that students experience when told to write an essay. 

During the grading process I was blown away by how well my students did. I had the majority of my students turn in very well written and thoughtful essays ON TIME! Not only had they done exactly what I was looking for, I could see where they were taking risks and how they were growing individually. Their own expressions and thoughts were coming out on the page.

This was such a successful approach to writing a persuasive essay, and one that I will continue to use.

Happy teaching!

Questions? Want to try this but aren’t sure if it’ll work with your essay? Please email me!

If you want to purchase the Tiered Essay Brochure, Station Cards, and a BASE CAMP poster, head over to TPT or the Archive Store! This purchase does not include the model essays. I highly recommend writing them yourself or with your team so that you know exactly what you want your students to focus on.

But if you need help, send me an email!

2 responses to “Tiered Essays – Giving students choice and challenge in the writing process.”

  1. I LOVED doing this with my students! Their writing improved so much. It was awesome to be able to challenge the kids who needed it, but still scaffold the kids who required it. It was very successful in my classroom!

    Liked by 2 people

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