Teaching of essays

Like the lyric, the essay represents directly the author’s thought and feeling. It appeals to the understanding, is practical in its nature, and for these reasons involves less difficulty in teaching; but it is often less attractive than poetry and frequently deals with matters that are uninteresting to the average boy and girl. A good essay is indirectly valuable in affording illustration of the principles of composition and rhetoric, but it is directly of great value in stimulating thought and broadening the mind. Nowhere, however, is there greater need of a wise plan of work, since the teacher must overcome mental inertia on the part of the pupils, and usually they are not spurred on, as in novel reading, by their interest in the subject itself.

The author’s purpose is to impart his thought clearly and vigorously. Here lies the suggestion for any plan of study. If the thought is to be appreciated the students must understand the matters of which the essay treats. Furthermore, they must examine the conclusions and note how they are reached. In this way they will learn to discriminate between opinion and established fact; between logical and illogical reasoning. Since the author, in accomplishing his purpose, has paid special attention to orderly arrangement, to clear and forceful statement, and to a skillful choice of words, so these matters must be the subject of careful study on the part of the student. Conscious imitation has its place in developing the power to write, and it is no less valuable in gaining an appreciation of an author’s style. The study of the essay offers the best opportunity for imitative work of this kind, since it is the essay that the student himself, in his school exercises, is continually trying to write. Care should be taken at this stage of the work not to ask pupils to discuss matters that are beyond their knowledge.

General Plan for the Study of the Essay

I. Preparation

Complete understanding of the matters that the essayist expects his readers to know usually involves more study than the class have time to give. Carlyle in his Essay on Burns takes for granted the reader’s familiarity with the poetry of Burns and the facts of his life, while probably only a few of the pupils who come to the study of this essay have more than a scanty knowledge of either of these subjects. It remains for the teacher, then, to select the most important facts and to bring them before the class by various means as fully as the time will permit, remembering in the choice and presentation of subjects that it is of the utmost importance to get the student to approach the new book with interest and enthusiasm.

II. Reading and Study

A rapid reading by the pupil before the work is taken up in the class room may or may not be practicable. A safer method, perhaps, is to give the class a general outline of from five to ten topics, and ask them to read the essay topic by topic. The recitation period may be used to follow, in a broad way, the development of the thought.

After the class have thus become familiar with the main ideas of the essay they will be ready for a second and more careful reading. This will give the students opportunity for the study of details, for completing the detailed outline, and for a general discussion of conclusions, all of which should have for their purpose the appreciation of the author’s thought.

III. Study of the Essay as a Whole

This will include general questions on content, form, and the life and character of the author.

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