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Developing extended writing

‘The ability to achieve good quality extended writing, which conveys clear geographical knowledge and understanding, is both important as an end in itself and as a signifier of the development of students’ thinking. Critical thinking, reasoning and decision making can all be assessed within well-structured extended writing in geography.’

Graham Butt, 2006

Topics on this page:

Getting started with extended writing | Exploring student’s extended writing | Providing students with help for their writing | Common issues in extended writing – and some solutions | Discursive writing | Extended writing and assessment | Reading


A piece of extended writing gives students opportunities to explore their geographical ideas fully and show what they know and understand. To write at length students need to organise and express geographical ideas; this helps them to clarify meaning for themselves and reflect on the opinions they wish to communicate. 

A longer piece of writing is an opportunity to link together several ideas. Geography is complex and this complexity cannot be expressed in isolated statements and short ‘sound bites’.

Writing at length, including essays, is not just for older students. Nor is it only for higher attaining students at key stage 3. There are excellent examples of primary students who have written at length on geographical topics. But it does not just ‘happen’. The English department can provide plenty of good advice.

  • See Huck (2023) for some examples of year 8 extended writing on the theme of ‘Should humans use natural environments?’, the full essays are available to view in the Spring 2023 issue of the GA Magazine.

Getting started with extended writing

Good extended writing in geography requires students to have a good grounding in the geographical topic. Otherwise, their writing will be superficial and not move them forward in geographical understanding. Plan your unit of work to build towards the extended writing activity.

Students must have a ‘need’ to write and it helps if they are given a robust and engaging geographical question to set them going. Report writing is a form of extended writing which students often find easier to structure e.g. a report on the findings of a questionnaire survey or of a fieldwork investigation.

Gather together some examples of ‘writing at length’ from students of different ages. Find out the context for the writing: what stimulus/resources? what teacher guidance?

Analyse these carefully to explore:

  • How does the topic/genre influence the type of writing?
  • What balance is there between description/explanation/evaluation in the piece?
  • Is this quality writing in respect to English conventions and language used?
  • Is this quality writing in respect to the geography – vocabulary, description, explanation, reasoned argument, geographical accuracy?
  • Is it appropriate for the intended audience/genre?
  • Is the writing well-structured and analytical? Is it readable?
  • Does it use geographical examples effectively? Is it linked successfully to maps, images, diagrams?
  • The accuracy of SPaG

Providing students with help for their writing

Most students will find extended writing a challenge and need help. With careful organisation and management students of all abilities can be helped to succeed. Be alert to when, and which, students need support and consider which strategy to use.

  • Refer to Butt (2005) where four support techniques are discussed: ordering, card sorting, writing frames and directed activities related to texts (DARTs). Explore these techniques with your students.

Further strategies to consider are:

  • Whole class discussion on how to structure writing. This is a way to help students refine their ideas about what to include and what to exclude.
  • Presenting students with examples and/or modelling the type of writing required and the writing process using an interactive display. This can be part of a whole class discussion.
  • Use a double-develop strategy. This encourages students to write in depth by getting them to ask ‘so what?’ to double-develop their points (see Cannell (2018) p 8 for an outline of how it works and an activity idea).
  • Use word processors so students can produce a draft, which can be discussed with a partner and revised and improved.
  • Collaborative writing, for example using ‘talking essays’ where each student is given a ‘small point’ and they work in groups to identify which paragraphs their small points belong to, and then work in ‘paragraph groups’ to collaboratively write the essay. In this way they learn together through dialogue and discussion and develop their extended writing skills (see Walsh (2016) and Walsh (2017) p 205 ).
  • Peer analysis. Use the ideas suggested by Christine Counsell (see Butt 2005) to get students to analyse their own and each other’s text (she also suggests the type of comments that a teacher could make).
  • Analysis of texts written by others, e.g. using DARTS exercises, so that they have an example to see how the facts and arguments can be presented which can help them to structure their own.
  • ‘Why trees’ (See Rider and Robert (2001)). The branches are used to enable students to organise their ideas and generate essay plans more quickly.

Common issues in extended writing – and some solutions

Liz Taylor (2004) identifies three issues that students often face when tackling extended writing in geography.

  • Selecting the geography. Many students write ‘all they know about’ a topic rather than tailoring the writing to the needs of the task. You can help to avoid this by creating a clear focus for the writing task and helping students to disregard the irrelevant through activities such as card sorting exercises.
  • Prioritising points and structuring the argument. Students’ writing can sometimes jump about from point to point without logical development, or it might contain a lot of detail without a key message. Try strategies such as using ‘big points, little points’ – students discuss the task and agree on the ‘big point’ for a paragraph, with supporting ‘little points’. Writing frames and essay planners can also help students to structure their writing (see Walshe (2001) and GA members can download cards with small and big points to develop essay writing skills).
  • Communicating the geography. Students often struggle with putting across the overall argument and writing does not flow from one point, or paragraph, to the next. Making use of scaffolding activities such as cutting an essay into paragraphs and reassembling it or modelling writing with an introduction, paragraphs and conclusion can help students to improve their writing.
  • Taylor (2004) provides more details about these issues and strategies to overcome them. This book also contains an example of working with essay planners with year 12 students.

Discursive writing

Simple discursive text (arguments for, arguments against, their own views) should be familiar to students since most will have met this in primary school. Margaret Roberts (2003) summarises its use in geography:

Discursive writing can be used to analyse complex situations involving both human and physical factors or involving causes, short term and long term effects. It can involve discussion of issues on which there are several viewpoints to be presented. It can make use of a variety of evidence including statistics, text, maps and photographs. This kind of writing involves sorting out evidence and ideas and making links between different bits of information, using examples.

However, older students should be writing an analytical form of discursive writing that follows through a reasoned argument. They should use a wide variety of evidence, sort it out and structure an argument. 

They need to be able to present different points of view, balancing argument and counter-argument and come to a reasoned conclusion. Formulating written arguments of this type is a skill that older students need support to develop.

Extended writing and assessment

Assessment of extended writing process can involve:

  • Asking students to evaluate the work of their peers
  • Formative assessment in which teachers make students aware of what they have done well and what they need to do to improve
  • Making the criteria by which the writing is going to be evaluated explicit to students.

The current demands for students’ extended writing in GCSE, and even A level examinations, are limited. Many examination questions require students to write single sentence or single paragraph answers, or an argument is already structured by the use of sub-questions. The revised examinations from 2016 include questions with opportunities to write at greater length.

Extended writing is important for developing geographical understanding and plan to give students plentiful opportunities to write at length in lessons and for private study. It is easier to assess whether students understand ideas well through longer writing. A form of writing, which students find easier to structure, is report writing e.g. of findings of a questionnaire survey or of a fieldwork investigation.

Discuss with your geography mentor how to support GCSE and A level students’ writing. You could write some exemplars that they could use with students of the type of writing that is required for exam answers and ask your mentor to mark them.

  • Read Simmons (2016) which outlines how students can develop their answers to examination questions at GCSE to achieve higher level responses.


  • Butt, G. (2005) ‘Engaging with extended writing’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Cannell, J., Hopkin, J. and Kitchen, B. (2018) Critical thinking in practice, Geographical Association.
  • Huck, C. (2023) ‘Should humans use natural environments?‘, GA Magazine, Spring.
  • Jenkinson, C. (2010) ‘Using empathy to encourage extended writing at key stages 3 and 4’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Rider, R. and Roberts, R. (2001) ‘Improving essay writing skills’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 6: Focus on writing, pp 74–9.
  • Selmes, I. (2016) ‘From the archives: Extended writing in geography’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Simmons, M. (2016) ‘Developing written answers’, Teaching Geography’, Summer.
  • Taylor. E. (2004) Re-Presenting Geography, Chris Kington Publishing.
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, pp 202–207.
  • Walshe, N. (2016) ‘Developing students’ essay-writing’, Teaching Geography, Spring.