Tired of assigning (and grading) the same old essay unit after unit? This post will introduce you to 13 creative alternatives to the traditional essay that are sure to challenge and engage your students in a new way. Additionally, learn why it might be beneficial to stray from the five-paragraph essay every now and then.
Are your students stuck in the essay rut? Are they getting caught in a monotonous routine of read, discuss, write, repeat? Are you tired of reading crappy essays? (Yup. I said it.) It might be time to consider creative alternatives to the traditional essay.
I know, I know. Essays are a cornerstone of the secondary ELA classroom. But they aren’t the only way to assess student learning at the end of a novel or unit. Better yet, students who struggle to write traditional essays might thrive with an alternative assessment. Either way, it’s worth switching it up and allowing students to express their knowledge in different ways.
Creative Alternatives to the Traditional Essay
By this point, students have the foundation of analytical writing thanks to the five-paragraph essay. Now, it’s time to switch it up and expose them to new challenges. I’m excited to share 13 creative alternatives to the traditional essay you can try in your classroom.
1. Writing a Children’s Book
I love incorporating children’s literature in the secondary classroom whenever I can. So, why not challenge students to transform a novel into a children’s book, emphasizing a prominent theme from the text? Alternatively, you can ask students to rewrite the story, revising the characters and plot to be more kid-friendly. Both approaches require students to closely analyze the text, determine the most essential information, and transform it into an original piece. Imagine rewriting Jay Gatsby as a kid caught up in his desire for a particular toy? Or recreating the themes of Animal Farm at a petting zoo? I mean, the ideas are endless.
2. Story Rewrite (Satire, Parody, or Modernization)
Before students can offer any criticism or rewrites, they must first clearly identify and understand the various elements of the original text. After all, those elements will become the foundation of their updated piece. For example, adapting Lord of the Flies to be post-zombie-apocalypse is a great idea… as long as it reflects the tension between order and chaos! Therefore, creating an adaptation requires more than a deep understanding of the storyline. It also requires a strong sense of style, structure, and underlying message. While it can lead to fantastic results, this alternative is quite challenging for many students. Therefore, I recommend leaving this for more advanced students.
3. Student Curated Anthology
If you’re looking to have your students analyze a character or theme, consider having them create an anthology of poems, songs, artwork, or articles, to help them unpack their analysis. Not only does this alternative require students to dig deep into the assigned text, but it also encourages connections with other pieces. Choose between having your students annotate their selections or providing a small paragraph for each piece. Either way, these notes should help argue each piece’s meaning, connection, and significance. Therefore, students must be intentional about the pieces they include in their anthology as they consider how it all comes together to reflect their overall message and analysis.
4. Thematic Newspaper
A thematic newspaper is a two-birds-one-stone alternative perfect for analyzing themes and symbols. Not only is it an opportunity for students to express their textual analysis in a new way, but you get to teach them about the unique characteristics of journalism too. News stories might recap events from the plot, interview characters, or reflect the historical period, all coming together to analyze the chosen topic. Therefore, students must carefully plan each piece and how they will all work together to paint a picture. If you’re looking to make this a quicker assignment, simply have each student write one article for a collaborative newspaper.
5. Graphic Essay
Are your students super tech savvy? A graphic essay might just be the perfect creative alternative assignment. A graphic essay is a visual essay that incorporates traditional writing and pictures, graphics, videos, and emphasized text. Just like a more traditional essay, a graphic essay can be used to analyze and explore everything from characters to themes. However, this alternative allows for students to get more creative with technology and design. If tech isn’tyour thing, no worries. Your students can easily use the internet to help bring this assignment to life.
Creative Alternatives to the Traditional Essay: Shorter Writing Assignments
6. Quote-Round Up
I love this unique approach to a written assessment. Provide your students with a list of quotes. They must write a detailed paragraph connecting each quote to the novel, theme, or character. Alternatively, have students round up their own list of quotes to explain. Either way, students must exercise critical thinking, make meaningful connections, and display writing skills.
If you’re looking for a quick way to assess student analysis of a text, an essay isn’t your only option. You can opt for annotations instead. This is a great way to evaluate students’ understanding of literary devices, diction, character development, etc. Consider requiring a mix of organic annotations, identifying literary elements, and analyzing themes, symbols, characters, and quotes. Of course, there’s not as much writing involved, but this assessment will provide tangible insight into students’ thought processes and comprehension as they read. Just be sure students understand how to annotate and be very clear about your expectations.
8. Essay Preview
If time is of the essence, skip the entire essay and have your students focus on writing a top-notch body paragraph. You can provide students with an introduction paragraph and have them apply their knowledge and skills in a body paragraph. Looking to add more autonomy? Give students a few thesis statements to choose from or have them create their own. Again, the main idea here is to have students focus on one body paragraph instead of the whole thing. Grading these will be a breeze yet allow you to provide constructive feedback for future growth.
9. Blog Posts
When assigning your students to write a blog post analysis, you can make it as similar or different to a traditional essay as you please. However, when it comes to essay writing, how many of your students get caught up in the “academic voice” and the rules of essay writing? They’re too busy trying to remember if they can use personal pronouns or not rather than focusing on their ideas. Having your students write a blog post gives them the freedom to express their thoughts about a novel or topic in a way that feels a little more natural and conversational. By giving students more freedom around how they write, they might just be able to focus more on what they write. Additionally, you can have students read each other’s posts and continue to dialogue in the comments. Assign a blog post after reading the novel or require them to write one every few chapters as they read!
More Creative Alternatives to the Traditional Essay
10. Board Games
After reading a novel, for example, have students recreate a traditional board game to reflect the text’s themes, symbols, plot, and characters. If they want to create their very own game, that works too! Regardless, this assignment is a creative way to get students to apply their understanding in a new way. The game might reflect a character’s development or address essential quotes and significant themes. There’s a lot of room for creativity here.
As the name implies, this alternative assignment is limited to one page. Therefore, students must think deeply about the text before carefully choosing what they will include on their page. Talk about critical thinking! A one-pager might focus on a theme, essential question, or character. Students might include meaningful quotes, symbolic art or images, analysis, connections, and more. I like to think of these one-page-wonders as a highlight reel of a student’s analysis.
Psst… I have a whole post dedicated to using one-pagers in the ELA classroom.
12. Student Teaching
Teaching is hard work! It requires a deep understanding of the content and the ability to relay that understanding to others. For this alternative, let students be the teacher as they design and present an engaging mini-lesson to their peers. For example, let students take the reins instead of you pointing out all of the symbols of a novel! Additionally, they can teach lessons about a particular theme, historical context, or a character’s development. Unlike writing an essay, this alternative is highly interactive.
13. Sparknote-Inspired Infographic
I’m sure your students are familiar with Sparknotes or similar resources. They can be a great teaching tool or supplemental material, as long as they aren’t used as a reading replacement. One of the reasons why these resources are so great is because they do a great job at summarizing and synthesizing essential information. Infographics are an excellent way for students to do the same. Infographics require students to carefully select information to include while allowing them more creativity in presenting that information. Challenge your students to create an infographic that analyzes character development or theme and important symbols, for example. There are so many formats for infographics, and tools like Canva and Piktochart are great resources.
The Benefits of Creative Alternatives
Before you worry about standards and competencies, know that plenty of creative alternatives to the traditional essay require the same skill sets. Essays aren’t the only way to push your students to engage in critical thought and deep analysis. There are plenty of meaningful alternatives to consider and benefits to doing so.
- Avoid essay burnout: Trust me, I love a good traditional essay now and then. However, if it’s all we ask students to do, year after year, literary piece after literary piece, it will get stale. Students might start to resent the traditional essay. (Maybe some of yours already have?) These creative writing alternatives are a great way to switch things up and increase student engagement.
- Real-world application: There are many forms of writing and relaying information in the modern world. On the other hand, essays are very academic, meaning students will rarely need to write essays outside of a school requirement. Therefore, sprinkling in some creative alternatives to the traditional essay leaves room for a wider range of real-world writing.
- Targeting different learning styles: Not everyone writes good essays, and that’s okay – or, at least, it should be. Written essays aren’t the only way to measure a student’s comprehension or critical analysis. There are various reasons why students might struggle to write an essay. By providing different opportunities for students to express their learning and analysis of an idea or text, you allow all different types of students an opportunity to thrive.
Even More Benefits of Creative Alternatives
- New insights into student learning: Some students are strong essay writers, but that doesn’t mean they have strong analytical skills. A quick Google search can provide all sorts of support to help them write a decent essay, but that doesn’t mean they’re fully exercising their critical thinking skills. The truth is, they might just be good at the formula of, say, the five-paragraph essay. However, many of the alternatives mentioned in this post require students to express their learning in new ways, challenging them to think outside the box.
- A different challenge: I can hear it now, “what about rigor?” Worry not. Rigor isn’t lost in these creative essay alternatives. In fact, some might argue these alternatives require more work and deeper thought than more traditional writing. The last thing we want to do is churn out robotic-like students. Rather than training students to follow a “formula” for writing, challenge them to stretch their brains to express information in a new way.
Let’s face it, my teacher friends. The game has changed when it comes to writing in the ELA classroom. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for more traditional writing, like essays. However, I urge you to add in a little variety. Spice it up! Give your students a little more room to exercise their creativity and thinking without the contractions of the classic essay structure. You might be surprised by what your students create.
It’s worth noting that literary essays aren’t the only writing assignments that might need a revamp. If you felt inspired by this post, check out my post about alternatives for research papers too! Here’s to changing the game of secondary ELA.