Thursday, October 11, 2012

Alamak, English! week 3, choosing the right question.

Alright, it is the age-old question which arises every single time we sit for an English Paper: Which of the five questions for continuous writing should I choose? For some people or during some exams, this question can consume up to 10 minutes of pondering time if the student is indecisive. For others, they choose the question too hastily, and end up writing an essay that is way off the mark and completely neglects the ROQ - Requirement of Question.

There was a friend of mine in class - I know he won't mind me mentioning his story, since he's a cool guy; and it's not like he's likely to ever read this anyway - but during the recent SPM trials, he chose the one-word-topic quetion 5: Choices. He turned it into a story. Written from a first-person point of view, it went like this: He had embarassed himself at school by entering the girls' bathroom in his haste. After that, whenever his friends mentioned it and made fun of him for it, he handled it by laughing it off and joking about the incident. Soon, people stopped making fun of him for entering the girls' bathroom.

Not much about "Choices" there, and teacher said so in class.

However, there is something to be commended in how spontaneous his writing came about. Don't think about it too much, just pick a question and tackle it to the best of your ability.

It helps a lot if you enter the Exam Hall with a rough idea of which kinds of questions you would like to choose, i.e., which writing style you prefer. There are generally six kinds of essays that can be asked for in Continuous Writing: Factual, Descriptive, Reflective, Argumentative, Narrative, and Open.

Factual essays ask for facts or suggestions on a topic. An easy essay for people with a lot of information and ideas on how to make changes. Note: Since 2004, there have only been four descriptive essays in SPM: in 2004 and the following two years and then in 2010. Examples: How to stay healthy, How is television beneficial, How can we save the environment.

Descriptive essays require the student to describe scenes, people, places, or events. It is easier to write descriptive essays if you have someone or something real to relate your essay to, although making something up can work just as well for those with imagination. These essays should give the reader a clear impression of the object described, and adjectives should be used well.Examples: Describe the biggest challenge you've faced, Describe an enjoyable weekend you've experienced, Describe an incident you saw on the way home from school.

Reflective essays ask for the student's personal thoughts and opinions. Essays that are written with more expressions of the student's own opinions and feelings will be more on the mark of the reflective style of writing that is expected from them. Anything that the student writes should clearly be from the student's own point of view. Examples: Who would you like to be if you were given the chance, What changes do you want to see in your life in ten years, What is your favourite day of the week.

Argumentative essays will give the student a statement, and the student will have to agree or disagree with it. There is no side that is in the right. Students can choose to write in any direction they want, and they will be marked based on the maturity and accuracy of their ideas and statements. It works like a debate, and debators or students familiar with debates will easily warm up to the writing style of argumentative essays. Note: The student must clearly state at the beginning which side they support, and it is important not to give any ideas that support the opposite side. Examples: Are examinations good or bad, Is the internet a more of a good thing than a bad thing, Should school students have part time jobs.

Narrative essays will give the student the title, first line, or last line of a story, and the rest is in your hands. Narrative stories require a plot that mantains interest and follows the "rule of mountain" as I call it - an interesting start, a build-up to the climax, and a gentle resolution of the story down to the finish. Narrative essays require a mixture of descriptive language, figures of speech, and proper planning. Note: The last line is important in a Narrative and its importance should be stressed upon in cases where it is not given. Examples: Write a story starting with: "It had been raining all day...", Write a story ending with: "...We had never laughed so much in our lives.", Write a story entitled: "An Unexpected Visitor."

Open essays are fun. They give the student one word - usually a general object, concept, or virtue - and the student has to expand on that word in any way they find fitting. From one word that the question gives, the student can write about their reflections on that object, the pros and cons of that object, a description of that object that they have encountered before, or even a story that revolves around that object. This kind of essay opens up the student's imagination and let's them decide which angle they want to tackle the topic from. Note: The student's writing style in an Open essay is dependant on what kind of essay he decides to turn it into. Examples: Music, Foods, Tomorrow, Peace.

During the exam, after you have read the five questions in Continuous Writing, it should not take you more than a minute to decide which one of the five you want to choose. That way you have more time to plan out and write your essay.

For most students, there will be certain kinds of essays that they feel comfortable with, and others which they cannot write easily. For myself, I find that Factual essays are boring, Argumentative essays require too much thought when it come to picking sides, and Reflective essays are too risky. This narrows down my choices to Narrative, Descriptive, and Open essays. My scope is now smaller, and instead of choosing from five questions, I only have to choose from two or three. From this smaller range of questions, I just have to identify which topic will be easier to write smoothly.

The best way for a student to find out which kinds of essays is best for them, is to write more essays and follow their gut. If you have ever experienced a time when you wrote an essay for the examination, and then later feeling that you wrote it badly, you were probably right. If you felt uncomfortable writing it, then your readers will probably feel uncomfortable reading it, in a sense. Therefore, through trial and error, you can find out which styles of essay writing suit you the best. Then during an exam, you can eliminate all the questions which you are least likely to be able to answer well, until you're left with one question remaining.

All the examples of essay questions that I listed above are legitimate, past-year questions - paraphrased, of course. If you have time for it, try looking through all the questions on the different types of essays above, write the first paragraph of a few of them - only the first paragraph, just to get the feel of the general essay, and to see if you will be able to proceed well into the main points for the essay you have chosen.

It would be even better if you could write one or two full essays. You can always ask your teacher to grade them, but in general, if you enjoyed writing the essay and felt proud of it at the end,  then you're probably right on the money. I can't say anything about how that would work out for your grammar though, so it's best to hand in any essays you've written to your teacher.

Before we close for today, let's take a look at a choice of five questions, and see how we would go about choosing one of them.

Peperiksaan Percubaan SPM 2012 SBP

1. A pleasant dream.

2. Desribe a scene after a disaster.

3. Success comes to those who work hard. Do you agree?

4. Write a story ending with: "...he left and closed the door quietly behind him."

5. Strength.

Now, I know that I am not good at writing Argumentative essays, so 3 is automatically out. 1 sounds like descriptive, but also like a reflective. Seems a bit risky, so I'll put it out for now. That leaves me with 2, 4, and 5. 5 says "Strength", and I don't think I'll be able to write about that well, so that's out. Between the Descriptive essay in 2 and the Narrative essay in 4, the story seems a bit difficult to write, because I cannot imagine many scenarios that match the given ending, whereas question 2 does not specify what kind of disaster it was, so my options are not as limited. Therefore, I choose question 2, the description of the scene after a disaster. Now that I have decided on a quesion, I can start planning what kind of disaster it should be, and how I should start my essay.

By using the same reasoning and elimination process, based on your own preferences, you can try to identify which one of the five questions you feel most comfortable with and would have chosen; and then, if you have the time, by all means write out the whole essay. It should take no longer than an hour, which is not too much time. All you have to do is perhaps sacrifice a bit of your free time during the weekends to write your essay. Practice is always vital for any subject.

While I may have spoken for too much too long on a very small part of the essay, I would think that the proper technique for choosing the right question is important. One should never be overly hesitant in choosing an essay to write, as time is precious is the exams. On the other hand, one should not be too hasty in choosing an essay, as the student might end up writing completely off-topic. Too many of my friends have written essays in the past that simply have nothing to do with the topic provided - most of them Narrative and Open essays. That is why practice is important as well: to identify one's strengths and weaknesses, and to know mistakes to avoid in the future. And yet, I feel apologetic for writing such a long lesson on such a nominal topic. My only hope for compensation is that readers will be able to use the example questions I have provided to get some practice writing. Once again, sorry for being a boring eyesore, and goodnight.

For many, many more sets of five questions to practice your decisive powers with, visit and go to the English papers.

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