Tips for Poor Essay Writers - Part I

By Anonymous Tutor

Tips applies to students of all levels (Primary to University) - This entry however, caters primarily to primary and secondary school students.

I have been tutoring English essay writing across all levels from Primary to University for years now and have seen plenty of students who find essay writing highly elusive, deeming it a chore to write. I can empathize with them. My English was not fantastic and I struggled with essay writing for quite some time till I discovered a solution and saw light at the end of the tunnel.

Essay writing, especially at the JC level can be challenging. I’ve also seen far too many students with decent English standards in reputable JCs failing General Papers (GP, like any other A level subject, requires A LOT of preparation. Unfortunately, students – particularly those who can speak decent English think – otherwise and thus adversely affecting their chances of University entry)

English writing has a methodology

The reason why students are unable to solve their essay writing crisis is because they just do not know how and where to attack the problem.

A common advice to essay writing improvement is to read lots of story books. But many students read without knowing what to look out for and they end up merely remembering the content and not the language used in the story (there are of course, handful of students who improved just by reading alone without guidance).

When I was in Primary School, I read tons of Enid Blyton and Smarty books. I could remember the content well alright – Smarty being a detective, some female character basking in her fantasy world- but when it came to actual application in my school’s essay, I was stumped.

As a side note, reading is not essential for Pri/Sec essay writing. For GP essays however, it is of prime importance.

Like any subject, English has a METHODOLOGY to fulfil the exam requirement for essay writing. You can call it a step-by-step approach, a structure, a system to learning.

Different tuition teachers and agencies have their self-developed methodologies. Similarly, I am offering my methodology that was developed over the years when I was struggling to beat, or at least survive in the education system.

Some parents may be pretty leery about a methodological approach to learning, for the word “methodology” has stigmatised impressions of “regurgitation”, “memorising”, and basically a brain-dead affair, stifling active and creative learning when essay writing, for primary and secondary school in particular, is ironically creative writing.

Unfortunately, active learning is adopted by students who pursue essay writing with a passion - in which I am positive your kids do not (Reading this entry is proof of their lack of passion for writing). What I do is to impart my writing methodology to my students in hope of them gaining a passion for writing after gaining enlightenment and scoring well for their school essays. After all, people develop a passion for things they excel in. I have been writing fiction as a hobby for 7 years now, alongside with Sociology research papers as homework. (As a side note, Sociology is not social work. It is simply GP essay x 5)

Essay writing comes in two forms – fiction writing (Pri and Sec) & argumentative / expository essays (JC / Uni – Arts). Both require vastly different styles of writing and content.

Do note that secondary school essay writing further breaks down into narrative, descriptive and argumentative. I’ll be focusing on narrative as it is the prevalent form / choice of essay writing throughout primary and secondary levels. Secondary school students who are weak in essay writing should always opt for narrative essays over descriptive (requires excellent vocabulary) and argumentative / expository essays (requires a totally different set of skills).

Important things to look out for in narrative essay writing

I am assuming that the student is able to construct basic sentence and grammar structure (past & present tense etc.). If the student is unable to do so, he/she is in no condition to attempt essay writing. Please sign the student for basic language/ grammar classes instead.

There is a limit to how much advice I can offer via text. So I will just offer two key points:



1. Essay Flow

Essay flow means no break in the story plot. A disjointed narrative threatens a fiction essay, and as a side note, absolutely fatal in GP essays (Immediate failure).

Common e.g (pri sch level):

Annie was walking back home from school. Suddenly, she saw a cat stuck in the tree.

(Let’s just focus on the disrupted flow of plot and ignore the rest [vocab, sentence structure variation etc] – it is not a great sentence for sure but I have seen this exact same sentence in my student’s work when she was writing a picture composition on some cat getting stuck in a tree.)

As you can see, there is a break in the story flow – no link between the two sentences. The student did not apply the 5Ws 1 H technique, with ‘Why’ and ‘How’ being the most essential.

Why was Annie’s attention drawn to the cat? The cat was meowing loudly as it was stuck in the tree..

Annie was walking home from school. Suddenly, she heard a loud meowing coming from the trees. Upon closer look, Annie found a cat stuck in the tree.

(Remember – primary school level. Secondary level has to be a lot more descriptive)

It looks really easy, doesn’t it?

I had three Primary school and JC students (and a bunch of University peers) who had this chronic problem of disjointed narrative. Upon enquiry as to why they did not apply the 5Ws 1H technique and link the sentences together, the answer was:

“It is commonsense. So why should I write it down?”

Common sense. Higher level studies call it logical thinking.

My students assumed that the examiner’s logic would conclude that Annie’s attention would have been caught by an incessant meowing. Annie would have shifted her gaze to the canopy above and spotted the ill-fated cat. So since this is common sense, practically “duh”(teen slang), why should they include it in their essay?

In response, I have always told them to assume that examiners are stupid. They require students to express thoughts explicitly.

In view of this problem, the obvious solution is to TRAIN YOUR CHILD TO EXPRESS COMMON SENSE ON PAPER. In severe cases, when this problem is so naturalized into your kid till he/she is unable explain why, in this case, Annie’s attention was drawn to the cat, you will have to first TEACH YOUR CHILD COMMON SENSE.

I used to suffer greatly from this problem as well. Initially, I forced myself to employ the 5Ws and 1Hs technique with every, yes every, sentence I wrote. Right now, it is beyond a piece of cake.

Logical flow of thinking is an essential skill to train. With that particular skill in their arsenal, students will be able to write or articulate clearly in future.

2. Character's Emotions / Feelings

This was the one that made me ace my O levels English (from a C6 / D7 to an A2 and fiction writing from then on was a breeze). What made it even more incredible was that I discovered point (2) only three months before O levels. I taught this trick to my primary school student three years ago and it worked, as expected.

Examiners are looking out for three-dimensional characters. They do not want unfeeling robots who betrays no emotion as the poor cat is about to fall off the branch and break its back. Students fail to score in essays as their characters have no life. So what if Annie ran off to find help for the poor cat? She was neither anxious nor shocked. Examiners want characters to react emotively to the given situation. They like drama.

**Character emotions form the crux to the climax (conflict) of the essay**

The emotions:

Happy - elated

Excited – brimming with excitment

Sad - melancholy

Angry – enraged, inflamed

Anxious – dilated pupils, adrenaline rush

Shock – paralyzed with fear

The trick is to find synonyms and phrases that describe these six emotive states. Formulate these synonyms and phrases into your child’s spelling list and lengthen the list over time. Thereafter, the magic begins. You would have to formulate templates for these six emotive states (1 paragraph for primary school, 2 paragraphs for secondary school students) for your child to remember, and ‘cut and paste’ into their essays, before refining it over time.

Why create templates of emotive states? In any fiction essay, it is definitely guaranteed that characters will be basking in one of these six emotive states. As simple as that.

Point (2) works like a charm. But its complexity to express it in text has led me to merely summarise the workings of this extremely powerful concept. My apologies. If anyone is really interested in point (2), feel free to voice your request as well.

Side note - Character emotions allowed me to predict essay questions easily for my O levels- This comment is probably god sent to students who are desperate for some sort of miracle in the face of impending major examinations. As mentioned earlier, character emotions form the climax (conflict) of the essay and with only 6 different emotions, students can form essay templates with standardized introductions, essay settings, emotions etc. to memorise and regurgitate during exams. However, I am not going elaborate on this point. The major English exams have passed, so no one should be desperate for miracles.

Teaching method counts

So you know a couple of tricks to salvage your child’s ailing essay grades. Unfortunately, that’s half the battle won. The way you teach is crucial. The tricks are constant repetition for internalization and essay question standardization (there are other methods too, but it will probably kill me to list all). That sounds highly loaded, but I assure you it is pretty simple.

→Constant repetition

Basically, by the tenth lesson, you should be repeating concepts taught for the past nine lessons before embarking on the tenth lesson plan. Same applies to vocabulary, with an ever lengthening vocab spelling list for every lesson.

→Essay question standardization

During the initial months, ensure that your child practices with only a couple of essay questions. If your child chooses a picture composition of the cat stuck in the tree and an open-ended essay on a surprise birthday party, do ensure that your child only practices those essay questions repeatedly during the initial months.

This is so that your child has a basis for comparison (IMPT). It is essentially a before and after comparison.

Simple example:

1st essay lesson: Allowing your child to write her first essay

Annie was walking back home from school. Suddenly, she saw a cat stuck in the tree.

2nd essay lesson: Teaching her essay flow, employing 5Ws and 1H technique

Annie was walking home from school. Suddenly, she heard a loud meowing coming from the trees. Upon closer look, Annie found a cat stuck in the tree.

3rd essay lesson: Giving character more life

Annie was walking home from school. She was thinking about her lesson earlier on. Suddenly, she heard a loud meowing coming from the trees. She snapped out of her thoughts. Annie went forward to check. Upon closer look, Annie found a cat stuck in the tree. The cat was not able to climb down the tree.

4th essay lesson: Vocab (advance level)

Annie was walking home from school. Her thoughts were preoccupied with her lesson earlier on. Suddenly, a loud meowing from the trees snapped her out of her stupor. Annie went forward to investigate. Upon closer look, Annie found a cat perched precariously on a tree branch. The cat was not able to climb down the tree.

5th essay lesson: Sentence structure variation (advance level)

Annie was walking home from school, her thoughts preoccupied with her lesson earlier on. Suddenly, a loud meowing from the trees snapped her out of her stupor. Upon closer examination, Annie found a cat perched precariously on a tree branch, making futile attempts to climb down the tree..

By then, this child would have 5 similar essays to compare and boost his/her confidence – the child’s improvement in essay writing was clearly visible on paper. One of my tuition kids had a good laugh after comparing her third attempt with her shoddy first. It gave her the confidence to further improve her essay writing.

Do not change a different essay question every time your child attempts to brush up his/her essay writing skills for your child will not be able to learn well. They need structure and time to tame a dangerous animal called essay writing. As newcomers to the essay writing scene, they are pretty adverse to change.

Just to demonstrate the effectiveness of essay question standardization: You have noticed that I’ve only used one type of example throughout this entire entry – the essay on the cat getting stuck in the tree. It gives you a clearer understanding of the concepts forwarded. Comparing and contrasting becomes easy.

Set realistic expectations; let students learn at their own pace

You can’t expect your child to improve his grades within such a short period of time. My situation was different. With a couple months left before O levels, desperation spurred me to seek for a solution to my less than flattering essay grades. Your child probably does not have that sort of death sentence hanging over his/her head for motivation.

Some students may show significant improvement within six months. Others might take years. It depends on the student’s English capability. When I teach, I usually give the students’ parents ample notice of how their kid(s) would fare in the coming exam. More often than not, I will tell them straight in their faces that their kid(s) are going to fail. I do not expect my tuition kids to produce miracles within months. In some cases, forecasted performances were set in terms of years. A P2 tuition kid of mine was so lacking in his English capability, I halted his P2 learning immediately and stuffed him almost entirely back into P1 syllabus, much to his chagrin (a pride issue for sure). His mother was initially uncertain but she was quickly won over (I was pretty lucky to have understanding parents). There is no way a student can proceed without solidifying their foundation / basics.

Essay writing is an art form that takes practice and wit to score. I was only able to provide the barest essentials of fiction writing in this entry. Should you have any question(s) on your child’s inability to write essays, feel free to voice your concerns.

It gives me no greater satisfaction than to witness the improvement of a student essay writing ability through my methodology.

The above article was posted with the explicit consent of the writer (she does not wish to be named here). This first appeared on her BLOG.