For all students, particularly those on the threshold of completing their secondary and higher secondary board examinations, writing an engaging English language essay is a vital pre-condition of examination success. The ability to write good essays is also very important for students who wish to do well at university. Therefore it’s important for teachers preparing students to do well in milestone examinations — and indeed in life beyond academic institutions — to help them develop their essay writing skills.
Many people argue that the art of essay writing is passé, and that the time required to produce a well-written essay is an anachronism in the contemporary world of real-time instant communications. Nevertheless, essays are omnipresent in newspapers and on websites. The same skills of developing a reasoned argument are used in radio and TV broadcasts, and in employment, for reports and planning documents. Admittedly, essay writing is a real challenge, but the skills learnt are of great value, and are highly sought after in almost all careers.
A student’s essay demonstrates his or her comprehension of a chosen subject, ability to apply knowledge, and skill to produce something interesting (and original). Essays also test commu-nication skills — the ability to present arguments, debate issues, explain, write clearly, and do all this within a given time frame.
Whether in an exam or as an assignment, a well-argued essay is an impressive achievement. Here’s some advice to teachers to help students hone their essay writing skills.
Read the question. Examiners are always surprised at how many students ignore the question in front of them and answer, instead, the question they want to see. Make sure your students read the question carefully, looking out for command words. For example, if they’re asked to ‘explain’, they should demonstrate their knowledge and use their communication skills to describe the event, issue or facts. If asked to ‘debate’ or ‘discuss’, they should present more than one point of view, including their own.
Plan the essay. An essay plan gives students the chance to jot down ideas and key knowledge quickly and systematically. For a coursework assignment, it’s very important to have a good plan before writing. Students should be taught to note down salient points for different sections of the essay. This will help them sort arguments and marshal their thoughts. Once the plan is ready, the essay will seem surprisingly easy to write! A rough draft of the structure and some key ideas will make for a more concise and effective end result, and prevent your students wandering off the track as they write the all-important essay.
Time planning. Exam essays invariably have a time limit which can’t be overrun. Each essay is worth a set number of marks. Impress on your students that they can’t earn more by writing more, and will lose marks by not writing enough. Teach them to divide their time between the sections in their essay plan, and stick to the timetable. Even assignment essays are limited by a deadline or word count, so time management is just as important, especially if research is needed.
Don’t encourage padding. The length of an essay can seem daunting and students are likely to be tempted to write long-winded sentences to pad out thin material. The essay plan prevents this, in that it will remind them of so many facts, opinions, quotes and references that they’ll have more than enough information. By the same token, advise against padding of essays with textbook quotes linked by a few sentences. Remind your students repeatedly that the essay is a test of their interpretation of the issue under discussion. Too many quotes create the impression that they may have read the right books, but not necessarily understood them.
Encourage simple and straightforward writing. A simple, straightforward style is best, and facilitates writing under pressure, particularly when writing in a second language. Teach your students to start with an introduction summarising key points, then go into detail in a series of logical paragraphs, finally ending with a conclusion which brings everything together. Presentation is equally important, so use paragraphs, subheadings if necessary, and clearly label any diagrams. Teach your students to vary their writing style with questions, sentences of different lengths, quotations, examples — devices which keep the reader alert and the text fresh.
Don’t neglect practice. As with all demanding skills, essay writing improves with practice. Review past papers and discuss and analyse practice essays with your students who should also be encouraged to read widely. As I mentioned earlier, essays are everywhere, so teachers should look for and present examples of well-written compositions, highlight fine passages and debate how they are written and structured. Remember, the more your students read, the more they’ll learn about the best techniques.
(Ian Chambers is the Delhi-based regional manager (South Asia) of the University of Cambridge International Examinations)