Scoring Well in Composition and the Myths
"Composition is very hard to score!"
"Marking can be very subjective, so composition is very hard to score, that is why I want my child to focus on Paper 2." If I had a dollar every time a parent said that, I would be a very rich woman. Unfortunately, sometimes misinformed English teachers say that to parents and students as well.
Is writing really that hard to score well? Why do some children do very well in Paper 2 but perform inconsistently in their composition? What is the secret of those students who consistently score high marks for writing? Here are some common myths some parents and teachers hold to when they "teach" composition:
Myth 1: You will do well if you use big words
Frequently, I come across children who are made to learn vocabulary through memorisation. They can spell a word or pick out the right meaning from an MCQ. Unfortunately, when they come to Cloze or writing, these words are securely locked up in their mental drawers. Or else, writing becomes very contrived and pretentious because the students are dropping vocabulary to impress only.
In cases like this, the sentences usually look awkward and unnatural. Vocabulary should never be learnt in isolation. Meaningful context must be created for learners to apply their newly acquired vocabulary, so that the new words become part of their natural vocabulary.
Myth 2: Memorise good phrases from good writing
I have taught a few students who shared the same English teacher at school, and they all start their essays with the same phrase every single time they write. Whilst the phrase is a beautiful expression, the students were not able to carry the style through, thus resulting in very fragmented composition.
There are strategies to help children develop original but strong beginnings and endings to their stories. Through carefully crafted exercises, students will be able to develop beautiful descriptions all by themselves! Time and again, students (yes, even those who are weak in English) surprise me by coming up with interesting personification or similes that add spice to their writing.
Myth 3: Paper 2 can help to pull up marks
For the purpose of testing, English is split up into many "papers". However, the subject of English should not be viewed as isolated parts but an integrated whole. If your child does very well for Paper 2 but not for Paper 1, then he or she has not really mastered English! Reading and Writing are actually two sides of the same coin.
To teach a student to write well means we show them how an author thinks or influences his readers. We find students tend to read better when they write better because they understand how texts and meanings are constructed. Our strategy for "pulling up marks" is to help students develop all their English skills, especially to apply these skills in writing.
By learning our writing techniques, our high ability students score even higher marks than before because now their composition is not fluctuating like the stock market. On the other hand, our weak students also benefit from our approach because now they have a paper they know they will definitely pass, and frequently, they pass very well, too! This gives them confidence and peace of mind to work on the Paper 2 components. Having conquered the composition paper frequently gives a competitive edge for students who want to do well in English.
Myth 4: There is no time to write 150 or 250 words!
If your child writes once in a blue moon, this statement could be true. Think back to the times your child has sat at his table to complete his composition homework. Did he finish it within 45 mins or did he spend hours to get to his first paragraph?
A child who has been taught to think of writing systematically knows exactly how to start and plan for his writing. He will outline and brainstorm quickly to provide a scaffold for his writing. His focus on content takes away the insecurity and obsession with the word limit set. His mind is filled with vivid pictures of his story, and he can't help but spill his brilliant story onto his empty page. Does this sound too good to be true? Many parents thought so, until they experienced The Write Connection approach.
In all our classes, students complete their first draft within 30 mins in class. Scaffolding is provided to help them along in the beginning, and eventually, students will develop this foundation individually. This not only gives students confidence in their own ability, but more importantly, it teaches them the discipline to think systematically and quickly. The time limit set encourages students to engage in the task immediately.
Myth 5: If you read a lot you will be good at writing
Many parents ask me why their children love to read but still can't write. The answer is simple: their children read for pleasure only! And this is a good thing! However, it is a quite a leap if you expect your child to then become a whizz kid in comprehension and composition!
While it is true that reading and writing are interrelated, we cannot assume students can understand the writer’s use of language or writing strategies without explicit guidance. At best, they pick up a few cool words they like and use them (if you are so lucky!). Most children skip parts of a book that are too difficult or use their imagination to make up for the shortfall.
It is unrealistic to expect children to thus become good writers, unless awareness of the writer’s use of language and writing techniques are raised. Unfortunately, osmosis does not work in this instance. Young children can develop good language sense and perhaps pick up good English while they read because their books are usually very short and focused. Reading with parents (without pressure!) can really help them develop a love for reading and help them read better. However, the advice of "read more and your English will improve" becomes less true as a student gets older. If a student views himself or herself as being weak in English, it is less likely that he or she will pick up a book.