During tuition today, my student brought me a book of best essays from her school’s examinations from various levels. She is in SOTA and they do a subject titled ARC (Analysis, Research and Communication) which basically teaches them to produce the kind of essays I am trying to get my students to produce now.
Read the paragraph below and make a rough guess which level the writer is at – Year 1, 2 or 3 (equivalent to our Sec 1, 2 and 3):
In response to the question, “We are easily manipulated by the media.” To what extent is this true? This is the third body paragraph.
Besides that, the media is also used in the spread of political propaganda. For instance, North Korea, a communist nation, utilizes non-print media like posters and flyers to perpetuate its strong prejudice against the United States of America (USA) to its citizens. In one North Korean propaganda poster, a soldier is seen destroying the US Capitol. Several other posters also tend to feature a torn USA flag and North Korean soldiers attacking an American solider. What is more, phrases like “when provoking a war of aggression, we will hit back, beginning with the USA” will also appear on such posters. The citizens of North Korea are then placed in an environment where the abundant propaganda posters can influence them to think that the United States of America truly is their nation’s sworn enemy and their easily impressionable minds may be brainwashed to believe that they must strive towards annihilating them."
This is actually one of the weaker essays amongst the whole collection. I didn’t have time to scan the others, but I was extremely impressed by the depth of engagement with the example (though they might have done this in class, but none of the other model essays – and there were about 6 on the same question – used the same example). You can say that this is a rather example-driven paragraph and hence lacks that kind of strong argumentative edge to it. However, given that this was produced by a Year 2 student, a 14 year old – it is already extremely impressive.
I can honestly say that out of the 200 essays that I read last year, less than 5 had this kind of quality engagement with the question and examples given.
Reading the other ‘best essays’, I saw essays – written by 14 year old students – which competently handled counter-arguments and rebuttals with much depth that revealed critical thinking that I am now trying to inculcate in my 18 year old students.
My intention here is not to put my students down or to extol the virtues of students going thru the IB.
I strongly feel that we need to rethink the way we teach writing to our students in the Secondary Schools.
If the aim of educating our Express Stream students is ultimately for them to do well enough to get a University degree, then skills of argumentation, reasoning, critical analysis and academic writing should be taught as early as in Secondary Schools.
Many of the students who come to me in Junior College have no idea how to write an academic essay at all, and because of that, the well-intentioned scheme of teaching them that thru Project Work becomes a very teacher-directed, tedious process. We try to cram the skills of data analysis, academic writing, critical thinking into a project that has to be submitted in a short span of 9 months.
Students undergoing the IB have been exposed to these skills gradually from the age of 13 onwards and I believe that at age 16, their research writing skills will surpass many of those who score A1s for English in our O’ Level system. For those who are keen on finding out more about how academic/ reseach writing is thought in the IB, you can check it out here.
Am I suggesting that English Language be reduced simply to the teaching of expository/argumentative writing? No.
What I want to suggest is that the teaching of narrative writing be transferred from EL to the Literature subject.
Many of us grouse that the Lit syllabus/examination in Singapore is hardly one that encourages creativity. Creativity is limited to ‘fun’ activities in the classroom. If narratives can be marked summatively in O’ Level English examinations, I don’t see why we can’t include a component in our literature examinations which allows students to write creatively.
Our English Language syllabus can then focus on other registers of EL teaching and even incorporate elements of ‘General Paper’ assessment which are commonly neglected in most secondary schools now. The ARC model is something I’m seriously considering right now, because I think that students should be encouraged to think about General Paper issues as early as age 15. Many students are capable of doing so, but our O’ Level examination simply limits that because it only has one or two expository/argumentative questions which are often rather limited in scope.
Many IP schools are already doing it, but I don’t see why it should be limited only to these students. Every student in Singapore should be engaged in thinking critically about the world around them and learning how to express it. This can’t be exclusive only to the top 10% who enter JCs.
I truly believe some of the changes mentioned above would ultimately lead to a significant increase in the quality of our students’ academic writing in the years to come. And of course – make the life of General Paper teachers much easier! Heh. 🙂