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Essay Writing

Writing Essay in English

In the first years of learning school English your language courses concentrate mostly on language aquisition, based on expanding on vocabulary and later on fixed structures and grammar rules. Speaking, listening and reading practice – combined with some writing exercises (essay writing) – are in the centre of attention.

When you move on to A-level preparation courses = 1º y 2º Curso de Bachiller, writing compositions will turn more and more relevant.

As a matter of fact,the exam format of the so called PAU (or EBAU) exam is based on reading comprehension and composition/essay writing skills. At this stage, a profound knowledge of grammar is already taken for granted. You are expected to know how to put these skills into practice in a discoursive context.

THE DIFFICULTIES OF WRITING IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

Throughout many years of extensive teaching practice I’ve seen over and over again that most students are not prepared enough for the high level of communicative capacity that is expected in A-level courses.

This is mainly due to the fact that the school curriculum ot the previous years mainly focuses on grammar aspects and up to a minor degree on listening and reading comprehension. Writing practice is hardly included at that stage.

So how can you expect writing skills if you have hardly trained them?

essay writing

Writing compositions is something that needs to be worked on in the same way as other aspects of learning a language. The most common error among language students is based on the wrong approach.

The first thing you should take into account is that you probably don’t have the same capacity of expressing your ideas in a foreign language like in your own. This is just natural. For this reason, it may be important to follow the following pieces of advice:

1. KEEP YOUR SENTENCES RELATIVELY SHORT AND CLEAR (PRECISION OF LANGUAGE RESSOURCES)

Bringing your message across to the reader in correct and comprehensible English is the most important goal. It is much better to achieve this, based on a rather simple way of expressing your ideas than with complex sentence structures full of mistakes where the message gets lost on the way.

Of course,your teachers will expect you to be able to express your ideas in English at a relatively high level. You are supposed to be able to build subordinate clauses in which a number of conjunctions (because, although, if, when) are employed in useful and meaningful ways. The same applies to other discoursive expressions to start off with new sentences or paragraphs (on the one hand/side, on the other hand/side, moreover, however, that’s why).

Bear in mind that you are normally expected to express your opinion on some kind of topic. This requires a certain degree of elaboration in your way of listing or differentiating different arguments for or against an assumption.

2. AVOID WORD TO WORD TRANSLATIONS

Word to word translations from your mother tongue normally end up in bad English.

They may easily lead to numerous errors that may make comprehension very difficult or even almost impossible.

At this stage, you are required to think and express your ideas directly in English. For this reason, you will necessarily need to find ways of expressing your arguments in rather simple ways.

In order to achieve this, you may use sentence structures that you are familiar with, for example the gerund form.

Imagine the following starting off-sentence in an essay on:

THE IMPORTANCE OF A HEALTHY DIET

Eating too much is extremely bad for your health.

Such a statement opens up great possibilities of going on in a straightforward way.

For this reason, it is important to watch out for a healthy diet, for example based on fruit and vegetables. You should also… You may… as well. Another thing that is important is….

3. AVOID TRANSLATION APPS AND DICTIONARIES

When it comes to writing a composition,you should avoid using translation apps or dictionaries.

Why? – Basically for two reasons.

1. You should train writing essays in exam conditions, that means in situations in which you are not allowed to use any kind of vocabulary help.

2. As you are expected to show your writing skills,you get to train these much better if you stick to finding your own ways of expressing what you want to say. This is good practice to train mental flexibility. You may have to throw out ideas you won’t be able to express well enough.

In an exam it’s important to stay on the safe side!

3. TAKE THE TIME TO THINK BEFORE YOU START WRITING

It sounds obvious but it isn´t.

Quite often we are so stressed,especially in exam situations, that we forget to calm down,to breathe deeply and to take the time to think.

It is important to have a clear idea what you are going to write before you start. This is much better than developing your arguments while you are writing.

If you still develop your arguments while you are writing,you are likely to make more mistakes because you have to concentrate on too many things at the same time. For this reason,you should have a clear idea of what you want to express before you start writing.

4. PLAN YOU ESSAY

I’m sure that your school teacher has pointed this out a number of times. You probably find charts in your book that give clear instructions on how you are supposed to plan your essays.

THE OUTLINE

First of all, you are expected to follow a clear outline based on:

INTRODUCTION – BODY – CONCLUSION

The first paragraph is supposed to be an introduction into the topic exposing a few general ideas to make the reader familiar with the topic. A good idea is to start off with a rhetorical question that may attract the readers’ attention. Bear in mind that your essay is supposed to be more than just an exercise. You are supposed to have something relevant to say on the topic that you want to bring across in an interesting manner.

EXAMPLE FOR AN INTERESTING STARTER IN AN ESSAY ON OBESITY

«Have you ever thought why there are so many obese people in our modern society?»

Such a start attracts the readers’ attention and he or she will be more likely to read the whole essay.

In the second and third paragraph you are expected to develop your reasoning. Developing your arguments may follow different alternatives. These are basically:

OPTION 1: THE LINEAR ARGUMENTATION

2ND PARAGRAPH: MAIN ARGUMENT FOR OR AGAINST A STATEMENT

3RD PARAGRAPH: A SECOND OR DIFFERENT MINOR ARGUMENTS IN THE SAME LINE

OPTION 2: THE CONTRASTING ARGUMENTATION

2ND PARAGRAPH: ARGUMENT/S IN FAVOUR OF A STATEMENT

3RD PARAGRAPH: ARGUMENT/S AGAINST A STATEMENT

OPTION 3: THE STRAWMAN ARGUMENTATION («ESPANTAPAJAROS»)

2ND PARAGRAPH: A FAKE ARGUMENT IN FAVOUR OR AGAINST A STATEMENT

3RD PARAGRAPH: THE REAL ARGUMENT/S IN FAVOUR OR AGAINST A STATEMENT THAT REVOKE THE FORMER ONE/S

The most common way or arguing that is often required by teachers’ instructions is the second one. A lot of teachers want you to practise particularly the discourse markers of contrasting opinions.

In my opinion you should be given complete freedom or arguing. As you are supposed to express your opinion,I think you should not be forced into any kind of argumentation.

I don’t see the point of finding an advantage of the death penalty. Why should I be forced to argue in favour of it? If I am forced to write something I don’t really think, my essay turns into nothing more than a school imposition and has nothing to do with expressing my opinion.

THE PRACTICE PART

In this part I want to give some advice on how to put the instructions (the outline) into practice.

Try to find different arguments for/against the assumption the essay should be based on. Write them down as bullet points in relatively short sentences. Don’t get too much into detail.

Otherwise, you end up writing the composition already. We are still at the planning step.

Once you have different arguments, you just join your arguments together in a meaningful way. The final outcome – with some improvements – will be your essay.

You just have to join the introduction,body and conclusion together.

THE CONCLUSION (THE 4TH/FINAL PARAGRAPH)

There are basically two ways of finishing a composition.

The first one is based on a conclusion,that means you are expected to finish off your essay with a paragraph that explains your main point more in detail. This should ,of course, be based on your previous arguments.

Bear in mind that a conclusion is not the same as a summary.

In a summary,which is the second option of ending a composition, you just repeat the main argument, preferably in other words in order not to be too repetitive! If you just repeat your main argument in the same words,it is seen as stylistically poor.

If you are expected to finish your composition with a conclusion,you should avoid writing a summary!

CONCLUDING ADVICE

I have been over and over again in the situation that students keep telling me that they just don’t achieve to plan their writings in this way, that it goes against their nature of expressing their opinion.

If you see that you just don’t feel comfortable with these recommendations, you should at least watch out for the maximum control of your sentences when you are writing.

I wouldn’t mind that much about these recommendations if your writings were just for fun. Even in this case you will probably realize an important improvement in your writing skills if you put these pieces of advice into practice.

When your main objective is to pass an exam, it is very important to write clear and meaningful essays with only limited number of minor mistakes.

It is also important to avoid that your ideas drive you too far away from the topic. You may be ending up writing about your grandmother’s garden, to say it this way.

A PRACTICAL EXAMPLE ON HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR ESSAY

Let’s imagine that you have to write an essay on the following topic.

SHOULD STUDENTS HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECIDE ON SCHOOL DECISIONS? UP TO WHAT DEGREE?

1ST STEP:

Think about possible arguments for and against. You may ask yourself: In what aspects may students have the right to decide on school affairs?

In what aspects may students have to accept the existing rules and school structures?

Take the necessary time to think what you may write and how you may argue.

Leave out those arguments that lead you too far away from the topic or you will find too difficult to express well in your own words.

2ND STEP:

Write down your arguments in relatively short and simple sentences.

Arguments for

  • Students should have the right to give their opinions. It is part of their freedom.
  • They should have the right to make suggestions in a number of situations and should be considered
  1. When they feel ignored or discriminated against by a teacher.
  2. When they have ideas or suggestions for the course programme or a school project
  3. When they have proposals for school excursions, class trips or other school activities like parties
  • It must be possible to adapt the course programme to the suggestions of the students, for example in music lessons it should be possible to work on recent pop/rock songs or English students should have the right to decide if they want to work on Britain, the USA or other English speaking countries.

Arguments against

  • There is no equality between students and teachers. This is normal between teachers and students and it also needs to be this way for respect.
  • Teachers go to school to teach and students go to school to be taught. That means students have to listen to and pay attention to the teachers. Students need to accept the authority of the teachers and can only learn with a high level of class discipline.
  • A number of decisions do not correspond to the students*, for example on school management and finance

* try to avoid contracted forms in essays

Please bear in mind that these arguments are just ideas and don’t necessarily reflect my personal opinion. You are supposed to have the freedom to express your own viewpoint.

3RD STEP

Bear in mind the structure: introduction – body – conclusion. Think about a good introductory sentence or paragraph.

EXAMPLE

There has been some discussion over the last years if students should have the right to decide on school decisions. In my opinion there are some arguments in favour but also others against this idea.

4TH STEP:

Write an essay based on your notes. It may look the following way.

Should students have the right to decide on school decisions. Up to what degree?

There has been some discussion over the last years if students should have the right to decide on school decisions. In my opinion there are some arguments in favour and others against this idea.

There is no equality between teachers and students at school and this is natural. These are just the realities. Teachers go to school to teach and students go there to be taught. This means that they have to listen to the teachers and pay attention. Students need to accept the authority of the teachers and can only learn with a high level of class discipline.

Students should have the right to give their opinion. They should also be considered when they feel ignored or discriminated against by a teacher, when they have suggestions for the course programme or a school project or when they have proposals for school excursions, class trips or social activities like school parties.

It must be possible to adapt the course programme to the ideas of the students, for example in music lessons. It should be possible to work on pop or rock songs and English students should have the right to decide if they work on Britain, the USA or other English speaking countries.

5TH STEP

We still need a good closing sentence or paragraph in form of a conclusion or possibly a summary.

EXAMPLE

There are a number of situations in which students’ should have the right to participate but this right must not affect the general rules of the school. It is also necessary to accept the school authority.

Re-read your composition! this way, you already have a reasonably good composition. Just by making some improvements, especially by adding a few discourse markers and conjunctions, you get to quite a good composition.

And again, please bear in mind that the opinion expressed isn’t necessarily what I think about this topic!

6TH STEP

Improve your essay by correcting mistakes, adding discourse markers ( if not already done ) and by adding a few examples and rather simple ideas to illustrate some arguments better. This way, your composition may look the following way.

Bear in mind that according to the English essay writing format you are expected to indent the paragraphs.

SHOULD STUDENTS HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECIDE ON SCHOOL DECISIONS. UP TO WHAT DEGREE?

There has been some discussion over the last few years whether students should have more rights at school as far as making decisions is concerned. In my opinion, there are certainly some arguments in favour but also others against this assumption.

First and foremost, there is no equality between teachers and students. It is just the reality that they are not in the same position. In everyday life there is no equality between the director and the workers either. Teachers go to school to teach and students go there to be taught. this means, of course, that they have to listen to the teachers and the classmates, pay attention and accept the teachers’ authority. Moreover, students can only learn with a high level of class discipline.

On the other hand, there are a number of school matters in which the students have the right to give their opinion. Their opinion is important to take into account when they feel ignored or discriminated against by a teacher, when they have suggestions for the course programme, a school project or when they have proposals for school excursions, class trips or social activities, such as school parties. In music lessons it should be possible to work on recent pop or rock songs and in English courses students should have the right to participate in the decision if they work on Britain, the USA or other English speaking countries.

In conclusion, I think that there are a number of situations in which students should have the right to decide on school matters but these rights must not interfere with the general rules at school and class room behaviour. It is also important to accept the school authority.

FINAL REMARKS

This was just an illustration of what your teachers refer to when they want you to plan your compositions. You may agree with the arguments that I have expressed in this sample essay or not. This is of minor importance. It is just an example of how you can achieve reasonably good results with limited language ressources.

In case you consider the final adaptations too high for your level, you just put into practice what is at your level.

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