Teaching writing an opinion essay (exam task C2) in the classroom

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The aim of this paper is to discuss a useful strategy for teaching schoolchildren to writea discursive essay when preparing “against the clock” for the Russian State exam. We are going to describe an example lesson focused on producing a C2 exam task in 90 minutes.

Being a teacher at a state-owned secondary school, the author does realize the importance of gradual teaching this vital language skill and the size of the problem. Ideally, students should be consecutively taught to write their first pieces through dictations, substitutions, filling out the gaps, etc. and later producetheir ownsimple, combined, and complex sentences followed by whole paragraphs and completed texts.Step by step, students get acquainted with some theoretical points of good writing. The books on this subject are readily available today; for example, we find the corresponding section of Longman Exam Dictionary [1] extremely handy.

Throughout the course, thechildren should get increasingly familiar withavariety of linking devices, from elementary to more sophisticated. It goes without saying that they should know about such things as different genres of writing, the appropriate register, the structure of a paragraph, and have some idea of the topic sentenceand supporting sentences, and general text organization.

However, if we come back to earth and try to be realistic, quite often this is not the case. With lots of slow students who happily announce at Year 11 they have decided to take a Russian State exam in English, along with (alas!) general teachers’ reluctance to teach writing in classand to check it at home, we have to think of some efficient means of coping with task C2 in the final year(s) of schooling.

At the opposite end, students themselves find this part of the examination the most challenging. It is not a secret that, being human, we all tend to avoid unpleasant experience, so we usually put off the moment when we have to hand in an essay, or push the deadline by all means. And this is really understandable because writing (along with speaking) is a productive languageskill, so it usually takes a long time to master.

So, the question arises, how can we overcome this trend? How can we fight against procrastination when it comes to writing? The answer is obvious: by writing together with students, by writing regularly, and by writing in the classroom, not at home. It is a very simple idea but it works. Through trial and error, the author has got convinced that the best way to cope with writer’s block of your students is to do writing all together during the lesson. Double periods of 90 minutes are the best solution, but if you do not have any double periods on your time-table, you can start and do as much as you can within a normal class and proceed from where you dropped last time. We are making a point here that the whole essay should be written, analyzed, and brought to perfection in the classroom. Another key moment is the teacher’s “on-line” participation in the process of writing.

There is a simple algorithm for the entire activity, which logically falls into ten consecutive steps. We usually have a very basic presentation concerning essay writing on the TV screen, while the blackboard is also extensively used. In our view, the 10 steps to writing a successful essay in the classroom look as follows:

  1. Understanding the rubric.
  2. Brainstorming the topic-related vocabulary.
  3. Planning and drawing a spider-diagram (or just 2 columns)
  4. Thinking of the reasons supporting your opinion
  5. Thinking of the reasons supporting the opposite point of view
  6. Writing the draft version (paragraph by paragraph, each time followed by step 7)
  7. Counting words immediately after finishing a para
  8. Reading aloud your writing to the class
  9. Listening to the teacher’s evaluation and making corrections
  10. Assessing your essay on the C2 scale

If we now get down to considering each stage in detail, we can easily see how the algorithm mentioned above can be broken down into three distinctive types of work, namely, pre-writing, writing and post-writing activities.

As many experts point out, especially those busy with assessing the writing tasks, one of the most disturbing causes of the failure to produce a successful logical essay is the failure to understand the rubric or the topic which we are going to write about. There are a few tricks we can use at this point.

First of all, the pupils are given 2 minutes to think in silence about what issue is going to be discussed. With this in mind, they are asked by the teacher to underline the words which they think arethe key words and suggest any synonyms or equivalent expressions for those. Also, to comprehend better what aspects of the problem are going to be considered, it often makes sense to ask a general and then an information question to the statement offered by the rubric.

For weaker classes, the discussion is held mostly in Russian to save the time and make sure the students understand what is going on. However, with more advanced students, it is more appropriate to converse in English killing “two birds with one stone”. In that case, we sometimes end up with quite a lot of meaningful communicative speaking.

Let us know look at a specific example. Let us suppose, the class sets out to write an essay on the following problem.The rubric reads as follows:

Comment on the statement.

Social networks came into existence about ten years ago. Most people are very enthusiastic about their growing popularity, while others believe they present a serious problem for modern society.

Do you think that social networks are the best invention ever, or are they social evil which we do not fully realize yet?”

After two-minute thinking, the teacher tries to elicit the key words, which in this case are, definitely, “social networks”, not “the Internet” or “the computer”, as well as the word “problem”. Ask the students to come up with synonyms for that and put the words like “issue” or “threat” on the blackboard.

After that the students are invited to ask some questions concerning the problemtrying to look at the various aspects of the topic, for example:

  • Are social networks the greatest technological and social invention of the latest decade?
  • What social networks do you know?
  • Why are so many people enthusiastic about them?
  • Do they really present a serious threat to people?
  • Why do they present a serious threat to people?

It is vital to encourage the students to develop this habit of asking extra questions until an automatic skill is formed.

The next step is brainstorming the topic-related vocabulary. Invite the students to name the words and collocations which they think will be essential when writing on the topic in question. Routinely, writing tasks are given at the end of the Unit so this stage is no particular problem. They tend to be rather enthusiastic about this part of the lesson, with even the quietest taking part. So, when writing on the problem of social networking, we came up with the following sub-lists of specific and more general vocabulary which can be useful when writing on almost every topic:

  • Social networks, networking, on the Internet, to log on, to keep a blog, virtual, share your ideas, online, disclose information,total control,professional communities, intelligence services, Facebook, Twitter, Julian Assange.
  • A craze for, addiction to, time-eater,media,communication, privacy, a means of, face a problem, cause/create problems, provide smb.with smth., be/pose/present/represent a threat, see/realize/recognize danger, etc.

Sitting at the desks for an hour and a half is rather tiring for the children, so volunteers are always welcome to come to the blackboard to put down suggested vocabulary items on the part of the board reserved for the purpose.

The plan for the examination essay is usually provided in the exam paper. In practice, some students have a vague idea of the plan for the C2 exam task, so we put that on the board as well, especially if it is the first trial at writing an essay. It should be noted here that throughout the whole lesson a teacher should ask questions and elicit the right answers from the audience rather than “deliver a lecture”. Typically, the students are asked how many paragraphs they have to write, what the purpose of each paragraph is and about the requirements for the number of words. This normally takes about 3 to 5 minutes.

It is common knowledge that the plan for an opinion essay for the Russian State exam looks in the following way:

paragraph 1-make an introduction (state the problem) =30-50 words

paragraph 2 - express your personal opinion and give 2-3 reasons for your opinion

paragraph 3 - express an opposing opinion and give 1-2 reasons for this opposing opinion

paragraph 4 – explain why you don’t agree with the opposing opinion (=130-150 words for the body of the essay, that is, paragraphs 2,3,4)

paragraph 5- make a conclusion restating your position= 40-50 words

The breakdown of the number of words per paragraph, which we find quite reasonable, is taken from “Essay Writing for Exams: three steps for success” [2].

Moving on to the next stage, we usually divide the board in two parts with enough space to write down the ideas “pro” and “contra” the main thesis. This is the lesson stage which causes a lot of excitement. The teacher asks the class about their personal opinions on the problem under discussion and invites to suggest arguments in favor of the statement, whatever crazy. This is what brainstorming is all about. For the sake of achieving lesson’s purposes and saving time, we usually agree to support the same view, for example, strangely enough for teenage children, we agreed to believe that social networks present a serious threat to modern society.

At this point the students are taught to take notes in English using lists of nouns and nominal phrases. Thus, the reasons put forward to support the taken point of view included:

  • the biggest time-eater, causing addiction, psychological problems, replacement of real activities with virtual business and relationships
  • loss of privacy, revealing/disclosing personal information, which can be used by different groups of people to do you harm; dangerous acquaintances
  • powerful means of total control, secret weapon of intelligence services (references to Julian Assange)

Undoubtedly, when doing the C2 task for the first time, we should choose a simple topic, for example, the good and bad sides of mobile phones, or fast food, or being a single child, etc.

After all the ideas supporting our view have been expressed, we move on to brainstorming the reasons in favour of the opposing opinion. In our case, they were:

  • a convenient means of communication, a chance to chat, especially for lonely people, exchange of news and ideas, discussing the latest event
  • helping to get in touch with people you once knew, or making new friends with people having the same interests
  • great opportunities for professional communities, different subcultures, people with the same hobbies
  • great fun, a lot of entertainment (music, films, videos, games)
  • expressing your personality (keeping a blog, downloading your pictures, works of art, etc.)

Stages 4 and 5 should take up from 10 to 12minutes. Obviously, the students are reminded to choose just two or three reasons from those on the lists, which they find the most convincing and personal.

If we add up the time allocated for pre-writing activities, it amounts to 20-25 minutes including the organizational stage at the start of the lesson. However, every next time we do this, the pre-writing time can be reduced to 10-15 minutes, leaving more opportunities to do and polish our writing.

After the teacher explains the aim of the introduction, the students are invited to write the first paragraph of the essay within 5 minutes allocated. We would like to make a point here that the teacher should start writing together with the children, which can not only help you understand some difficulties we have to cope with while doing a particular topic, but is very stimulating for the class. Meanwhile, some useful phrases which can be used in the introduction are presented on the screen with the help of PowerPoint presentation.

In five minutes, the students are asked to put down their pens. The teacher invites them to read out their introductions in turn, starting with the best or maybe the bravest. The main thing here is to see that the goal of the paragraph has been reached, that is to say, the problem has been restated in other words and the importance of the issue has been shown. If you want to encourage students to feel more confident and enthusiastic, never concentrate on minor grammar or style mistakes at this stage, but on the content.

Reading the paragraphs aloud can take up to 10 minutes sometimes but its importance is difficult to overestimate. It takes some experience from the teacher to see and correct (or just keep in mind) the errors while listening. For the rest of the class this is also extremely useful as it helps to concentrate on listening to the classmates, to notice mistakes, to fix in mind the good points and to develop critical thinking.

Then the procedure is repeated for paragraph 2 (giving your opinion with relevant reasons and examples) and paragraph 3 (giving the opposing point of view). Again, the linking devices for supporting the arguments are found in front of their eyes on the screen. They can be taken from numerous books on writing, for example, “Skills for First Certificate. Writing” by Malcolm Mann and S.Taylor-Knowles[3] or “Exam success” by W.Rimmer and others, very popular today[4].

When writing a conclusion, do not forget to remind that new ideas are never included at this point, and that the purpose of the conclusion is to summarize what has been said in the body of the essay.

By the end of the lesson students become increasingly aware of the number of words at their disposal and learn to treat them carefully. If counting has been done after each paragraph, we can hardly expect unpleasant surprises when we finish writing.

One final thing to do at the end of the class is to hand out the table with the criteria used by experts to assess the C2 writing task. It can be taken from any book on exam preparation, for example[5]. Only after a student puts a tick in the right boxes under the headings Content, Organization, Grammar, Vocabulary and Spelling, will they see how they can get the desirable 14 points or less. They come to realize that even if their language is not quite accurate, there is a solid change to get at least a half (which is better than none) provided they follow certain principles of essay writing.

In terms of time management, the approximate times for the suggested activities are:

Type of activity stage Time allocation
Pre-writing organizational 1 min
Introduction to the aim of the lesson 1 min
Thinking over the topic of the essay 2 min
Asking questions 1 min
Brainstorming vocabulary 3-5 min
Planning and explaining what to do in each para 3-5 min
Brainstorming ideas pro and contra 10-12 min
Writing Writing an introduction 5 min
Reading out/teacher’s remarks 7 min
Writing “my opinion” paragraph 5 min
Reading out/teacher’s remarks 7 min
Writing “the opposing opinion” paragraph 5 min
Reading out/teacher’s remarks 7 min
Writing “why they are wrong” paragraph 5 min
Reading out/teacher’s remarks 7 min
Writing a conclusion 5 min
Reading out/teacher’s remarks 7 min
Post-writing Self-assessment on C2 scale 5 min

To conclude, it appears that the practice described here has positive sides as well as some minuses. The author has given a couple of “open” lessons for the local English teachers and got largelya good response. Talking of limitations, the method considered works successfully with a rather small group of up to 10 students demonstrating an adequate command of English for a school-leaver. It certainly requires a good psychological climate in the classroom and trustful teacher-student relations. If this is the case, the practice discussed is a good means of bringing some energy and enthusiasm to the process of writing in the classroom.

REFERENCES.

[1]. “Longman Exams Dictionary”, Pearson Education, 2006.

[2]. G. Duigu, T. Kuznetsova, A. Gorizontova “Essay Writing for Exams: three steps to success”, IELTS Evrokniga Publishing, 2011.

[3]. M. Mann, S. Taylor-Knowles, “Skills for First Certificate: Writing”, Macmillan Education, 2006.

[4]. W. Rimmer, O. Vinogradova, L. Kozhevnikova, “Exam Success”, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5]. Вербицкая М.В., Махмурян К.С., “ЕГЭ 2011. Английский язык: тренировочные задания”. - М.: Эксмо, 2010.