Tuesday, May 19, 2009

English composition part1

This is a two-part post on English composition, at the request of Lilian. She had been asking me for tips on improving English writing for a while now but I couldn't really advise her as I struggle with the same issue for Andre.

I started looking through Lesley-Anne's English files. In p5, I notice she was given quite extensive exercises on plot development, what makes a good story and the elements of different genres of writing, such as mysteries and persuasive writing. She also has a list of literary elements that can be used in writing, such as theme, imagery, dramatic irony, characterisation and hyperbole. Obviously the kids don't have to use everything but Lesley-Anne tells me the teachers do go through some of them and give examples of how they are used.

This once again reinforced my belief that composition can be taught. Just because I don't know the techniques doesn't mean there aren't any. Lesley-Anne's file had worksheets and exercises that they do to strengthen their skills in specific writing elements. This is more concrete than just "practising" because without being equipped with know-how, you'll keep writing the same thing in the same style, with the same mistakes, over and over.

Then I looked at her p6 file and comparing her p6 and p5 compositions, I realised that her writing had improved noticeable towards the end of p5 and especially in p6. Lesley-Anne's reading has not increased significantly during this period, which tells me that either the way composition is taught in her class is very effective or she had matured on her own, or both.

I thought I would share a couple of samples of her writing to show her growth in this area. This is one of the early compositions she wrote in p5, she garnered 26/40, which was the best mark she received for composition in the entire year (in GEP, anything from 25 above is considered good, rarely do kids score above 30). It's based on the picture below and I reproduced it wholesale, mistakes and all:

Just because of a kite

"Mom, please let us go to the park. I want to fly my new kite!" said Tim. "Okay. But you have to let Henry have a go too." Mom replied. "I will", said Tim.

It was the perfect day to go to the park. The sun was shining and there was an occasional breeze. They even saw a duck or two in the pond. When there was a breeze, Tim started flying his kite. It was a lovely sight. The kite's yellow and orange tail stood out against the pale blue sky and the picture of an eagle on the kite looked as if it was really flying.

"My turn, my turn!" shouted Henry. "Not yet, not yet!" said Tim. "But you have flown it for five minutes already!"

"Well, it is my kite."

"Mom said to share!"

So, an argument began. Both of them were arguing so badly that they did not notice the kite being blown towards a tree. When they finally noticed, the kite was already tangled up in the tree's branches.

"Here is the deal", said Tim, "the first person to untangle the kite gets to fly it for the whole day." "Okay!" said Henry as he climbed up the tree while Tim tried to pull the kite down from below. Then, as Henry was about to reach for the kite, he lost his balance.

He fell of the tree, landed on the grass and rolled into the lake. "Help!" said Henry, "I'm going to drown!" "But you can swim. I can't help you because I cannot swim", said Tim. "I can't swim either with a sprained ankle. It hurts," said Henry.

Luckily, a passer-by stopped by to help. He jumped into the lake and saved Henry. "T.. Thank you", said Henry. "My pleasure!" said the kind passer-by. He even dropped the boys home. Henry's mother was told about the situation. She was too relieved to be angry and thanked the passer-by.

From that day on, Tim took up swimming lessons and Henry never climbed another tree. As for the kite, it is still stuck up there to this day!

I must confess that I have never read other p5 or p6 kids' compositions so I can't compare, but my gut feel tells me that this composition is ok but does not particularly stand out. Her language use is quite ordinary.

There was an evaluation form attached with the composition. I'm not sure if this is done also for mainstream students but I find this very constructive. Instead of just a score, the child is given a detailed breakdown on what she had done well and what was lacking. This evaluation form was given for every composition in p5 and also includes the child's own reflections on the areas of improvement.

This was the form for the composition above:

I know it's blurry. Here are the teacher's comments (in red):

Plot/Story Structure: Good, clear plot. Well planned.
Setting: More can be detailed here
Characterisation Feelings/Emotions: Deal with the feelings of both the boys
Dialogue: You need to know how to handle a dialogue
Story Idea Climax: Good storyline. Well done!
Grammar & Usage Vocabulary: Use better words and expressions.
Punctuation/ Capitalisation: Errors in both these areas. Errors in full-stops, commas and capital letters.
Spelling: No errors. Great.
Handwriting Neatness: Neat

I will post Lesley-Anne's p6 composition tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Not sure whether you have come across this, but there are some useful tips



Lilian said...

Thank you (100x)! L-A writes in a very accessible way, and it shows that with strong language skills, even a simple picture composition can be made interesting. Her composition is realistic, the plot builds up and I like her ending too. I can't wait to see her P6 composition.

This makes me feel even more worried now that I realise composition skills can actually be taught! Cos I have no idea how to teach it and we're not getting anywhere with just "Go practise." We just get into a lot of frustration. Please share more, and with techniques too if you can. Xie2.

ps...what's hyperbole? I only know hyperbola :P

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks for the tips! I don't agree that planning helps the imagination though, thinking about it beforehand doesn't necessarily mean you get more creative ideas.

Lilian: You're welcome! Hyperbole is "an exaggerated statement to make a bold effect" eg. "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." I have no idea what's hyperbola!!

I think the specific comments are important eg. The teacher mentioned L-A needed to work on her dialogue and setting, so she knows specifically what she needs to brush up on. I noticed this because later on, her dialogues especially improved. At least the child knows what to focus on instead of groping around trying to just "write better".

Lilian said...

"At least the child knows what to focus on instead of groping around trying to just "write better"."

:( You just described me. No wonder Brian gets so frustrated with me.

monlim said...

That's why I get frustrated when people tell me glibly, "cannot teach composition!" Just because there's no right or wrong answers doesn't mean there are no techniques.

I think for the intellectual kids like Brian, it helps for him to analyse how writers use these specific elements in their writing, and then try to do the same (perhaps as a short exercise). Then when he gets the hang of it, hopefully it comes more naturally when he's writing a full compo.

Alcovelet said...

Mon, I really liked L-A's compo! I haven't read other P6 compositions too, but there is a good buildup with an element of accidental adventure, and a strong conclusion. And all this came about from a simple picture!

Veronica_L said...

It's very good already...I honestly couldn't have done better myself. Very realistic dialogue between Tim and Henry.

26/40...WHAT? Are the expectations really so high?

Very encouraging stickers...my teacher never gave me those when I was her age. Come to think of it, we didn't even get a score sheet like that!

monlim said...

Veronica: From what I heard, the GEP tends to give much lower scores than mainstream for compo, I'm guessing to make the kids pitch at a higher standard. Yes, the score sheet is very useful and the stickers are encouraging!

Alcovelet said...

Sorry - I missed it. 26/40?? So long as she knows 25 and above is considered very good I suppose. But gosh.

monlim said...

Ad: Haha, well, they are quite stringent but I don't really mind cos the same standard is applied to everyone in GEP. But actually, I thought 26 quite fair for this compo leh, it's not that fantastic, no?

justpassingby said...

Umm, I find a very useful way to teach lower pri kids (and kids who struggle with the language) how to "pad out" their compo is to brainstorm using their 5 senses + feelings (ie emotions). It's worked out very well for my two dyslexic children.

Also, using scaffolding to teach them when they are in lower pri helps to pave the way for a better compo in the upper pri and beyond. When I taught my Normal(Tech) kids in Sec Sch, I found scaffolding a very useful tool for those without even the basics of a gd compo.

Scaffolding just means that you structure your teaching in such a way that you show them what makes a good "organised" essay first - teach them that they must tie up loose ends, that they cannot leave characters hanging (and the reader wondering), that there should (like in L-A's compo instructions) be a before, now followed by development and conclusion and so on.

Later, once they've got that, you can introduce the brainstorming of what they can see, hear, touch, taste and smell (adds to description of surroundings and what is going on) as well as emotions, as pointed out by LA's teacher.

Then you can show them how to vary their sentences to make the essay more interesting, if they aren't already doing that (we had kids to started each sentence with "Then...")

This is what I mean by scaffolding.

Using Graphic Organisers for children who need visual guides is also a good way of giving them ways to help themselves during the planning stage (planning may not help the creativity, but it ensures that the story doesn't wander up the garden path - serious marks can be lost for a story that wanders, or leaves the reader/examiner dangling).

Hope that helps...

monlim said...

Thanks! That's excellent. I think parents can first identify what is it their children are lacking in their compos. If it's structure and content, then your scaffolding method is very useful. If it's more language, then the senses + emotions method helps. I find that both my kids fare better in content than language but for Andre, I find it hard to get him to use more sophisticated language.

Oh and for GEP compo, the kids have to fill in a simple planning form before they they write, so yes, they do recognise that planning is important to ensure that you don't stray away from the topic.

Anonymous said...

Of course, composition can be taught. One good thing to teach is that instead of always using the word "said", is to find substitute words that would convey the emotions behind the dialogue. In this example, it would be ".....I want to fly my new kite!" pleaded Tim.........I will", promised Tim.

Anonymous said...

You should get this book "PSLE model compositions 2002 - 2006" published by MultiNine Corporation. It incorporates a lot of useful tips and the model compositions are wonderfully written.

petite fleur said...

I like the critique at the end - very useful. I don't remember my teachers ever giving anything beyond good, average or fail....

I'm back & you've been busy - so many posts. I need to catch up with my reading.

monlim said...

Anon: Thanks for the tips!

Mei: Hey there! Glad to have you back! Hope you've settled in nicely and I noticed you managed to get yourself a baby sitter :)

Anonymous said...

I like her compositions, both this one and the P6 one. And yes, she has shown improvement in her writing skills. I think those who say 'cannot teach compositions' mean you can't teach kids to write good compositions unless they have the basics (good grammar, spelling etc). LA reads a lot so she's exposed to good sentence structures, expressions etc so when she learns the techniques, she's able to produce even better compositions.

In Malaysia, children rarely read so the primary school teachers have to get students to memorise model essays so that they can at least pass their exams. Really depressing!


Anonymous said...

interesting cool compo good for me !! my compo is bad now better^_^

Anonymous said...

Keep this going please, great job!

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