Updated: Nov 2, 2021
As students progress from forming coherent sentences in the lower primary, they are now faced with the daunting task of managing continuous writing in the upper levels. Are you as anxious or perhaps as clueless as they are? Fret not, for Learning Point is here to help!
This article is separated into two parts, the first explores the Language component (emphasis on grammar, punctuation, story-flow and vocabulary), while the second focuses on the Content component (emphasis on the relevance and depth of the ideas within a story).
Why do students find it challenging to score high marks in language when their stories have a logical sequence and their plot is well-woven? Maybe it is because their sentences are rudimental and the lack of complex structures does not demonstrate competence in literacy. Here are some common mistakes made by students when writing. Do you recognise any of them from your child’s work? Take for example this sample composition question: Write a composition of at least 120 words about A Near-drowning Experience. The pictures are provided to help you think about this topic. Your composition should be based on one or more of these pictures.
These mistakes are illustrated in the following extracts from two students’ work. Student A is the quick yet careless writer. Student B is the more competent writer. In the story, Titan, his family members and their pet dog were at the seaside for a casual Sunday picnic.
7 Common Language Mistakes
Common mistake #1: Run-on sentences
A run-on sentence is an extra long sentence that does not have a connector or appropriate punctuation marks to separate the clauses within. The meaning of the sentence would be lost in the chain of words. Could you tell what the writer was trying to describe in that first sentence?
Common mistake #2: Missing speech tag
A speech tag indicates who spoke the words in the dialogue. Did you think that Titan was the dog when you first read the paragraph? After you have read the paragraph, did you think that there was a purpose to the speech “Woof, Woof,”?
Common mistake #3: Memorising and applying phrases despite it not adding value to the story
Applying non-topic related adjectival phrases at verbatim demonstrates the lack of intelligent application. In some cases, such phrases do not add value to the piece of composition and even squander away precious time and word count. Some schools have marking schemes that do not allocate marks to such display of vocabulary terms.
Common mistake #4: Missing punctuation (comma and hyphen) leading to confusion
Punctuations are essential, especially when they are used to indicate elaboration or a modifier. In Student A’s work, did you understand that Buddy is a poodle? Or that the catch toy is in the shape of a bone?
Notice that the content of the paragraph is very clear. It is describing a day with wonderful weather, someone is out in the park playing with his pet. However, due to weakness in the writer’s language, the message is lost.
Let’s take a look at how it can be improved.
Remedy #1: Avoid spending word count on unnecessary details especially when it does not play a pivotal role in the plot
Student A wrote a run-on sentence to describe the weather. Since indicating the weather is not a huge plot point, Student B paints the picture simply with “a glorious Sunday”.
Remedy #2: Be clear of what you are trying to describe, punctuate appropriately
Student B introduced his pet poodle, Buddy, with the help of commas before continuing the sentence. This shows his ability in constructing complex sentences. Student A used the phrase “… its catch toy bone”, Student B used “… the catch-toy bone”. This demonstrates the use of a hyphen correctly.
Remedy #3: Read the paragraph after it is written, doing that helps to spot mistakes
Remedy #4: Move on from weather talk, start with a speech or action or even extend the introduction with a curiosity statement
Weather talk as a starter for composition is a very cliche and ‘boring’ way to begin a story. Apply something new and be different from your peers! At Learning Point, we teach our students the different variations of curiosity beginnings. Can you guess what will surprise Titan, or even you (as a reader) for that day? Does it entice you as a reader to continue reading the story?
Now read Student A’s work again, followed by Student B’s work. Reflect and write down what do you think are the weaknesses of Student A. That is your take-away from this first set of mistakes.
Let’s take a look at another example.
Common mistake #5: Repetitive use of pronouns
There was only one mention of “Titan”, followed by repeated use of “He” for reference to the character. This is a very bad habit, especially when students are caught up with the story and sometimes, the writer even becomes “Titan” himself i.e. the use of “my” and “I” in place of “He”.
Common mistake #6: Lack of variety in sentence beginning
Common simple sentences begin with a subject followed by a predicate. “He did this”, “He said that”, “He reacted like that”, “He…” This lack of complex structure does not demonstrate competency in literacy. As you read the paragraph, do you find the use of “He” very repetitive and therefore a bore?
Common mistake #7: Lack of description & lack of variation in description
In the course of demonstrating the main character’s reaction, there is a need to describe it in different ways (we will see that demonstrated by Student B). While Student A has ideas to demonstrate the main character’s struggle in water, he failed to incite and bring upon a momentum that would otherwise interest the reader to read on.
Surely, there are not many Grammar mistakes (besides the “my” and “I”) in that paragraph. It is a very safe paragraph but it is also a very boring paragraph.
Let’s take a look at how it can be improved.
Remedy #5: Use proper nouns to identify the characters
If the whole paragraph is going to be about a character, use the proper noun at different junctures. Average it so that his name is mentioned at least once every 3-4 sentences.
Remedy #6: Introduce time connectors & apply conjunctions
Time connectors are very useful to keep the momentum going. It hurries the reader and moves the story along. “Before long,” tells you that it was a quick interval. “Suddenly” or “Out of the blue” tells you that there was an abrupt and urgent interruption. Get very used to using time connectors as they are good alternatives to using nouns at the beginning of a sentence.
Remedy #7: Show not tell, introduce speech and thoughts
At Learning Point’s EIE Programme, we teach our students to begin their sentences with expression of feelings such as “Bored with”, “Frightened of”. Student B demonstrated the main character’s reaction with sentences beginning with action and speech. This is definitely more engaging than Student A’s repetition of “He…” Although it is just plain text, you can actually feel the main character’s desperation in the last line, “Could this be the end of my life?”.
Did you move with the momentum of the text and visualise the scene in your mind? Is that skill of Show, Not Tell present in your child’s composition writing? Or have you gone a step further thinking about how to make a boring story an A* piece? Let Learning Point give you some tips on how to entice your reader to read on.
We hope that by pointing these out, it helps you and your child to hone his/her skill of writing good compositions.