Essay Failure In Examsmart

Today, we’ll start looking at how to prepare your child to sit for the English exams.

You’ll find useful information and practical test-taking tips for the following English exam components:

  1. Listening Comprehension
  2. Oral English
  3. Composition Writing
  4. Written English Paper 2

With all these components to cover, I’m going to break this down into a few different posts, possibly 3 (or more).

In today’s post, we’ll focus on Composition Writing or what is commonly referred to as Paper 1. By PSLE, students will be tested on two types of writing tasks: Situational and Continuous Writing.

Composition Help For Primary School Pupils

Help for the Composition-Challenged Child source: office online

I will look specifically at the Continuous Writing or Narrative Writing section in this post as this poses a greater challenge to most pupils.

As there is a lot I can keep writing about, I’m going to limit myself to the top 3 common problems among students, and ideas on we can help our children improve in these areas.

3 Common Weaknesses:

1. Ideas not fully developed:

  • Contrary to popular belief, pupils, especially the weak ones, do not perish in composition for the lack of ideas. Pupils do not seem to lack ideas for writing; they do, however, lack the ability to edit their ideas.

2. Poor narrative structure

  • By this, I refer to the gaps in the story. If we have the privilege of reading several primary composition pieces, we would notice how easily ,and frequently, the young writer is easily distracted and forgets to provide follow-through on introduced ideas e.g. Alvin was walking home after school when he witnessed a snatch-thief. In the excitement ofdescribing his own act of heroism of chasing and capturing the thief, the writer then ends the composition by saying, “I arrived at school two hours late for my examinations. “
  • A solid composition structure has to have the basic Beginning-Middle-End (for the younger primary pupil, the Head-Body-Feet). Older pupils can, and should, be taught about the all-important Plot (series of problems and resolutions). More on this later.

3. Spelling, punctuation and grammar

  • This component often causes the pupil to bleed marks, and often, a unnecessary loss of points.
  • High frequency words are often spelled wrongly.
  • Careless punctuation. Common ones include: Lack of proper capitalisation, missing full stops, improper punctuation used for direct speech (the ending quotation mark is the most often forgotten).
  • Grammar mishaps occur most often in the form of inconsistent tenses e.g. tense switching that affects narrative structure, singular-plural, gender pronoun mix-ups.

“Sure-Score” Ideas to Improve Composition

A Disclaimer: Obviously, the following ideas are not going to make our children brilliant writers – the next Newberry Award or Booker Prize author. The discussion can get very intense if we really want to discuss whether compositions that are awared high marks in PSLE exams can even be considered good writing.Yes, I’m talking about those ‘lily white clouds floating across the azure sky’ types.

To be honest, after marking several hundred national exam scripts in my years, I have seen less than a handful of really impressive writing. Pieces that score top PSLE grades actually aren’t fantastic writing at all. But like I’ve said at the very start of this Get Exam Smart series, this is all about exam-taking strategies, and this also applies to composition writing.

3 Composition Exam Strategies to Help Your Child Improve Grades

Here are three effective writing strategies that can help every student avoid the common errors and weaknesses I mentioned above.

1. Story planning

  • The very basic of this is the Beginning-Middle-End plan. But in my experience, even the Primary 2s can manage a more complex plan.
  • Using the 5 W1H of Who-What-When-Where-Why-How, pupils can plan a decent story map to help them keep focused on the basic story elements. They should keep referring back to the map as they write to ensure their stories are headed towards the right destination. This also serves as a good ideas editing guide.
  • The older, and more fluent, writer can use a story plot. You can download one here for free from Scholastics. I prefer this as it gives the writer a visual of the progression in which he should introduce the events and ideas. The WH questions can still be used to help the writer map out his ideas on the organizer. One extra I would recommend is that your child jots down the character names in one corner.

Exam Smart Tip:Set aside no more than 5 minutes to do a story plan. There is no need to go through fancy details. The idea is to get a game plan on how you’ll like to write your story.

2. Develop ideas

There is a wealth of great suggestions on writing techniques to be found out there. But I’m going to only focus on a very manageable three which I believe will help boost your child’s performance significantly.

  • Show, not tell, your reader what is happening.
    Pupils often state what is obvious. That becomes boring for the reader because his imagination is not being engaged. Example: Instead of just writing ‘Tim was tired’, describe his tired appearance – ‘Tim could barely keep his eyes open. He tried to stop his yawn from escaping, but failed. Mrs Neo glared at him for the third time.’
  • Use strong and specific verbs.
    For starters, don’t just use ‘said’. Choose a specific verb to show how something is said. ‘Shouted’ and ‘whispered’ carry different emotive qualities that help lend colour to the narrative. Here’s a handy synonym chart for all the words you can use instead of simple ‘said’.
  • Use dialogue effectively.
    Some pupils love to write their compositions almost like a tv drama script. Such excessive use is to be discouraged. However, dialogue that is used suitably lends believability and interest to the written piece.Even in dialogue, the rule of ‘Show not tell’ still applies.
    Dialogue is great for developing the personality of your story characters, fleshing out events and building the plot. I found a great sample piece for how to write great dialogue (again from Scholastic, one of my favourite educational publishers). It is from Anton Chekhov, a little sophisticated and mature for our primary pupils, but I thought it would give us parents a very good insight to learn from a master writer how effective dialogue looks.

Exam Smart Tip: Set aside at least 5 minutes to read through the piece, and for corrections.

3. Teach self-editing skills

Every good writer also needs editing skills especially in the areas of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Common errors to be alert to:

  • Spelling:
    Get high frequency words spelled right e.g. because, tomorrow. The prevalent use of mobile devices amongst pupils now have lead to ‘SMS-language’ appearing in compos too e.g. bcos, ltr. Be aware of your own spelling weaknesses like those words that often trip you up, and be extra careful when using them. My problems often are with words that have repeated letters in them such as accomodation, occasion.
  • Punctuation:
    Especially common errors include missing full stops, names not being properly capitalised, wrong punctuation for dialogue. Working on these can help greatly reduce the number of errors and loss of points. (Most of these ‘errors’ seem to be due more to careless and messy handwriting than a poor grasp of the language).
  • Grammar:
    Check for common errors like using the wrong spelling for the plural form, wrong pronouns and switching between present and past tense.
    A note about tenses:Compositions are often written in the past tense. However, when pupils use the flashback technique, there is the potential that they forget that they have stepped back in time to narrate the story and still use the present tense.

Exam Smart Tip: Set aside at least 5 minutes to read through the piece, and for corrections. At the first check, check for SPG (spelling, punctuation,grammar) mistakes. In the second check, read and edit for idea coherence. Refer to story guide to ensure that the plot (conflicts and suitable resolutions) is addressed.


Like every good story, this post has to come to an end.

I hope that you have found this article helpful for you as you coach your child in composition writing.


Send me a scanned copy of your child’s compo, and share with me what your concerns are.
I will look at it, and give you some tips on what you can do to help him/her. All I ask is for you could subscribe to my blog( it’s free! and easy!). And if you can, please do leave a comment here on my blog . (You can comment on any of the ideas I’ve shared or share your own experiences with exams or struggles you encounter as you coach your kids. I also appreciate any feedback that will help me write better articles that will benefit you!)

Please email the samples to me by Thursday, 12 April, so that I can take the weekend to look at it.

Coming up…

I will be covering exam strategies for tackling English oral and the remaining components.

As promised, I will also be posting handy tips on how to be smart at managing time during exams, how to get your child to check his papers and avoid careless mistakes.

To save yourself the time and trouble of having to find these helpful ideas, you can get these tips once I post them if you subscribe to my blog. Do feel free to share this post to anyone you feel will benefit from it too. Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll ‘see’ you again real soon!



Categories: Exam Fever | Permalink

Common Reasons for Failure

Students fail elements of their degree for a number of reasons. The most common issues are not attending lectures, not keeping up with course reading, confusion or lack of understanding of course content, and personal problems that distract students.

How to Avoid Failure Before it Happens

With all of the problems noted above, students can usually avoid failing simply by taking pre-emptive action before the problem spirals out of control. There are several steps to take to ensure that small issues don’t become potential failures.

  • Talk to your Academic Tutor. This is a member of faculty assigned to you at the beginning of your degree programme, who you meet with regularly to discuss your progress. You can contact this person at any time and they can advise you on how to address any challenges you are facing.
  • Don’t wait until problems become large. It is always best to be aware that a small issue can quickly become a crisis if you neglect to address it. For example, if you are struggling to understand the course material one week, you will be unlikely to follow along as the course progresses. It is far better to consult with your lecturer early to avoid falling seriously behind later.
  • File for ‘Extenuating Circumstances’. Most UK universities understand that students will sometimes face unavoidable difficulties due to prolonged sickness, family problems or financial issues. If you experience one of these problems you can file an ‘Extenuating Circumstances’ form, which formally notifies the university about your problem. Your Academic Tutor will sign this form and together you will construct a plan to catch up on any missed coursework or exams, and you will possibly be granted extensions to normal coursework deadlines.

Re-Assessment Opportunities

If the worst happens and you do receive a failing mark, you have several options. First, you need to understand whether you have failed an element of a module, the entire module, or the dissertation.

Failed Module Element

If you’ve failed one piece of coursework or an exam, it may not be necessary to re-submit that element. If your marks for other module elements are high enough that your averaged course mark is 40 or above, you will pass the module overall regardless of the one failure. In other words, if you receive a mark of 35 on an essay that counts for 40% of your module mark, you can still pass the module if you receive an average mark of 45 on the remaining 60% of the module assessment. However, you may wish to re-submit anyway, in order to achieve a higher overall degree average. The opportunities to allow this vary among Universities, so check the regulations at your own institution.

Failed Module

If you fail an entire module you are usually required to re-sit the assessments, either by re-submitting the coursework or, in some cases, by resitting an exam. The form of the assessment will be decided according to the existing module guidelines, university regulations, and the decisions of the lecturer and board of examiners. The resulting mark is usually capped at a bare pass level, which is typically in the 40-50 range.

Failed Dissertation

If you fail a dissertation, you will usually be given an opportunity to re-submit it by an agreed-upon date. As with a module failure, the marks awarded for a re-submitted dissertation will usually be capped at a bare pass level. It is worth noting that a complete failure of a dissertation is rare at UK universities, and typically occurs only if a student has neglected to meet with their supervisor at regular intervals, or neglected to submit drafts in advance of the final submission.

A Note on Plagiarism

Although university regulations usually allow a student to re-sit exams and assessments, as described above, there are special procedures in place in cases of failure due to plagiarism. If a student is found to have copied work from another source or used the ideas of others without citing their sources appropriately, they may receive a failing mark. In serious cases the matter can be referred to a University Ethics Board, that will have the authority to take a range of measures against the student. In many cases, students found guilty of plagiarising will not be provided an opportunity to improve their marks, though they could potentially appeal the decision. In short, don’t do it!

Appeal Procedures

In addition to re-submitting assessment elements, you may have grounds appeal the marks awarded to you. This can happen if your university has neglected to take your Extenuating Circumstances into account, or if you were unfairly disadvantaged in any way. Each university has its own procedures for student academic appeals, and in general it requires a somewhat lengthy process. You must be certain to file the appropriate forms before the deadlines, and fully document the reasons you feel justified in appealing your marks. Your case will be considered by a university exam board, and if you are successful you will be offered options for re-sitting or re-submitting work without restrictions on the potential marks you can earn. Full details of your university’s appeal procedures will be given to you at the start of your degree programme.

While every student hopes to avoid failing, or even coming close to failing, sometimes the unthinkable does happen and a failing mark results. These situations can seem terribly disheartening for students, but it is important to remember that universities do offer second chances for genuinely honest and hard-working students!


University of Sheffield, 2013. Resubmission and Re-examination. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.

University of Warwick, 2012. Postgraduate Examinations. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.

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