Sunday, May 20, 2012


Me: You’ve got an awful lot of stuff there; you planning to stay the night?

 I just picked these up at that photocopy place. They’re pretty cool. Want to take a peak?

Me: Sure. Sample essays; a whole book of them! You serious? You are supposed to be the internet generation. How much did you pay for this?

Well it wasn’t cheap but they are proficiency type essays… You know the sort we need to write on the test.

Me: Oh I see. And how are those different from “TOEFL type essays” and “IELTS type essays” or any good essay for that matter?

These are written according to the correct plan with all those transition words and markers we have to use. Other essays are different.

Me: Different? Different how? Are they written in a different language?

 Don’t be silly of course not. They have to be written in good English; I know that and all those other texts you were talking about don’t use the same markers and plans. I am going to memorize them and Bob’s your uncle’s live in lover so to speak.

 Me: So we agree they have to be written in good English; that’s a start I suppose. Let’s start with the essence of an essay. What is it that is being tested here? What is being tested is your ability to produce, on your own, a piece of academic writing on a given topic. What your proficiency marker will be looking for is signs you can do that; you know accuracy, a variety of types of sentences of varying degrees of complexity, a command of vocabulary and basic reasoning skills. Do the essays you just bought and paid through the nose for fit the bill do you think?

What about all those markers and phrases and the type of essay you know. Look!

Me: These look as if they have been mass produced by some kind of automated system; you could probably write a computer program to produce what you call proficiency type essays. There is not an original thought in sight or any indication that the writer has much more than a rudimentary grasp of the language. A geriatric newt could write these.

But there aren’t any errors.

 Me: Well think again. There are plenty of uncorrected errors. Have you any idea who wrote these? More importantly though, they are not essays and if you think any essay corrector on the proficiency would be fooled by a page of this jargon you have another thing coming. I would personally mentally delete the pat phrases and clichés and focus on what is left. Sometimes there isn’t much left.

 What do you do then?

Me: I will give you one guess. Can’t very well pass someone if I have no clue whether they can write decent English can I? The proof of the pudding is in the eating; check grades in the last few years. If your system worked, we’d know wouldn’t we?

What do I do now then?

 Me: First of all, stop trying to stick essay writing in the same category as preparing for the OSS. Essays can’t be decoded, broken down into their constituent parts, analyzed and then randomly put together again; you know like Legos or building blocks. Each essay is a well reasoned unit addressing a specific task. Basically, there is only one type of essay: the well reasoned one. Some would say there is only one type of essay the argumentative essay; I am fine with that. Another thing, there are countless ways to organize argumentative essays for instance; you were only taught one. This doesn’t mean other ways are not OK too.

I don’t know what you mean…

Me:  What is your purpose when writing an argumentative essay? To defend your own point of view and refute the counter arguments leaving anyone who disagrees without a leg to stand on. So long as you achieve this, you’re free to do as you like. Do you imagine we penalize people for doing this? Not at all. For one thing, not everyone has had the training you have had and secondly, it is a welcome change. Originality is good, it breaks the monotony, it signals original thought and the idea that there is probably a human being writing the essay and not a zombie and believe you me, that is what you want to go for. We dig originality!

 What about those markers?

Me: How many texts have you read this winter? Have you ever seen a text that has markers interjected anywhere and everywhere? Let me let you into a secret: native speakers don’t use them. They are another cover up for the inability to produce a well reasoned essay. Avoid them.

 How about the points?

 Me: You aren’t compelled to use them either. In fact, I will even go further and urge you to stick in points of your own; give some hint that thought has been put into the essay. Naturally, it is too late in the year for anything radical so stick with the English you are comfortable with but no clichés, no markers and ditch all those pat phrases.

 What about sample essays?

Me: Try my blog or the web. Ever tried Googling sample essays? Let’s do it now. Hand me your phone.  Look at all those sites. And free I might add. Now show me those other books you have.

They are for reading and listening.

 Me: You actually paid for all this when the internet is full of websites that can do the job equally well? Every conceivable site now has a video or podcast section. Not to mention (Voice of America) tedtalks or YouTube.

 They don’t have questions though

Me: No, most don’t but there is a way round that: take notes as you listen. That would be a wonderful substitute for questions. Also you can have subtitles in English on tedtalks, print out the lectures on Voice of America… If you do enough of this kind of listening, it will make an enormous difference I assure you. Plus, there is bonus: you will enjoy yourself!

What about reading? Aren’t these useful?

Me: You don’t expect me to look through all three volumes do you? Past experience tells me they are partly our old stuff, some have mistakes… I remember not being too impressed. One thing I can tell you for sure though is this: our question types have changed. The questions now presuppose an in depth understanding of the content of the text; they are much more analytical. Gone are the days when you follow a verbal cue like a terrier, home in on the synonym for a word and cut and paste an answer without understanding a word.

What do I do then?

Me: There is a secret to this: READ THE B……. TEXT! You can’t seriously expect to be able to answer questions on a reading passage without reading do you? No need to look so surprised; you hardly need to be Einstein to figure this out. As for the questions, try my blog. All my questions are as analytical as the texts will permit. It is like the Leviathan now so it should keep you occupied until D day.

What is D day?

Me: Long story… Tell you if we meet again. There is my stop. You could always Google it of course. Help get your hand with this whole internet lark. Have a good week.

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