Exam Writing Tips

Writing aid for the argumentative essay

Ask any secondary school student to name the English assignment they hate the most, and they are most likely to say “the argumentative essay.” Indeed, the strain of having to fake interest in arguing for or against a topic is soul-sapping enough. The fact that this form of writing is difficult to master alienates students from it even further.

Since the argumentative essay won’t vanish from the English curriculum anytime soon, students might as well learn how to cope with it. If – as psychological studies have discovered – we hate something because we fear it, then students will resent the argumentative essay less if they have in hand tools that can help them conquer their fear of it.

Writing templates can be one such tool. I’m not talking about overused one-style-fits-all schemes like the five-paragraph formula, but style aids that can enable students to write in a sophisticated voice in an exam setting with minimal effort.

To see the difference writing templates can make, just read the pair of examples below. The first (an introduction) was written by a teenager of average writing ability on the controversial topic of patriotic education; the second presents the same content but is patterned after a style template (indicated in bold print) I’ve designed:

Patriotic education is important these days, for people can easily fly abroad for better jobs, and if many people leave, labour shortage will affect  economic growth. If we cultivate emotional ties between children and their country, however, when they grow up, they are more likely to stay put. Of course, some people criticize patriotic education as brainwashing. I do not believe all patriotic lessons are a form of indoctrination. We can love our country and still be people capable of independent thought.  

It takes a brave soul to openly advocate for the teaching of patriotism at schools these days, for in many quarters of the world, “patriotism” has become a dirty word, too readily associated with brainwashing in the public’s imagination. If we avoid discussing the issue, however, we will risk hastening the brain drain that is already stunting the growth of local businesses. Clarifying just which form of patriotism to propagate at schools is therefore beneficial: it will put to rest concerns about indoctrination while impressing upon the uninformed the urgency of patriotic education.

This template is suited to answering essay questions that call for the discussion of contentious issues that contain many shades of meaning. In the illustration below, I used the same template in an introduction to a piece on the appropriateness of teaching critical race theory at school:

It takes a brave soul to censure the teaching of critical race theory at school these days; do so, and you’re likely to have the “racist” label hurled at you. If we just grudgingly accept the precepts of political correctness, however, we will shortchange students because we will in effect be habituating them to see only one side of an issue. Clarifying what kind of lessons about race to teach at school is therefore beneficial to students, parents and teachers: the process will encourage free inquiry and (hopefully) true tolerance.

Practise using this template a few times – it’s very hard the first time, hard the second time, and then it’ll become more and more second nature the more you practice. You can go even further. Create a variety of templates, and you can sail through any exam that requires you to cough up an argumentative essay!

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