This piece was written by a TLL teacher, Gail Aw, who teaches Secondary 1 – Junior College 2 English and General Paper at The Learning Lab.
General Paper: two words that strike fear into the hearts of most JC students.
This is no surprise, given that a standard ‘O’ Level essay question looks like this:
“Do you agree that we can learn from the mistakes of others or do we need to learn from our own mistakes?” (from the 2016 paper),
while a typical essay question from the ‘A’ Level paper in the same year looked like this:
"‘Human need, rather than profit, should always be the main concern of scientific research.’ Discuss."
As the gap between those two questions should indicate, the learning curve for GP is steep, and students have about 20 months in which to master brand new components such as the Application Question, and to learn to construct informed, balanced, and sophisticated arguments.
Here, then, are some good practices you can share with your child that will help him or her climb up that steep hill with greater ease!
Read constantly, and read voraciously. Read on your way to school, and read while you are waiting in line.
GP is all about context: Paper 1 (the essay) and the Application Question, which together account for 60% of the overall grade, both require you to discuss topical and contentious issues while situating your understanding in the real world. No longer can you coast on pure logic or writing ability. Instead, you have to demonstrate that you are an active participant in an ongoing, global cultural conversation, and that you can conduct an intelligent conversation in a wide range of issues, from the environment to inequality to the function of the arts.
There are indeed students who manage to do well by memorizing essays and spotting topics, but this is an extremely risky strategy as there is no guarantee of a question on the prepared topic, and the Cambridge examiners are constantly tweaking the phrasing of questions precisely to pre-empt such practices.
To prepare yourself for GP, and to be an informed adult and engaged citizen, read from a variety of reputable sources. The Economist, The Guardian, Aeon Magazine, Foreign Policy Magazine, Nautilus, and Longreads are all excellent resources for general current affairs analysis and news. To keep up to date with local issues of concern, you should read a mixture of local newspapers such as The Straits Times or TODAY, but also balance this by reading online commentary from sites such as The Middle Ground. You should also make it an annual habit to read the year-in-review articles that sum up the state of the world each December, and especially to know the key points from each year’s National Day Rally.
Technology has made keeping up with the world easy and relatively painless. You can now subscribe to email digests from many of the sites listed above. Another way is to use a feed aggregator such as Netvibes, which creates a customized homepage featuring constantly updated headlines from all your chosen news sources and blogs for no cost. If you are a reluctant reader or visual/aural learner, you can also get your news in the form of short, informative video clips from sources such as AJ+ or Slate, which will serve you just as well.
There is really very little excuse not to read!
The mind, as the classical philosopher Plutarch proposed, is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.
Information memorized by rote fades within days of the exam. While it is certainly important to be familiar with the requirements for structuring comprehension answers and to have basic facts about the world in your head, it is far more important that you learn to develop your own world view, and to respect that others may have completely different opinions from yours, even as you learn to refute their arguments.
Every point of view can be challenged or defended. As you read from the various sources outlined above, try to maintain a skeptical frame of mind. Never take anything you read at face value. Always ask what motivates the author, what he or she has omitted from the piece, and what evidence might challenge his or her claims. Even if you finally agree with the author, the process of questioning will help you better understand why you agree, and sharpen your ability to construct a counterargument, rebuttal, and supporting argument.
There are many ways to appear productive, and unfortunately many students dedicate hours to reading and note-taking (or mugging, in common parlance), without realizing that the skill they really need to master is that of writing well.
Practice is the only way to master this skill; there is no shortcut. Even professional authors and lauded orators like Obama constantly redraft their work, pruning excess, polishing turns of phrase, and making sure the message they wish to send is presented in the most effective way possible. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once defined poetry as being “the best words in the best order”. Each time you strike out a word that does not feel quite right, or reorganize your content to improve coherence and energise your prose style, you are slowly working towards that state of perfection.
Studying model essays from fellow students and reading the works of the best commentators today is a start. Accumulate lists of phrases that strike you as being particularly good; take note every time a verb or noun is used in a fresh or original way. Learn to use techniques such as parallelisms, rhetorical questions, and figurative language. Find your own pace and style. All beginner writers learn from the greats: once you have grasped what good writing entails, you can toss the crutches and walk on your own two feet.
General Paper is a steep hill to climb, and many students will find it a daunting experience. You can expect to stumble, and not everyone will get to the top. But if you understand that it is not just an academic subject, but an ongoing process of opening your eyes to the world and engaging with it, every step will take you closer to a magnificent panorama.
If you are interested to find out more about our Secondary 1 to Junior College 2 English or GP programmes, please email ENROLLMENT@THELEARNINGLAB.COM.SG or call us at 6733 8711 and we will be happy to assist.
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