Choosing a composition topic in the exam
(As presented on The Radio Teacher / Head -To-Head- With MM on Diamond FM Radio Thursday -3
RULE number1. Ignore any topic you have nothing unusually interesting to write about.
If you have no register (appropriate language) to use in a soccer game, whether you are describing or narrating, please dismiss that topic. You have no experience, period! You do not know what a shot is, a touchline, a foul tackle, midfield, brace, a hat-trick, attacking, dribbling, hand ball, ball to hand, header, penalty kicks, set pieces, the list is inexhaustible, why choose a topic on soccer?
If you have no experience or knowledge about the hospital environment you will call wards rooms, patients sick people, dispensary drug store, prescription tablets medicine, medical superintendent the hospital manager or something like that and so forth and so on. You need to have the appropriate language to write knowledgeably, interestingly and intelligently: more vocabulary, Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Paediatric, Orthopaedic, Casualty Department, Theatre, Major / minor operation, condition, admission / admit, discharge, bed rest, chronic disease, terminal disease, diagnosis. Why choose a ‘hospital’ plot or story if you don’t have the appropriate language?
You can think of more examples of stories involving particular situations and environments: wars, weddings, various sporting disciplines, at the beach, airport, library, market place, jail / custody, courts, police stations etc.
Rule number 2. Be careful that you do not stray away from the topic. Serious examination boards emphasise this and urge markers to penalise going off topic. It is sad many teachers publicly tell candidates that there is nothing called ‘off topic’. “Mark the language of the candidate,” they say. Whether this is Zimsec permissiveness or patriotic marking, call it affirmative, whatever, this is a pathetic abortion of professional adjudication. What are topics for if they can write anything they want the way they want? Isn’t this why some global academic assessors underrate Zimsec standards? Would you just pick up a book without a title from a shelf and start reading simply because they is something written in it? Shame! And hope to make a comprehensive engagement with the author?
Rule number 3. Choose a topic ONLY if you are sure about the following:
A. Its genre: ie. Is the story going to be an adventure, detective, comedy or tragedy?
B. Who are the main characters (Only two or three) and what are their profiles (description of whom or what they are)? This helps to enable you to be interesting and realistic in your portrayal of them: e.g. their age, appearance, habits, jobs, traits, ambitions, hobbies, likes and dislikes, motivation etc.
C. Setting: Where you are going to set the story: e.g. Is it at home, at school, in the reserves, in a city, etc.?
D. Structure: Make sure you have a clear Beginning, Middle, Climax and End of the story.
E. Will there be a twist and turn in the story?
F. Are you going to tell your story in a straight-line way (linear),that is, your story or plot moving forward naturally in time or through flashbacks?
G. What is the climax of your story, the boiling point of the story?
H. Decide if the style of telling story is going to be written in the first person or second person. A first-person narrator tells story from within the story. It is also called personal narrative. A third-person narrator stands outside the story.
I. Be original. This means choose a topic which brings out your ability and personality. Don’t retell a story you heard in the radio or read in a newspaper or a novel you came across. Be imaginative. Create an original story. This is all about creative ingenuity and not history recording.
J. Choose a topic you are sure and confident you can write an interestingly unusual, captivating, gripping story.
K. Make sure you can begin (not introduce) the story with a noticeable style: Creating Atmosphere, Drama (dialogue or direct speech), Flashback (ie beginning at the end and coming back to how story started or any point of magnetic interest along the way), with an engaging question or appropriate quote from some well-known writer, historian, politician, preacher, musician etc. Distinction compositions often earn the class or merit at the beginning and the ending. Make sure you choose topics you can begin and end in beautiful style. Not too long, brief but eye-catching, gripping, hooking.
L. It is not foolish to set aside specific expressions and vocabulary which you will use and choose a topic which will accommodate these naturally and fittingly. You can assemble these during the planning stage.
These are not the only tips and guidelines on how to choose a topic, but if you follow these carefully and apply them intelligently, you will not go wrong. The most effective way of mastering these skills or rules, is to practice, practice and practice.
You started writing compositions since Form One, didn’t’ you? Perhaps by now, in Form 4, you have written over one hundred compositions. And the examiner asks you to write him or her only one before you cross to over to Form 5; you get a D or E grade. Isn’t that unbelievable?
Mind-boggling really! You fail to write a satisfactory composition after all these years at school? I cannot understand how this happens, but it happens. Surely an examiner is not asking too much of you. You should have much more knowledge and wisdom than examiners ask for in the examination.
Failing an English Language examination, especially Paper 1 is unnecessary. You need to put a lot of effort to fail. You know why? Because the exam script is always leaked! You know exactly what is coming and you can prepare your answer(s) almost word to word, phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. You only need to adjust here and there to suit the exact demands of the topic wording. I always say to my students, “It is Paper 2 that must surprise you. You have no idea what passage is coming, from what setting, and about what subject. Even in this Paper 2, you only need to master summarising techniques and sweep all the 20 marks, pick a few marks from the Registers section and random questions; and you are done. Very easy if you have been taught the techniques and demands of the relevant examination board. Cambridge always demands specific abilities. Zimsec is less demanding and strict, naturally and perhaps understandably in affirmative favour of candidates. So it must be a clean sweep if you are thoroughly prepared.
And yet what do we know? Candidates perform very badly in the English Language examination. It is now on record that only between twenty five to thirty percent of the annual candidature pass with an A, B or C year in year out.
Why is there such a sorry state of English Language results every year in Zimbabwe?
◆ Don’t miss the DiamondFM Radio version of these lessons on The Radio Teacher aspect of Head-To Head-With MM every Thursday night between 8 and 9 pm.