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Discursive writing

This page is devoted to writing in language tests, for anyone that needs to do this. In language tests, as well as in academic and language-based courses, it is extremely common to see discussion-type essay questions. Usually, questions like this will ask you to provide either a summary of the arguments for and against a particular viewpoint, or your own opinion about a topic or subject of general interest. Make sure that you read the question carefully. In a test, you will lose marks for answering the wrong question, even if your English is good. Try to bear in mind the points below and remember them on the day of your test.

Is it useful to learn and memorise some ‘ready-made’ essay-type phrases for this type of writing?

When preparing for a written test of English, a natural first strategy is to memorise a number of ‘ready-made’ phrases (for example: “The first aspect that I shall discuss is….”).

In some respects, learning set phrases can be positive, because:

  • Knowing a range of correctly written sentences can give you confidence in test conditions, when you might be feeling more nervous or anxious than usual.
  • Phrases of this kind can help you to organise your thoughts more quickly;
  • Incorporating essay-type phrases (if they are well-chosen) can make your writing sound more academic.

However, this method also has some disadvantages:

  • An essay with too many ‘ready-made’ expressions may appear unnatural to the reader.
  • It may be tempting to disguise poor English with a large number of ready-made expressions which ‘appear’ correct. An examiner will often see through this strategy.
  • Your writing may become too ‘clinical’ and formula-driven, and your own character and personality may not show through in your writing.

Our recommendation is to get a balanced view - do use set expressions here and there, but try to avoid over-using them. Otherwise, you writing may sound rather 'pompous' and 'over-bearing'. Remember to show something of your own personality, too, and do not be afraid to express yourself in your own words.

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What are the qualities of a good discussion essay?

A basic level of competence is usually characterised by an ability on the part of the candidate to:

  • identify the task appropriately.
  • formulate a relevant response to the task.
  • provide a clear sense of organisation and purpose.
  • write reasonably accurately, though of course with some mistakes.
  • understand and use tenses appropriately.
  • choose words and phrases effectively to answer the question.
  • use at least some complex sentence structures, even if not always correctly.
  • use more than just simple, basic words and phrases.
  • show some awareness (even if not very developed) of academic style.
  • meet the language demands of their department with some help and assistance, perhaps at pre-sessional level.

A higher level of competence is indicated by the candidate’s ability, in addition to the above, to:

  • write with a good level of fluency.
  • write thoughtfully when formulating a response to the task.
  • write with a good sense of register and style.
  • write with a degree of persuasion.
  • write with a very high standard of accuracy.
  • evaluate the subject in a deeper and more critical fashion, given normal constraints of time.
  • use appropriate academic vocabulary

These qualities may be phrased in various ways within the assessment criteria and test specifications of different language tests.

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A question of style – should the first person pronoun (“I”) be used in discussion essays?

Many researchers have spent considerable time examining the use of the personal pronoun (“I”) in academic writing. Most specialists agree that the use of “I” probably has little direct effect on the ‘academic’ nature of the writing. In other words, using “I” does not necessarily make the writing less formal, and avoiding “I’ does not automatically make it more academic. It is really your overall use of vocabulary and language, rather than your selection of the personal pronoun, which has a greater impact on the ‘academic’ tone of your writing.

It is useful to bear in mind the following general rules about the use of the first person:

  • “I” is often used in introductions and conclusions, to say what you are going to do before you do it, and what you have done afterwards.
  • Do not refer to yourself as “the researcher” or “the writer” – it sounds very artificial.
  • Some subject areas tend to favour the use of “I” more than others – for example, 'I' is used quite widely in social studies where the emphasis is on practical research - but in language tests, this distinction according to subject area is not very meaningful, and it is not necessary to take account of it.
  • When using the “I” form, it is helpful to try to vary the verb that comes afterwards. For example, rather than simply putting “I think”, we can use “I feel”, “I would consider…”, “I tend to regard…”, etc. Look for some ways to 'soften' your language and make it less direct or categorical.
  • It is always useful to use “I” when relating a personal experience as an example, thereby distinguishing personal experience from aspects of your reading and research (e.g. when describing an event that emphasises a point you are making, you could say “I recently encountered this phenomenon in one of my classes, when….”). However, try to avoid becoming too anecdotal ("story-telling") when you are recounting examples. Keep to the point.

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 A useful mnemonic device for discussion essays

When you are preparing for a test, it is useful to use mnemonic devices. Mnemonic devices are word systems that help you to remember key points. Below is an example of a mnemonic device for remembering important aspects in a discussion essay. You can remember it just by remembering the initial letters of each word in the phrase: “Good Students Read Every Chapter”.

Grammar - is your grammar correct and accurate?

Structure - is your essay well organised?

Relevance - have you answered the question asked of you?

Examples - have you included illustrations to reinforce your points?

Cohesion - have you used linking words and phrases (discourse markers)?

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