Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Writing for Fun and Practice

A student writes,

Dear Nardvark,
I'm writing for fun and practice, like you suggested, but I'm halfway through a story and can't figure out what to write next.  Where is this going?  What is my character going to do?  I think I've got writer's block!
Your fan,
Stuck McTruck

Nardvark, always the first one to help a fan in need, promptly held the letter up to the mirror so Nerdvark could deal with it.  Here is Nerdvark's advice:

Stuck, eh?  Not to worry.  This happens to all writers.  The worst thing is when you're trying to write a an exam and get stuck.  Good thing you're practising now!

There are a few different methods you can use to finish/continue a story.  For me, I imagine it as a film while I'm doing something that doesn't require any thinking, like in the shower, eating, or doing laundry.  Usually it just plays out in my head.  

Nerdvark emerges from the shower with a brain full of great ideas for his story.

Obviously you can't do this while in an exam, but if you are stuck in the middle of a homework assignment, or you are writing for fun and practice (great idea!), it can help.

Other writers have a lot of methods: 

  • Brainstorm everything you can think of, even if it seems silly, then use process of elimination to choose the best idea(s); 
  • Like Dory said, "Just keep swimming," only for us writers, it's just keep writing -- often what comes out is really good, or ideas come to you as you go; 
  • Read other works for inspiration (not just stories, but news stories, other people's blogs, comments on Youtube, etc); 
  • Plan!!! -- a story should have a conflict and a resolution; it should have an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and falling action; it should have at least one character who changes (a dynamic character) -- this is called a "character arc".  If you sit down one afternoon and plan all this stuff out, you will be able to continue / finish your story.  
  • Combining showers and planning, if you keep a notebook handy, you can always write your ideas down as  you have them.  Nerdvark recommends a waterproof notebook.  Then you will have access to all your great ideas when you start to plan your next story.
  • Nerdvark once read Stephen King's book "On Writing," which is an amazing, awesome, other-adjectives-beginning-with-"a" book that really helped Nerdvark get serious about writing.  Stephen King's best advice (in Nerdvark's opinion) is to write every day.  If you don't like what you've written, you can always throw it away.  But usually when you go back and look at it, it's not so bad, or at least you can develop/use some of your ideas.
  • On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft

So you see, McTruck, unlike a real truck, which has no choice but to pay for a costly tow, you have a lot of methods to help you get out of that sticky writing situation and on with the story!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Looking at IGCSE Paper 2 Question 1 with a mark scheme

Another day, another scything commentary on an innocent student's mock exam script from The Nerdvark. 

Here is the reading, from IGCSE course 0500 First Language English, May/June 2014:

Here is the question:

Paper 2

1.  Imagine you are Mrs Wilkie.
    Write a letter to the Public Health Department of the city, demanding that ‘Sammy’s Place’ be shut down.
    In your letter you should write about:
   • your concerns about the conditions at the hostel
   • the mis-management of the hostel 
   • the likely consequences of allowing the hostel to stay open.
   Base your letter on what you have read in Passage A. Address all three bullet points. Be careful to use your own words.
   Begin your letter:
   ‘Dear Public Health Officer I am writing to alert you to a health and safety hazard …’.
   Write between 1½ and 2 sides, allowing for the size of your handwriting.
   Up to 15 marks are available for the content of your answer, and up to 5 marks for the quality of your writing.

[Maximum Total Marks : 20]

This is the mark scheme for this paper on Content (Reading); if it's too small to read, try downloading it and opening it in your computer's photo viewer.

For "reading" I would give you band 3.  Your reading is competent, even thorough, but you failed to answer all three bullet points, which puts you automatically at best into band 3.

To remedy this, I recommend reading your question carefully and underlining what you are being asked to do in each bullet point.  Then go through the reading and use different styles of notation to mark the parts that will answer each bullet point. 

For example, the first bullet point is asking for Mrs. Wilkie's concerns about the conditions at the hostel, which you answered very thoroughly.  I highlighted that part with yellow in the reading.  In your letter, you added a few details of your own.  I don't think that's necessary in this question, as this question is meant to find out how well you can read.  You should only include what you gathered by reading the passage. 

The second bullet point asks Mrs. Wilkie's opinion about the mis-management of the hostel, which you have touched on but need to explore further.  I highlighted aspects of mismanagement in green on the reading. 

Finally, the third bullet point asks you to talk about what Mrs. Wilkie assumes will be the consequences of allowing the hostel to stay open.  You didn't mention this at all.  I didn't highlight much because there's very little in the passage to indicate what Mrs. Wilkie expects for the future of the hostel.  This is where you have to "read between the lines" or infer the information.  We can see from the line I highlighted in pink (I know you know your colours; I just love highlighting. - Nerdvark) that Mrs. Wilkie is very disturbed by the conditions of the hostel.  She likely foresees dire consequences for her daughter and future residents of the hostel.  As you read, you should make notes regarding this bullet point so you will be able to answer it thoroughly. 

Each bullet point should have equal treatment in your response.  That means you will need to reduce your answer to the first bullet point and add more to the second, then a full paragraph for the third. 

H. Mango's answer for this question is as follows :
This time, Nerdvark coloured his comments in lovely lavender, and his buddy H. Mango's words, which the comments refer to, in delectable tangerine.

Dear Public Health Officer,

I am writing to alert you to a health and safety hazard that could possibly inflict the environment of the area. A residence exclusive to (what?) has sprouted at King's Street, named "Sammy's Place" (Here the misplaced modifier named "Sammy's Place" leads the reader to assume that King's Street is named Sammy's Place), whose (generally whose is used for people.  Try "the venomous atmosphere of which") venomous atmosphere has led me to write to you.

The area of the residence itself is notorious for it's (as your word processor has probably already informed you, this is the contraction of it is or it has.  The word you are looking for is its, a possessive pronoun.) location, the area is inhabited by foreigners desperate to live at a cheap cost. The facade of the residence can be delusive, (Not sure what you mean by this.  As previously, you need to choose words that suit the "voice" of the piece, in this case, Sasha's mom, Mrs. Wilkie.) but it's (again, illegal use of apostrophe.  Yellow card.) insides assure that no such thing as "decent hygiene" exists therein. There is no reception nor a receptionist at the entrance, which perplexes the visitors. The shabby walls are littered with advertisements and the information board in the common room is habitat to the expired and repudiated job vacancies, (a comma splice: I think you know how Nerdvark feels about them.  If not, read "Comma Splices Suck" here.) the lifts are no different, designed with notices rather than wallpapers. The dormitories of the residents (extraneous: take it out.) are in poor conditions, the beds are uncomfortably thin and worn out from generations of use, and to invade on the already limited privacy the residents have, they are crammed together like an adhesive (weird simile: when is an adhesive crammed together?  Maybe something else is crammed together, like sardines, only that's cliche so don't use that, but you know what I mean.) to make room for others. The exhausted light bulbs flicker in a feral manner, like someone gasping for his few last breaths. There is little to no coordination among the residents, who are supposed to take turns cleaning the room and disposing (of) bins, but due to their egoistic (are you sure?  maybe it is due to their laziness, or due to their apathetic) nature, they fail to cooperate, to which no action is taken by the staff. The windows are thick with grime and covered with dead flies that could have lived eons ago. On closer inspection of the cooking facilities, which are closely related to health issues (what health issues?  be specific: which are likely harbouring thousands of diseases), the sinks overflow with remains of food from (the past several) months, the clatter of plates (are -- we need a verb in each item in this list, for consistency) shaped like a castle, awaiting the day they will be washed, (and) the sink (is) encrusted with layers of toothpaste. There is barely any tranquility in the corridors, which seem to emant (emanate?) disturbing melodies out of the ether. In fact, the food some residents are coerced to consume is left over from other's (plural: others') food and this is leading to growth of contagious diseases. The nature (lifestyle?) of the residents is not decent either, (comma splice!) they stay awake for (the) majority of the night, disturbing others with loud volume music turned on. And humans are not the only living beings to reside therein, there (comma splice!) is a plethora of rats too, which probably serve as the cause of the intoxicating (connotation: we usually like intoxicating smells.  Try "offensive" or "nauseating") smell in the air (of what?  Be specific to show that you understood the passage).

After your acute observations and inspections, i would request the residence entitled "Sammy's Place" to be shut down in order to refurbate (?) the serenity of the area.

Awaiting your reply, 
Mrs Wilkie

This is the mark scheme for "quality of writing."  

I would give you a band 3, because some of your vocabulary is off.  It does not give clarity of expression (wrong word or wrong connotation) and for the same reason it does not express ideas with subtlety and precision.  

Remember, choosing vocabulary is not just about showing off your vast knowledge of polysyllabic words. You have to choose the words that the character, in this case Mrs. Wilkie, would use, to "indicate the personality of the character."  In this case, your writing gives the character Mrs. Wilkie the personality of a university doctoral professor, but from the reading I got the impression that she is a hovering, uptight housewife in a middle-class family.  I think your Mrs. Wilkie would allow her daughter the experience of a gap year and the time spent in a cruddy, run-down hostel as she would know it would build her daughter's character, but the Mrs. Wilkie from the reading would not, and that is the kind of association you have to draw.

Finally, the middle paragraph of your letter is too long.  You need to begin a new paragraph each time you talk about a different aspect of the disgusting hostel.

Hope this helps!  Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more of Nerdvark's vicious attacks on the bold and heroic student H. Mango, who risks personal attack to share his work with the world.

Thanks for reading! If it's time for a study break, click here.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Looking at IGCSE Paper 3 Question 1 with a mark scheme

Once upon a time, a student wrote the Nardvark with the following question:
"Dear Nardvark.  I see you like grammar and stuff.  Could you help me figure out why my teacher gave me a bad mark on my English first language extended mock exams?" or something to that effect.

Always cooperative, Nardvark decided to take on the challenge by forwarding the entire email to the Nerdvark and immediately going to eat a peanut butter and salami french-toast-wich.

Nerdvark read the student's writing and found that it was quite good and done by a person who obviously works hard and has a lot of potential, but needs a bit of advice on how to improve his/her mark. If you are in the same situation, read on... 

Nerdvark decided to begin with Paper 3, Question 1, which the student, who cannot be named for legal reasons but here shall be referred to as H. Mango, helpfully included.

First, the reading:
The reading from IGCSE 0500 May/June 2014 Paper 3
If you can't read it like that, try downloading and zooming in.  I swear, it's readable.

Now, the mark scheme:
IGCSE 0500 Paper 3 Mark Scheme
Now, take a look at H. Mango's question and answer, which he painstakingly typed in purple, with Nerdvark's comments in his favourite colour, olive green, and the words he is commenting on in stop-light red.

1.   Read carefully the local newspaper article printed in the Reading Booklet Insert about student councils in schools. Then answer Section 1, Question 1 on this            Question Paper.
     Imagine you are a pupil in Mr Aziz’s school.
     Write a letter to him, in which you:
           • identify and discuss his views against student councils -- Before discussing them, you need to clearly state what his views are.
          • evaluate why and how a school council could be good for everybody.  -- You need to have more on this bullet point.  A good way to set up this letter would be argumentative style: in each paragraph, restate his view and then give a counter argument using a good transition word such as "however" or "conversely".
     Base your letter on what you have read in the article, but be careful to use your own words.
    Begin your letter, ‘Dear Mr Aziz …’.
    Write between 1½ to 2 sides, allowing for the size of your handwriting.
    Up to 10 marks are available for the content of your answer, and up to 15 marks for the quality of your writing
[Total Maximum Marks : 25]

H. Mango's answer to this question is as follows : 

Dear Mr Aziz, 
I feel utterly disappointed as i write this letter to you. It is not mere fiction, but fact, that students who are willing to cooperate with other pupil (plural) and teachers alike are more likely to succeed in their studies. Students tend to do better at academics when they are given the choice of what is better for them, rather than be powerless and inferior under the teacher's command. What adults fail to infer, (remove comma) is that a student's capability reduces when he's coerced into doing something, but if he has his own free will, he makes decisions that will prove better for him. (There are those who are offended by the traditional use of "he/him/his" in referring to an unknown person; "he/she" etc., while ugly, is more inclusive and therefore less offensive to those who feel women are people too.)
You mentioned that student council meetings are a waste of time and energy and should not affect student education. For the meetings to be worth the teacher's time and energy, they need to be productive, and as Sofia stated incisively (decisively) in her statement, "nothing ever happens", this (comma splice -- for more on comma splices, see here) is because the teachers do not cooperate with the members of the student council, no new ideas circulate in the student's (plural possessive "students'") minds and thus teachers regard them (regard what?  Be specific.)  as a waste of their efficiency (awkward use of "efficiency". Try "inefficient").  (new topic -- from meetings to teachers -- this should be a new paragraph.) It is necessary to fathom (awkward -- try "realize" or "consider") that a teacher plays a major role in developing a student's mind, (comma splice) without them (who?) the minds are enfeebled. You also stated in a feral (I don't agree with your use of this word; it's weird.  Try "aggressive") manner that you are the one operating the school and do not need to consult students about problems they don't understand. You have to realize that although the teachers are the ones teaching the class, the students are the ones that (who) need to learn. The teacher can teach in any manner than pleases him (him/her), but the students will learn significantly better under conditions he (noun agreement - from plural "students" to singular "he.") prefers, and after all, it's the students that (who) are learning ; (remove space before semi-colon) thus they should have a right to decide how they approach their studies. As Sofia mentioned in her statement, we discuss out cumulative ideas with the teachers but there is hardly ever a stimuli exhibited by them.  (I realise you are putting it into your own words, but this wording and the use of "stimuli" are awkward. Try "we discuss our ideas with the teachers, but the teachers rarely take action.") (Here there should be another paragraph started.) As a representative of Student Council Election Commitee, i can ensure (wrong word -- you want "assure") you that candidates are not elected based on any popularity contest. They are judged on basis of their cirriculum reports and refrences by teachers.
Teachers from other schools also agree that student council can lead to better academic reports because students learn better when their perspective and views are accepted and implied. Overall, i would say you should reconsider your statements as (comma before "as") school councils can be extremely beneficial as (repetition of "as" sounds awkward - try a semicolon.) they not only enable students to perform well at academics but also prepare them for real life matters where they will indubitably need their opinions to be heard (such as? give examples.). Parents could also join and support their wards (wrong word -- try "children") and our school would (wishy-washy -- try "will"; be decisive!) become more interactive than it previously was and be known for it's (wrong word -- it's = it is -- for more on it's, see here) illustrious (sounds sarcastic -- try "strong" or "healthy" or "positive"; be specific) bonds between students and teachers.

Your Student,
H. Mango

(I know you typed this out and it may not appear exactly as you wrote it on the paper, but I want to point out that you need to either leave a blank line between paragraphs or indent the first word of each paragraph.  In typing use a tab space and in handwriting, use what I call a "finger space", or a space approximately the width of your index finger.)

For reading, I would give you a band 3, because you have missed a lot of the "opportunity to develop it" by not reading the bullet points carefully.  Also, your school may be different than Mr Aziz's school.  This assignment expects you to talk about student councils in general and how they can be beneficial for everyone.  For example, at your school student council members may be selected based on grades and teacher references, but at many schools there really is just a student vote with no other criteria for running for student council.  Try to look at the bigger picture.

For writing, I would give you low band 2, however I could see how a teacher who is trying to force you to improve might give you a high band 3.  Your writing is quite stylish, but I get the impression that you are trying too hard with your vocabulary.  I can see that you are an avid reader and you know a lot of words, but you need to know when it is appropriate to use them, so... more reading my friend!  Keep doing what you're doing and I think your style will continue to improve, but when in doubt, stick with a word you are confident with.  Don't forget to use paragraphs correctly and try to think of techniques you have used in class regarding the specific purpose of the piece - in this case to argue or to persuade.  What argumentative and persuasive techniques have you learned?  Use more of them.  For more on persuasive writing, see here.

H. Mango, you and all the other IGCSE students out there might need to work on pacing yourself through the exam so you will have enough time to go back over your work, re-read the questions to make sure you covered all the bullet points, re-read your writing to revise it, and re-read it again (or proofread, if you prefer) for editing.  In addition to spending time before drafting your responses to really think about what the question is asking you to do, and then making a few notes to plan your response, this is called the writing process.  For more on the writing process, see here and continue reading this blog every chance you get.

Thanks for reading, and to H. Mango, wherever you are, thank you for sharing your work with the world.  Hopefully my comments will help more students improve for the IGCSE First-Language English Paper 3.  Meanwhile, please go visit my kitties at www.spotthekitty.com