One of the most essential and demanding subjects for a potential high school graduate is English. Along with mathematics, English is the most important subject anyone can sit in the BJC and BGCSE exams. Colleges and employers both want to know that you’ve taken it and actually done well. So, whether you intend to continue your education or go immediately into the working world, English, like a lofty mountain will be there waiting patiently for you to conquer it.
So recoginising how important English is, I’ve decided to interview a long time veteran English teacher, Ms. Drey to glean from her the deepest, darkest tips and tricks for doing well in this subject. Her advice is so simple yet effective. It is guaranteed to help boost your confidence and improve your grades, assuming you take it. I know this post is a long one, but it’s definitely worth it. I encourage you to keep reading below to get some great study tips, exam preparation techniques and really useful guidelines for excelling in BJC and BGCSE English.
- Which subjects do you teach and how long have you been teaching English?
Answer: I teach English literature, English language and religious studies for secondary school. I have been teaching since 1976, both here in the Bahamas and in Jamaica.
- What are some of the challenges students face in the class while learning English language and literature?
Answer: Firstly, textbook availability. Some students do not have the required text, so they gather information only from what is spoken by the teacher. This deprives them of one important way of learning, which is visually. Instead they are using only their ears but are missing out on visual contact with the text.
Secondly, students enjoy reading! They like to be oral. The adverse is they don’t particularly like to write. Being turned off from writing is a problem. They will write but not much. To get my students to write only 1 page is a challenge. So expressing themselves in words is a challenge.
Thirdly, my students have a problem with silence. But it is in silence that thoughts can be conceived and developed. When they prefer to talk, the thinking doesn’t come very readily, so there’s a heavy reliance on the teacher.
- What do you do to help your students with these challenges?
Answer: I start the class with a thorough discussion of a particular topic. Everyone shares their ideas, then I’ll deal with sentence construction. The students make sentences to express the ideas they raised. Then I’ll do punctuation of the sentences the students have given to me. I’ll put in the full stops and capital letters. Sixty percent (60%) of my students can construct good sentences. However, they fall down on punctuation marks, capital letters, spelling errors, and handwriting problems. Because of this, much emphasis must be placed on organizing ideas, building paragraphs, and adding a topic sentence to each paragraph.
- What can students do to help organize their ideas and develop beautiful paragraphs and sentences?
Answer: The reading and writing must go hand in hand. Students should try to model what they have read and implement it in their writing. It would help if they model good writers. For example, a student can look at an essay and make an original essay using the writer’s style. Look at how the sentences are constructed and make it your own. More emphasis should be placed on paraphrasing. In the exam, you’re required to write extensively, at least 300-500 words.
To be a good writer, you need to know the use of adverbs, adjectives, phrases, clauses and how they all come together. You must know figures of speech and how to use them to express yourself. Understand the concept of a dialogue. It takes time for it to get in your head but it can be done.
There are so many forms of writing students have to show skills in. Examples include narrative writing and persuasive writing (you must be a person with gusto, passion or feel strongly about a thing). Poetry is one of the most difficult forms of writing, yet many of the students here in the Bahamas are good at it. It’s musical and the two skills support each other. Many students are very poetic, can recite poetry very well and can easily develop another stanza for a poem they are working on. Poetry makes them come alive. They are very musical, oral and poetic in this style. So, if a student can find his/her niche, and what is their favorite style of writing that would help.
- How can a student know his/her writing style?
Answer: A teacher can determine it. In my class what I do is allow students to come to the board, and add another stanza to a poem. I can tell by their contribution where their strengths are. Those students who get excited, passionate and emotional are persuasive and are usually good speakers. There are students who have a knack for descriptive writing.
Also, I have tried to help them by creating projects in which they do either three poems, three stories or persuasive narrative or descriptive writing. And I see and identify which strength they have and let them know. These strengths are innate, they are born with them. They have a propensity towards certain types of writing. If those could be identified easily, they will do well in the exams.
- Let’s talk a bit more about the BJC and BGCSE English exam. Do you have any tips for that?
- The exam caters to different styles of writing. There are stories in which you should be able to identify narrative writing separate and apart from expository writing in which you would take it apart. For example, when you talk about trees or Bahamian culture, those are topics upon which you expound as if your reader knows nothing about it and you’re going to give them information. Whereas a story is a series of events in which you have to include drama. Some person’s stories can easily be published in the newspaper. I always tell my students, if a story can’t be placed in the newspaper, then it should not be told! It must have a whole lot of drama, not the everyday mundane things. They should be able to bring a topic alive. For example, in the exam you may be asked to use the following sentence to tell a story “My mother fell from the stairs”. To do this you can think, “What did she do before? What caused her to fall?” You can start the story with her in the hospital and go back from there. Or maybe, someone pushed her from the stairs! It’s important to add drama to your stories.
- Ensure your spelling and handwriting are good otherwise you won’t be able to communicate through writing. You get graded based on legibility of handwriting. If the examiner can’t read it, then they won’t! You must know how to position your paper and pencil to write. Don’t squeeze your pencil. Good writing position includes holding down your book, feet flat on the floor and positioning your body just right.
- A significant part of the BJC and BGCSE exam grade goes to grammar.
- Writing is practice, practice and more practice. Dictionaries are not allowed in the exam so you must go into exam knowing how to spell it. If you’ve never seen the word, it’s more difficult to spell. Khaki for example, has a silent ‘h’. But you would only know this if you’ve read it before. So reading is important. While you read, take a mental snapshot of a word and keep it to recall when you need to use it.
- I recommend varying your reading. Sometimes I get history books and teach comprehension from history. I teach my students how to read from the newspaper, because there are terms in the paper which they won’t find in any textbooks. This is why the classics are important. Classical books are varied and are written by highly intelligent persons.
- You must pay special attention to misspelled words and over capitalizing. What I mean is, sometimes a student may write;
“Mothers are very Loving, helpful and kind.”
In doing so they would capitalize the word “loving” simply because it’s a main characteristic of mothers. But this is not right. So if you’re not sure when to capitalize a word, take some time to review the capitalization rules. Make sure you know when and when not to capitalize a letter.
- Have you noticed any trends or patterns in the layout of the BJC and BGCSE English exam papers?
Answer: Yes. There is a focus on Bahamian culture. This is a plus because you are dealing with information with which you are familiar. For example you may be asked questions about the Bahamian prom, music, or sports. To prepare for this, put together a file with research you have collected on Bahamian culture. In English literature, examiners look for style, the language of a certain style. They may ask “How has the writer mirrored Bahamian culture in this extract?” You may say such things like, “The writer used sarcasm” and then you give the exact quote from the passage where sarcasm was used.
- What can students do to boost themselves ahead academically?
If they read, they don’t have to come to school. I’m not lying. I mean it just like that. Just read!
A person who reads will write beautifully, express themselves beautifully and have no problem with language. At university all you’re required to do is read and write. Make a goal to read a certain number of books for the year. The more you read, you pick up style, learn to spell, build sentences and build paragraphs.
Join the library and make a weekly visit. Take a book, sit down and read it. Go to bed with the book. There are some really enjoyable books like Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys which are hard to put down. I enjoyed them as a kid.
- What can parents do to help their children?
Answer: Parents can play a major role, even if they themselves can’t read. They can just pose like they can read. The children will mock them. You can’t spend too much time reading. The parent’s role is crucial. They don’t have to be an intellect. They need only be interested. Parents must develop strategies and see to it that kids do what they have to do. Some kids don’t have a clue why they are going to school. Parents should set up a study schedule for their kids and ensure that they follow it. Also remember to mix play with work.
- What are some helpful success tips to students?
Answer: When studying you need a pen or paper to write on. Some people once they see something in writing, they won’t forget it, but this is not so with the average person. Because of this, you need a gadget or methodology that you use to retain information and help you take a note of what you are studying.
When you see an unfamiliar term for example “pan africanization” underline the word, look it up, and make a note of it in the margin of your notebook or textbook. Put a chart up in the study room to record information.
On the chart make a line of “its” and “it’s” so that you know when use each one. If you are reading a comprehension paper and you come across a number, underline it and make a note.
Another way to gather information is to find the main idea in a paragraph, especially when doing a comprehension. Separate the main idea from the details related to it. Sometimes writers give illustrations, and it can throw a lot of light on what is written in the passage. Attention should be paid to the title of the piece. If you understand the title then you can understand so many other things.
Another thing, sometimes the examiner might ask for the meaning of a word in a paragraph. Very often the meaning is in the sentence or it can be understood by the sentences around it. It’s called, context clues. Nothing in a comprehension question is unknown. The facts are there. Sometimes you are asked to imply which simply means to read between the lines.
If there is a word in the question, you can tell the meaning of the word by looking at the parts of speech for that word. For example the word “vivid” is an adjective, so to find the meaning you need another adjective. You can’t have a verb meaning for an adjective.
There is usually some questions from the passage whose answer is not evident right there. This is because they are asking you to write creatively based on what has been presented in the passage. Students must now go into the passage, look for information and incorporate that information from the passage with what they themselves have experienced.
To do this well, students should put themselves in positions where they listen to speakers, outstanding speakers. Only those persons who have achieved a certain level of intelligence use certain words. You can then model this speech when you make up your own speech. You must be exposed. Parents can take them places where they hear certain quality of speaking, from persons with speeches well put together. Widen your horizon and expose yourself to formal speaking which can be heard on television documentaries, TV debates. There is actually a lot of research which can be done on the television.
When given the opportunity go to the theatre, watch Shakespeare plays or live presentations of the classics. Or get involved in school dramatized plays where students become the character and have a vivid experience for themselves.
Audiobooks can help as well. The eye is only one medium to learn. You can learn a lot through hearing. Use a tape recorder and make notes if you must.
Letter writing is a very important area. Get a collection of letters written by someone who works in an office. Learn the language of letters. Yes, there is a language. If you don’t have access to this it could be a struggle to write a letter of complaint for example.
Put together a folder with a collection of areas of life which interest you. If you like learning about crime, tourism, or capital punishment. Examine exam past papers over 5 years, you can pick up a number of topics which recur again and again. Put it in a notebook and make a record of the facts. Be very familiar with past papers.
Pay attention to planning, brainstorming, free writing, and clustering of your information before beginning to write a piece. For example, if you were required to write an essay on “Tourism in The Bahamas” you could do this;
Take 10 minutes to plan your essay before you start. The introductory paragraph should have an attention grabber. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence. This is the information you will be dealing with in that paragraph. How will you build this paragraph? Consider this for each paragraph you intend to write.
Finally, how will you end the written piece? It’s knowing the skills of writing at the tip of your fingers. Make your plan and follow it. After this, include 10 minutes at the end to revise for mistakes.
So to recap, there should be a pre-writing stage in which you make rough notes, a writing stage where you organize your ideas and make sentences and a review stage in which you check your work for spelling and grammatical errors.
It’s a lot of work but it comes with practice, reading and writing regularly.
Every child has the ability to do well in some area or another, but it must be brought out. And how we deal with that child is important.
Me: Well thank you so much for your time and this wealth of information. I trust that it will be extremely helpful for children and adults who are preparing to sit these exams.