The Leaving Cert English “Exam Essay”

(My usual Politics & Society readers might permit me another brief deviation from the ‘usual programming’ into the realms of an English Teacher, but will hopefully find the contents of this post useful and relatively ‘transferable’ between the two subjects…)

The following represents approximately a career and a half of thoughts, struggles, insecurity, advice, and hard-won wisdom on writing the Leaving Certificate “English Exam Essay”. It is presented here in ‘pdf format’ to preserve the layout of the original draft and to make it useful to teachers in class, who might now successfully disguise its invaluable advice as a usable ‘Paper 1’ comprehension exercise! You can read below about the origin of the piece as best as I can recount it, but if like most teachers you’re just trying to survive until the bell rings at 4 pm, just read the article itself here…

My “Da” (to borrow a title from Hugh Leonard) was a pre-eminent English teacher in secondary schools like “Joey’s” in Fairview, the Institute of Education on Leeson St., and Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. He shifted mid-career to third level education, teaching a generation of appreciative trainee teachers in Mater Dei Institute of Education. Throughout this time, he funded our family’s summer holidays by working as a ‘Senior Examiner’ of Leaving Cert English, drafting and submitting questions, correcting exams, and supervising the marking of other examiners. He edited a literary newspaper, wrote reviews and textbooks, and even a screenplay that was bought, but now gathers dust on a producer’s shelf. He was this and so much more, that I will deliberately omit here.

Many moons ago, he decided to try and distil what he had learned about the process of writing a single exam essay into as short a piece of writing as possible. Unsurprisingly, he achieved his task and produced a readable ‘one-page’ guide promoting what he called an ‘interrogative’ method for planning and executing the essay under exam conditions. Many times over the years (as both a student and a teacher) I have reflected upon this refined wisdom, leaned on its technique, and disseminated the suggestions to anyone who asked, or who was in need of guidance.

The overwhelming majority of what he wrote then remains broadly applicable today. The problem emerged, however, that with the changes to the LC English syllabus between my own sitting of the exam in the 1990s and stepping in front of my first class as a teacher a decade later, the exam’s structure changed – not unrecognizably – but sufficiently to render some of his advice if not quite redundant, then at least in need of spritzing up! So I have spritzed. I have added my own modest thoughts to his basic structure and reframed the still recognizable spine of the original advice with a view to reflecting some of those curricular reforms in a manner that might be more ‘relatable’ (although I hate the term with a passion) to teachers and students familiar only with the current system.

I am not possessed of, nor ever will I achieve, the mastery of English teaching that my Da demonstrated with such fluency and élan. I’m a “Jack of all trades”, teaching Leaving Cert English, History, and more recently Politics & Society. But what all of those subjects have in common is the centrality of the ‘key skill’ of essay writing, in whatever guise it is required in the different exams, so I hope that my addenda will be based on at least some degree of valid insight and experience.

My Da died at 3 am on the morning of the 6 June, 2007, the morning my first ever Leaving Cert English Class were due to sit their English exam. This piece represents a far more literal interpretation of the term ‘ghost writing’ than the comprehension text that appeared on Paper 1 of the exam the previous year, but I endeavour to carry the baton and pass it on with the same generosity of spirit that my Da always exemplified. It is both fitting and patently obvious to acknowledge that where this piece is strong, it is my Da’s input and where it feels weaker, my fingerprints will be more evident.

This piece neither professes nor pretends to be the definitive account of undertaking the Herculean task of guiding students through the process of essay writing, but is presented in the spirit of stimulating thoughts and discussion amongst receptive colleagues. I trust that it will be received as such. I will, inevitably, only identify the spelling errors when I click ‘publish’ on the post…

Nonetheless, I hope that you find it a useful and practical way in which to engage with the teaching of the ‘Exam Essay’ and that it makes everyone’s lives that little easier in these uncertain times…

JD – 25/9/2020

If you’re a LC English teacher visiting this site for the first time my recent post with a digitized version of Philadelphia, Here I Come! (for the ‘Comparative’ question) might be of use…

If you found this useful and would like to make a small donation to the upkeep of this site, please consider doing so here.


One thought on “The Leaving Cert English “Exam Essay”

  1. Pingback: Philadelphia, Here I Come! MP3 Audio Recording | The Pol-Soc Podcast

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