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…

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Episode 9 is LIVE!

After a bit of a Covid-related hiatus, and with many, many apologies for the delay Professor Graham Finaly from UCD’s School of Politics and International Relations, we’re back with Episode 9, dealing with key thinker John Locke. In some ways this should be 2 shorter episodes, because Professor Graham Finlay covered so much ground in his discussion that I found it very hard to leaving anything on the virtual cutting room floor. But I’m trusting that students will know when to pause to catch their breath. As always, there’s a full suite of resources available on the Episode Notes Page to help students get to grips with this material.

Listen to the episode HERE! Or download it on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you find the materials useful, please consider making a small donating to the upkeep of the site, by visiting our Contact and Support page.

Hopefully, the episode will do at least something to take the edge off the stress of starting back into school after a prolonged break.

To all the Pol-Soc students and teachers out there, best of luck with the return, as daunting as it might be.

All my very best,


Sample Data-Based Questions

One of the most difficult parts of trying to teach the ‘Data-Based Question’ (DBQ) on the Politics & Society course as it currently stands is the lack of “Past Papers” to give students a sense of how this particular question should be approached. Yes, obviously, they should be getting practice of gathering and analysing data themselves throughout the two years of study, but that only gets them so far when it comes to sitting the exam. So I’ve decided that over the next year or so, I’m going to try and produce a few samples that will make it a little easier for students to get used to the process.

So here’s my first offering: Sample DBQ 1 – Election Integrity and Electoral Commission

As I always remind my own students, “Any DBQ that you do, automatically becomes a CASE STUDY for you to refer to in future”. So the goals of the documents that I produce will be two-fold. Firstly, they should enhance the learning in specific areas that are directly relevant to the course content/subject specification (in this case Learning Outcome 2.5 – “summarise research evidence on the effectiveness of the Irish system of elections in representing the will of all the Irish people”). Secondly, they aim to familiarize students with the kinds of questions that have been asked thus far. These seem to range from questions that focus directly on ‘comprehension’ of the key content and arguments, to reliability and methodology, presentation of written and visual data, bias in authorship, and comparative views of the two documents. But, bear in mind that we only have two past exams and an SEC sample paper to go on, so this will (by definition) be an imperfect set of sample questions. I’m forever telling students that they should look at the ‘N’ number (sample size) in any data they gather and so I should heed my own advice and not make any extravagant claims about anything I produce based on the ‘trends’ that I’ve tried to infer. Seeing the ‘backup’ paper in November that students were supposed to have sat in June will undoubtedly help with improving the relevance of future sample DBQs!

This one-page handout with suggestions on how to approach the 50-Mark question at the end of this section should also help students: DBQ Long Answer 2020 Suggested Approach

There are a few specific issues with the first sample DBQ (link above) that students and teachers should be aware of… The visual representation of data in Document A are probably too expansive (also the colours are slightly off in the world map, but I can’t seem to fix that…) and word count of the ‘Opinion Piece’ in Document B is a bit longer than I would expect to be included on an SEC exam, but if you remember that the goal is also to produce DBQs that help with learning, then I think that it’s ok in this instance. In other words, I wouldn’t be suggesting that students use this DBQ to practice their ‘exam timing’ or anything like that, but I do think that it will help students get used to the general process.

The final problem with this process is that it takes A VERY LONG TIME to put these samples together. This one took me about 3 ½ – 4 hours and there may still be a few typos. I have gotten a little bit of practice putting these together for the DEB Mock Papers, but even still, it’s a very labour-intensive process. Even more frustratingly, the sample answers become dated (if not obsolete) relatively quickly and there’s absolutely no way I’ll be able to go back and update them, so you’ll have to take them as they come! As always, if you have any (constructive) criticisms of this sample paper and/or suggestions on how to improve them, then please do get in contact. I’m always eager to improve.

Anyway, I hope they’re useful, and that I’ll have time to produce a few more in the next few months.

JD 11/8/2020


Philadelphia, Here I Come! MP3 Audio Recording

Episode One: 44 mins

Episode Two: 33 mins

Episode Three: 31 mins

Click here for a short analysis of the Cultural Context for the Comparative Question

IMG_7429In a break from my usual Pol-Soc posting, I wanted to share these audio recordings of one of my all-time favourite plays, Philadelphia, Here I Come! as the play is back on the Leaving Cert English Comparative Course. (They’re at the bottom of the page…) I got a present of the cassette tapes many years ago from my dad (who was also an English teacher). I’ve never liked the 1977 film version, but I have found that students reading the text, while simultaneously listening to the audio version is a useful partial replacement for actually seeing the play in a theatre. At the very least, it allows the students to use their imagination and ‘stage’ it in their minds, rather than relying on the decisions of the film makers.IMG_9176 It strikes me that nobody is going to be able to go and see this (or any other) play in the year ahead, so I decided to digitize the cassette tape and am uploading here so that students and teachers can use it for their own education (strictly non-profit) purposes. This recording is from the late 1980s, and while there is a little bit of hiss (because of the tape recorder), I don’t think that it gets in the way too much. (I tidied it up a bit with a noise gate, but didn’t get much improvement)… The cast list here has some of the stalwarts of the Irish stage whose voices really bring you back to some of the great productions over the years.

It was a particularly meaningful present at the time because my first significant introduction to the power of drama was in early 1995 when I spent 5 weeks of Transition Year doing my ‘work experience’ in the Abbey Theatre as an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager – really a ‘gofer’) on their revived production of the play. I was supposed to do 2 weeks, but ended up being allowed to stay through the full rehearsal process and technical rehearsals. It was directed by Patrick Mason and starred David Parnell and Darragh Kelly as Gar Public and Private (pictured right).Screenshot (288) I think that I literally knew every word of the play off by heart, and had the daydream that one of the “Lads” (hopefully ‘Joe’) would get sick one day and I’d be drafted in as a replacement for one show. Obviously, that never happened, but a teenager can (and should) always dream of the possibility!

I have many, many thoughts about the play itself, that I wouldn’t presume to bore you with here, but hopefully having a good recording to work from will be of some use to people, particularly if there is another round of school closures. It might take a little bit of the pressure off…

Both students and teachers might be interested in reading this recent post on a reliable technique for answering the dreaded Leaving Cert English Exam Essay, a synthesis of a career and a half of teaching writing by my ‘Da’ and myself…

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

Enjoy laddybuck!


Some Pol-Soc ideas to keep you going over the summer…



The summer holidays that are just about to get started aren’t going to be like any holidays that have previously happened. Many of the sports camps, language schools, activities, and travel that you might have been hoping for have all “vanished into air, into thin air” (to quote from The Tempest). So one thing I’ll be trying to do over the summer is to keep a relatively steady stream of resources to engage with via the website. I’m going to try and post once every 10 days or fortnight, as much to keep myself sane and focused as trying to help the students, I suspect!

So, here is a list of a few possible activities that you can be getting along with under your own steam that would be an excellent starting point:


  1. 2-6 June. They’ll have sample lectures on all the different disciplines from across the university. Obviously, I’d want you to pay particular attention to the Politics/International Relations and Sociology/Social Policy lectures that are happening next week, but as I mentioned in the class, I do think you should use the opportunity to dip into some of the other subject areas that you may never have looked at before.
  2. If you haven’t already done so, make sure that your subscribe to my website at (click ‘follow’ on the home page) to make sure you get email alerts for the new materials (podcasts, screencasts, readings, exercises, etc) that will be going up at fairly regular intervals during the summer.
  3. Follow along on Twitter with @khpolsoc ( to see other relevant materials that I’ll be circulating through the twitter feed.
  4. Try and take ONE news event each week to take a deep dive into. Look at it from different perspectives and see how a single event is covered from different media outlets. (You could start by keeping track of the Trump ‘vs’ Twitter confrontation that is about to kick off…) Use the TLDR handout template from the website ( to keep a track of your reading and to make sure that you’re in a position to use those materials when it comes to your essays next year.,
  5. Start a log of movies, documentaries, and YouTube videos that you’ve watched that you think might be able to draw on for your work next year. Share those video resources with your classmates, and maybe even start up a movie/documentary discussion group where you all watch similar shows and might even discuss them afterward.
  6. If you haven’t already done so, you could start with the Covid-19 Key Thinker reading list that I posted previously. (

Take it upon yourself to read one article a day. That’s eminently doable!!! It’ll be a good way to keep up to date, while also reinforcing your key thinkers.

Above all, remember to keep safe, follow the guidelines, be kind to your parents (it is very stressful for them, you know), and try to get a bit of valuable rest of the summer.

The class of 2020 has moved on now, but there’s still a big hill ahead for the class of 2021. We’ll do our best to help you along that journey.



Pol-Soc and Covid-19 – a (provisional) Reading List

There are lots of ways in which the Covid 19 ‘experience’ (he said euphemistically) is relevant to the Pol Soc Specification. I wouldn’t be advising students to write a WHOLE essay about Covid-19, but I do think that a well-sourced and well-supported paragraph about how Covid-19 illustrates aspects of the course could fit comfortably into lots of different types of essay. The readings will make that clearer, I hope!

I’ve ‘appropriated‘ (i.e. stolen) some of @NorthMonPolSoc‘s great resources (if you’re not already following Jon, you should be…!) and provided my own workable reading list of articles about, or by some of the Key Thinkers or key themes from the specification. Some of the articles are quite short, so you could try engaging with one a day for the next fortnight. It’d serve are really valuable Key Thinker revision too!

I’ve also included a link to my TLDR handout that is designed to help students keep notes on the articles that they have read. Alternatively, you could download the google doc and add the key data, or 1-2 key quotes from each article underneath the link so you have a useable set of qualitative and quantitative data-sets that are ‘exam ready‘.

Download the google doc here: Covid-19 and the Pol Soc Spec

There’s still lots of uncertainty around what’s happening with the Leaving Cert, but I hope that the lack of clarity isn’t getting students too down… (sad-face emoji…)

And for the record, Jon is more than happy for me to be sharing his great resources! (I always check!)


JD 7/5/2020

Screencast #5 (Northern Ireland) is Now Live!

In an effort to get my head around the new remote learning landscape, I’ve been trying to put together usable weekly plans that can guide students through a meaningful process of learning. This week I’ve focused in on how the subject specification deals (both explicitly and implicitly) with power and decision making in Northern Ireland.

You can watch the screencast here. But perhaps more importantly, you should engage with the Episode Notes page which has details of how best I think these materials can be used. Make sure to download the “Screencast 5 Listen Along Guide” to remain focused during the screencast and to help you collate all the relevant materials, information, and perspectives that I’ve tried to communicate during the episode. There’s even a self-marking “Google Forms Quiz” that you should be taking mid-week to try and assess how your learning is going…

I’m very grateful to Ms Catherine McGing down in Laurel Hill in Limerick for her help in putting this week’s work together. All the good ideas are hers, all the errors are my own. Thanks Catherine!

Best of luck with your “lockdown learning”. I hope this makes it ever so slightly easier to carry out!


JD (20/2/20)

Screencast #4 Citizenship Project Section C

Finally got around to doing the screencast designed to help students get to grips with writing up the final section of their Citizenship Projects. Hopefully you’ll find it useful. I’m also including all of the PowerPoint presentations that I used so that other teachers can download them and use in class. They can update them as we find out more about the process and adapt them for their own students needs and add their own insights. Take what’s useful and discard the rest…

This time around I take THREE different examples of Section Cs that my own students completed (with varying degrees of success) over the last few years. Hopefully you’ll be able to see how to progress your work up from a H4/H3 level, up to the final example which is a H1 students. It’s all about providing a pathway to students to identify and correct their own mistakes, without falling into the most obvious pitfalls that I identify in the video…

Citizenship Project Section A ppt

Citizenship Project Section B ppt

Citizenship Project Section C ppt

Best of luck with the submission of your projects (whenever that ends up being!!!)

JD (4/14/20)


“Lockdown Listens!”

Delighted to have been featured in the Irish Times’s “Lockdown Listens” listing for educational podcasts in today’s paper. Find the article here. More importantly, there are lots of other excellent podcasts listed there that students should check out. Also don’t forget to check out the list I’m compiling of ‘Pol-Soc’ focused podcasts that students can dip in and out of to progress their own independent learning! Useful Podcasts for Students and Teachers

Would love to hear of any other podcasts that you’re listening to that you feel might be helpful for others…



Screencast #3 – Citizenship Project Section B

So here’s the best I could come up with in terms of helping students to avoid some of the unnecessary pitfalls when it comes to drafting their Section B of their Citizenship Projects, which is worth the Lion’s Share of the marks (45/100). I hope you find it useful…

To make it a little easier, you should download the handout, so that you don’t have to try and read the contents off the screen (especially if you’re watching this over your phone!

As ever, it’s only my own best judgment of what’s happening and how they have been marked, combined with a fair amount of “reverse engineering” of the projects my own students have submitted. Hopefully they’ll be of use to students who are stranded due to Covid-19… All they need is the link and a smart phone for this to work for them…

I deliberately didn’t mention that you could talk about how Covid-19 impacted your project in your “Critical Evaluation of Action Plan” section, because we don’t know how the SEC are going to react to this, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me that if you were unable to complete certain elements of the action, you can talk about that in your ‘Section B’ – though if I hear any more on that, I’ll be sure to update you as soon as I can.

Best of luck with your submission!

JD 1/4/2020

(definitely not an April Fool… just sayin’)