Category Archives: Leaving Cert Paper 1

Paper 1 advice and examplars.

Comprehending Texts

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement on Monday 26th January 2015.

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When you’re asked to read a passage and respond to it, certain skills are being tested. Do you understand what you’ve just read? Can you retrieve information quickly and re-phrase it in your own words? Can you read between the lines and comment on what is implied as well as what is openly stated? Can you identify gaps and speculate as to what information might have been deliberately excluded because it didn’t fit with the writer’s agenda? Do you understand the writer’s stylistic choices and can you elaborate on how certain words, phrases or images impact on your emotions?

Developing these skills is a process that takes place over a lifetime. Read more. Read widely. Read challenging material. But don’t let it simply wash over you. You also need to practice responding, to hone your critical thinking skills and to develop your understanding of language and genre. If you’re one of those people who has something to say about everything, provided your logic is sound, this is the place for you to shine!

Remember also that the word text is used in an all-encompassing way. Visual images which accompany the written element are considered part of the text and this includes not just photos but also paintings, cartoons, graphs and book covers. However, the questions will usually specify whether they want you to refer to the written or the visual elements or to a combination of the two in your answer.

Just as fashions come and go, certain trends emerge and often just as quickly disappear from exam papers.


Currently, questions relating to the visuals are highly specific and often ask you to connect the written and visual elements. For example:

– How does this image develop your understanding of the concept explored in the text? (this question related to a passage and photos exploring the cliffhanger as a storytelling device)

– How do the written and visual elements combine to capture a particular location and atmosphere? (asked both in relation to an Irish Times article about Grand Central Station and to the setting of Richard Ford’s novel Canada)

For the time being, these type of questions seem to have replaced more generic questions such as

Write a personal response to the visual image that made the most impact on you. You might consider the subject matter, setting, mood, caption, relevancy, photographic qualities / techniques etc… [use of colour, light, objects, details]” .

However, it’s worth remembering that exams are by their very nature unpredictable so what is a trend one year can fall out of fashion completely by the next!

Stylistic features:

A similar change has occurred in the style questions. The days of generic “Identify and comment on three features of the writer’s style” type questions appear to be over, and really, that’s no harm. It made it far too easy for students to waffle on in a general way about ‘rhetorical questions’ and ‘vivid imagery’ without really saying anything insightful or specific at all.

You do still get some questions that ask you to identify and comment on genre specific features, for example, features of effective speech-writing; the effectiveness of the passage as a piece of travel writing; or the autobiographical elements you found most engaging. Here you’re being tested on your awareness of the conventions of different genres, so once again, a very close reading of the text in front of you is an absolute must.

However, for the most part, the style questions being asked are now even more specific, so getting up close and personal with the piece of writing you’re supposed to be analysing is an absolute must.

For example, you’ll be given a statement:

– ‘Ford’s writing is characterised by its engaging narrative, lyrical beauty and concrete realism.

One of Heaney’s gifts as a writer was his ability to make complex and profound ideas accessible to the general reader.

The New Yorker has been described as a magazine that informs, entertains and comments‘.

Then you’ll be asked to what extent you agree with this statement and you’ll be instructed to refer to specific features of the writer’s style to support the points you make.

Two quick pieces of advice here.

1. Underline and number each element in the question so you don’t skip over or ignore part of the statement in your answer.

2. Don’t feel you have to agree 100% with the statement. You’re asked ‘to what extent’ you agree, so you’re being encouraged to perhaps partially agree, but also to problematise the statement. Maybe it overlooks something significant? Perhaps you agree with some elements of what’s being said but less so with others? Simply agreeing with everything that’s thrown at you prevents you in some ways from showing off your critical thinking skills, because if you just nod and agree, you’re not being at all critical, now are you?


Let it flow…

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent Written Word supplement on Monday January 2th 2015


Good writers value flow. When an idea works, they grab it, massage it and make it their own. When it doesn’t, they cut it loose and, like Frozen, they just ‘let it go’.

I’m not saying they don’t get writer’s block – they do!

Nor am I saying that words and ideas flow out of them like water from a tap. Their words are just squiggles on a page, the same as the rest of us. And thank god, or we’d have lots of empty taps and sopping wet pages on our hands, not to mention the cost in water charges!

But what good writers understand, in their deep heart’s core, is the importance of generating flow for the reader. Ideas need to be linked to each other; paragraphs need to be sequenced logically and the reader needs to be eased in – and eased out – of the reading experience.

So how, good reader, do you achieve this in your writing?


First and foremost you should do something with that brainstorm your teacher insisted you create! The ideas are there but which one will you start with? Something to really seize the reader’s attention? A quote? A shocking statistic? Now where will you go next? What ideas have something in common, even something tenuous, that will enable you to segue from one to the next so that they seem like logical progressions akin to steps on a staircase to wisdom? And when the journey’s over and the essay is nearly done, how will you loop back to your starting point yet add a depth that did not exist when the reader stepped out bravely on this journey with you?


Secondly, you need a thread which ties everything together. It can help to think of the paragraphs in your essay as the seven dwarfs. Each one has it’s own defining identity: not sleepy or dopey hopefully, but with recognisable features that make it distinct from all of the others. Yet there’s no question that they belong together! You can look from one to the next to the next and see how they all form an inseparable unit that would be weaker if any one of them went missing or was left behind.


Now that you’ve got a plan, a certain amount of flow will emerge from the sequence you’ve decided to implement. However, you need flow within your paragraphs as well as between them. This is where the third vital element of connectives comes in. These are words which form bridges, both within and between sentences. You’ll see a list of examples below but a word of warning here: connectives used well are almost invisible. Used badly, they’re like your Dad at a wedding with his trousers rolled up, wearing his tie as a headband and playing air guitar. They just look all wrong!

Here’s an example of connectives used well:

Ireland undoubtedly has a tradition of neutrality. Clearly this is the will of the people. However, it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue indefinitely into the future. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we to be targeted by terrorists we would need to respond, not just for our safety but also for the safety of our neighbours. Furthermore, we are socially, economically and emotionally tied to Europe and so an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.”

And here’s an example of connectives used badly:

Ireland has a tradition of neutrality. Furthermore this is the will of the people. Nevertheless it would be foolish of us to assume that this desire to remain neutral will continue. We live in an era of growing global terrorism and were we targeted by terrorists we would need to respond. At the same time we are tied to Europe socially, economically and emotionally so to conclude an attack on Europe would also be an attack on us.

Just typing that second example was like scrapping my nails down a blackboard and reading it back is like jabbing hot pokers in my eyeballs.

The bottom line is this: using connectives for the sake of it or because some teacher in the Indo supplement told you to won’t work. You need to understand the words you’re using. You need to know how they work to create flow in your writing.

There is no shortcut to this knowledge. You won’t just innately know how to use connectives properly, unless you’ve been reading voraciously from an early age and engaging in family debates around the dinner table on a daily basis all of your life, so you’ll need to practice. Reading a lot and reading the right kind of material (speeches, debates, newspaper articles, academic essays) will increase your familiarity with connectives and help them to flow more naturally into your own writing.

Sample connectives:

  • First of all…secondly…thirdly

  • In the beginning… then… ultimately…finally

  • Nonetheless, nevertheless, although, even though, however

  • Furthermore, in addition, above all, essentially

  • Thus, therefore, hence, as a result

  • On the other hand… alternatively… besides

  • Clearly, obviously, evidently, logically

So you’ve got the guidelines. You’re good to go. And now, to paraphrase Frozen once more, it’s time to ‘Let it flow, let it flow, can’t hold it back anymore…’

Teaching the syllabus…2

This is a follow up post – you can read part 1 here.

What are the things students should know and be able to do by the time they’ve completed their study of Leaving Cert English?

[NOTE: obviously some students will be better at doing these things than others, which is why we see different levels of achievement in students classwork and in their exam performance – we’re not all equally good footballers or musicians – so why would we all be equally good writers / thinkers / exam takers?]

Here’s what the syllabus says in relation to comprehending and composing (which is examined in Paper 1)

There are many ways of classifying language use. However, for the purposes of this syllabus it is proposed to classify language under five general headings, which relate to the central concept of language as a powerful means of shaping and ordering experience. The five general headings are:
  • The language of Information
  • The language of Argument
  • The language of Persuasion
  • The language of Narration
  • The Aesthetic use of language
It is accepted that to classify language in this way is artificial. The general functions of language outlined here will continually mix and mingle within texts and genres. So, there can be an aesthetic argument, a persuasive narrative, or an informative play. But if students are to become adept with language, then they need to understand that it is through these functions, used within a variety of genres, that language achieves meaning, power, and effect.
Within the five designated areas of language outlined earlier, students will be required to develop the following range of skills and competencies:
Students should encounter a range of texts composed for the dominant purpose of communicating information, eg. reports, records, memos, bulletins, abstracts, media accounts, documentary films.
Students should be able to:
* Give an account of the gist of a text.
* Specify appropriate details for relevant purposes.
* Summarise the information they obtained from a text.
* Comment on the selection of facts given: evaluate the adequacy of the information and indicate omissions.
* Identify the point of view of an author.
* Outline the values assumed in a text.
* Indicate the genre of a text.
* Comment on the language use, structure and lay-out.
Students should be able to compose accurately in a range of information genres:
* Records: memos, minutes, notices, precis.
* Letters of all kinds.
* Reports and research projects
* Various media scripts and newspaper reports.
Students should encounter a range of texts with an argumentative function. The range of texts should encompass material which offer models of both deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning as used in journalistic, philosophical, scientific and legal contexts.
Students should be able to:
* Outline the stages of an argument and identify the conclusion.
* Identify the reasoning structure evidenced in key words or phrases eg. therefore, because, nevertheless, etc.
* Distinguish between statements/propositions and examples.
* Distinguish between opinion, anecdote and evidence.
* Evaluate the validity of an argument.
* Attempt to identify assumptions present.
* Outline the values being asserted.
Students should be able to:
* Put forward a theory or hypothesis
* Justify a decision
* Attempt an overview.
The Language of Persuasion
Students should encounter a range of texts which have a persuasive function, eg.political speeches, advertising in all media,satiric texts, some forms of journalism.
Students should be able to:
* Identify the techniques being used to persuade eg. tone, image, rhythm, choice of words, selection of detail.
* Evaluate the impact of a passage in achieving its desired effect.
* Indicate to which audience it is addressed.
* Analyze the value-system advocated and/or implied by the text.
* Outline whose interests it serves.
Students should be able to compose in a range of contexts:
* Newspaper articles
* Advertising copy
* Public relations/propaganda/political statements.


The Language of Narration
Students should encounter a wide range of texts which have predominately a narrative function. This should involve stude
nts in encountering narratives of all kinds, eg. short stories, novels, drama texts, autobiographies, biographies, travel-books and films.
Students should be able to:
* Develop an awareness of their own response to texts and analyse and justify that response.
* Indicate aspects of the narrative which they found significant and attempt to explain fully the meaning thus generated.
* Outline the structure of the narrative and how it achieves coherence within its genre.
* Develop an awareness of narrative characteristics of different genres and how the language in these genres is chosen and
shaped to achieve certain effects.
* Approach narrative texts from a variety of critical viewpoints eg. analyze and compare texts under such categories as
gender, power and class and relate texts from different periods and cultures.
* Compare texts in different genres on the same theme.
Students should be able to compose in a range of contexts:
* Anecdote
* Parable, Fable
* Short Story
* Autobiographical sketch
* Scripts
* Dialogues
The Aesthetic Use of Language
Students should encounter a wide range of texts in a variety of literary genres for personal recreation and aesthetic pleasure. This would include engaging with fiction, drama, essay, poetry and film in an imaginative, responsive and critical manner.
Students should be able to:
* Develop appropriate stances for reading and/or viewing in all literary genres. This means students should approach drama scripts from a
theatrical perspective, view films as complex amalgams of images and words and read poetry conscious of its specific mode of using language as
an artistic medium.
* Engage in interpretative performance of texts.
* Develop an awareness of their own responses, affective, imaginative, and intellectual, to aesthetic texts. Explore these responses relative to the texts read, generate and justify meanings and build coherent interpretations.
* Re-read texts for encountering rich and diverse levels of suggestion, inference and meaning.
* Attempt to compare and evaluate texts for the quality of the imaginative experience being presented.
Students should be able to:
* Compose within the aesthetic forms encountered.
* Compose “interventions”, i.e. alternative scenarios based on texts studied.
* Keep Response Journals – expressive of their growing acquaintance with a text over a period of time.
* Compose analytical and coherent essays relative to a text
SOME NOTES (taken directly from the syllabus that I think are particularly relevant):
All products of language use – oral, written, and visual – can be described by the general term “text”. All texts create their own view of reality by using a specific linguistic style within specific categories of language forms, which can be called “genres”. Thus a song, an advertisement, a dialogue, a public speech, a child’s book, an expository essay, a legal document, a scientific report and a poem can all be classified as genres. It is the overall purpose of this syllabus to empower students so that they can become sophisticated users and interpreters of many genres.
It is of primary importance in this syllabus that the students should engage with the domains of comprehending and composing in oral, written and, where possible, visual contexts. The subject “English” as envisaged by this syllabus is not limited to the written word. In the modern world, most students encounter significant language experiences in oral and visual contexts. The experience of language in the media in all forms, visual,  aural and print, needs to be recognised as a prime, shaping agency of students’ outlook. This wide range of encounters with language will be reflected in the assessment and examination of students.

Teaching the syllabus…1

I got an email a few days ago from a lady who’s got a degree in English and an MA in creative writing. She was wondering where she should go to get to grips with the curriculum for Junior and Senior Cycle, as she’s thinking about giving grinds but obviously she wants to know what she’s doing before she gets started…

So I sent her in two different directions for Junior Cycle, both old and new. A bit of a pain for her, I’m sure, but watcha gonna do?

I was in 5th class in primary school when the ‘old’ junior cert syllabus came out and I’ve had to do quite a bit of searching to find a scanned in copy of it online (I’ve still got the hard copy I was given in 2001 when I was doing the H.Dip).

I also found these guidelines for implementing it:

For the new Junior Cycle English course [specification, syllabus, curriculum – call it what you will], I should have sent her instantly to the specification:

but instead I sent her to these screencasts the team of JCT English advisors made recently (I did the voice-over)

(You can watch them all here…if you click)

I don’t know why I didn’t automatically default to the primary source, the specification itself. I studied history in college. I know secondary sources are interpretations and to get an initial sense of what something is, a primary source is the place to go and yet…

And yet…

It got me thinking. When I started teaching in 2002, the ‘new’ senior cycle English syllabus was already ‘in’ so I didn’t get any training per se. At the time, our H.Dip English methodologies course wasn’t the Mae West [or perhaps I’m being unfair] and of the total hours we spent learning to be teachers, there wasn’t very much time devoted to developing our subject specialist knowledge. The presumption being, I guess, that we had that grounding from our primary degree…

Of course, what we needed was not training in ‘how to be good at English’ but training in ‘how to be good at teaching other people to be good at English’. Subject specific teaching methodologies rather than subject specific knowledge!

So how did I learn what I needed to know?

As I recall it, I did look at the syllabus, but I also let textbooks and exam papers ‘teach’ me the new course.

Primary and secondary sources….

… and then I taught with it.

The more I taught with it, the more confident I became that I knew what I was doing. I got to know it by teaching with it.

After a while, I think I stopped really engaging with the syllabus. I don’t know why. Partially becuase I felt I knew what I was doing and partially because there were more exam papers available and partially… well, I don’t know why else! But the primary source is some ways got superceded by the secondary sources and by experience.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing or just life. Once I felt I’d internalised the syllabus, I didn’t feel the need to consult it anymore. But perhap I’d internalised ‘my version’ of the syllabus – not the thing itself, but my vision of the thing itself…


And perhaps something got lost in translation.

I will say that there were moments in the past few years where I was surprised at something that came up in the leaving cert exam – for example, a few years back when one of the options in the composing section asked students to write a modern re-telling of a fairytale. And yet now, when I revisit the syllabus, I can clearly see ‘parable and fable’ listed as some of the genres students would be expected to explore as part of the language of narration. Now that I look at it closely, I also see mention of ‘satirical texts’ in relation to the language of persuasion and yet I’m sure if a rich piece of satire appeared on the exam, a lot of people would howl in rage at the injustice of it all…

For my part, I can’t see myself howling in rage. There are plenty of options on the paper and a higher level paper should be challenging.

But I can imagine I’d be hoping that my weaker students steered clear of it.

Even as I type that I’m thinking  “Am I even allowed to say that? Is it politially incorrect? Should I say instead ‘my students who have greater literacy challenges and who have been exposed to less literature and less complex forms of language throughout their lives and who thus have a weaker vocabulary and a lesser grasp of the subtelties of genre‘…” which I guess would be more accurate. Political correctness be damned, but I do believe in being accurate and precise with language. And I’ve often met students whose intellectual capacity far outstripped the language, vocabulary and experiences they’d encountered thus far in their lives. In these cases, largely through no fault of their own, their ability to ‘show off’ their intellect was weakened, dampened down, compromised, by a variety of factors, many of which were outside of their control…

[Then again, anyone can value literature and choose to read a lot, right? So we shouldn’t be making excuses for them? Well, it depends on your viewpoint. Do you belong to the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps‘ brigade who believe that with effort and determination anything can be overcome? Or are you a ‘bleeding heart’ who believes that inequality is so embedded by the time a kid starts school that reversing that is simultaneously extremely difficult but is also the moral imperative of our time? I don’t put myself in either camp. I think the truth is more complex than either of these positions recognises…]

So what else has this email asking for guidance on how to know and internalise the curricula for English got me thinking?

It’s got me thinking about textbooks. The best book I ever used to teach the new syllabus was one of the earliest ones published – it was called “Language, Literature and Style“.

I can’t find an image of it online. I don’t even recall who the author or authors were. It was A5 in size with a blue cover.

I’ve just run downstairs to see if I could root out a copy of it and take a photo to upload, but I can’t lay my hands on it. It was the first Paper 1 book I taught with and it was the best.


I don’t know. It was thick. It was meaty. It was rich in ideas and offered real depth in terms of getting to grips with genres and the five language categories. Perhaps it just suited the students I was teaching at the time, the context in which I was teaching. Perhaps in another school, in another context, that book would be either far too difficult or perhaps even too easy (although this, I feel, is unlikely. It was not an ‘easy’ textbook).

I wonder if it was an advantage for the author to be creating a textbook JUST with the syllabus as his only source. His decisions of what to include and what to leave out were neither diluted nor polluted by exam paper trends and other textbooks. He was simply creating a secondary source from a primary source – the syllabus itself.

It strikes me as perhaps a little embarassing that on a website that calls itself ‘Leaving Cert’, up to this moment there has not been a single mention of the syllabus – the foundation document upon which the entire senior cycle English curriculum is built; and the document surely that those who create the exam papers we’re all so obsessed with dissecting and analysing consult in order to create their tasks. For, after all, if we want to know what’s being assessed, we need to know what’s being taught, and if we want to know what’s being taught, we surely go back to the expectations for learners and ask ourselves, what exactly is it we want students to know and be able to do by the time they’ve completed their study of Leaving Cert English?

As an aside, obviously, some students will be better at doing these things than others, which is why we see different levels of achievement in students classwork and in their exam performance – we’re not all equally good footballers or musicians – so why would we all be equally good writers / thinkers / exam takers?

In any case, in order to get clarity on the question of what exactly is it we want students to know and be able to do by the time they’ve completed their study of Leaving Cert English, it’s back to the syllabus I go, to refresh what it is that I think I know and to see the gaps in my wisdom, once more.

Postscript –

christ, this self reflection mullarkey is exhausting!

Types of descriptive essay…

I received an email a few weeks back looking for clarification on desciptive essays. Specifically, what different approaches can students take when writing a descriptive essay?

When it came up as an option on Leaving Cert paper 1 recently, the marking scheme stated that students could adopt a “narrative or discursive approach“. Confusion often arises here because when we think “narrative” we think story – plot, characters, setting. And when we think “discursive” we think argument, opinion…

I’ve tried to tease out the ways personal essays, descriptive essays and short stories are related yet distinct in the past, with some limited success. Truth is, the ties that bind them are stronger than any scissors which seeks to cut them apart but with so many marks going for “clarity of purpose” [this includes responding to the topic as well as writing within the specified genre] it’s not surprising that both teachers and students seek clarity on what exactly defines each genre.

Here’s a graphic I created for this very purpose, which first appeared in the 2015 Irish Independent Written Word Supplement. You’ll notice that description forms the trunk, or backbone, and feeds into all three.

tree diagram.indd

Looking through a different lens this time, becuase of the email I received, I would say that a narrative descriptive essay has a lot in common with the short story and a discursive descriptive essay has more in common with the personal essay.

If a student or a teacher wanted a definition, I’d say:
Descriptive essay with narrative approach = descriptive in style, with a story to tell.
Descriptive essay with discursive approach = descriptive in style, with an issue to discuss.

What does this look like in practice?

Here are a few descriptive essays taking a narrative approach (I wrote the first one; junior cycle students wrote the other two):

However, a descriptive essay can also take a discursive approach, where the language is descriptive but an issue is also being discussed and the thoughts, opinions, knowledge and understanding of the writer come into play.

Have a look at this example which is extremely descriptive (it uses metaphor throughout) but which is also discussing an issue – bullying:

Why combine them?

Why not just have descriptive essays be descriptive and discursive essays be discursive?

Well, when an issue is being discussed it’s discursive [all paper two essays are discursive] but a writer can achieve wonderful aesthetic effects, and really engage the reader, if they combine discussion and description.

For me, it helps to remind myself that the boundaries between genres are fluid, and as long as a student embraces some elements of description if asked to write a descriptive essay, they won’t be penalised for the approach they take.

You might also want to take a look at this essay I wrote:

It’s a perfect example of the fluidity of genres.

It begins with a poem [hence, aesthetic use of language]
It goes on to discuss an event and an issue – use of ICT in education [hence, discursive]
It takes a descriptive approach throughout [using lists and metaphors and moment by moment description]
It ends by linking to a personal story – the death of my friend [hence, a personal essay with a narrative thread holding it together].

I just thought I’d post my reply to this query, as coming up with an answer really got me thinking in depth about how fluid the boundaries between genres can sometimes be… that’s not a bad thing, but it does make assessing with genre as one of the criteria that bit trickier. To my mind, as long as it’s clear that the student is controlling their use of genre conventions, rather than being oblivious to genre, then they should be ok. On the other hand, if a student comes across as having no awareness of genre, audience and register, that’s where problems arise…