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Developing ideas in essays has always been one of the common problems among average and weak ESL learners. Their inability to elaborate the content points given (either in SPM Directed Writing or PT3 Guided Composition) in the essay question is not really due to their low proficiency level of English but I believe, it is mainly due to these two issues; their incompetence to THINK of the relevant details and their inability to think FAST on their own in examinations. Based on my experience of teaching English for more than 20 years, this phenomenon is true in most weak classrooms. So, what can English teachers do to address these issues? How can ESL teachers enhance their ability to develop ideas in essays effectively?

To address the issues, I developed a strategy in 2014 which I named S-CODE (Structured Content and Details for Directed Writing) and implemented it among my weak and average SPM learners. I carried out an action research. A pre-test was conducted before the intervention strategy was implemented. After several lessons on Directed Writing using S-CODE, a post-test was conducted and the results showed improvement in term of learners' ability to develop ideas. Gradually, they were able to provide relevant details and the time taken to write their elaboration was reduced.

Here are some practical tips for teachers in implementing S-CODE:

  1. Teacher must revise all the wh-questions with the weak learners. They must understand the meaning of each wh-question.

  2. The wh-questions can be categorised into two categories; the easy and the challenging wh-questions. Please highlight to the weak learners to use only the easy wh-questions.

  3. Easy wh-questions: WHEN? (Answer: time/day/week/month/year), WHO? (who participated? Who gave the speech), WHERE? (hall/canteen/resort), WHAT? (what was your feeling? What did you feel? What did you see?)

  4. Challenging wh-questions: WHY? (Why Sunday? Why only Form 5 students? Why Langkawi Island?), HOW? (How the tent was set up? How the winners were chosen? How was the gotong royong held?). However, HOW can also be an easy question if they ask "How many teachers joined the trip?" or "How did you feel?"

  5. Please take note that for weak learners, they may not have to elaborate every single content point. Certain content points such as the date, fee and number of participants may not require any elaboration. They only need to elaborate what is easy for them.

  6. Teacher must equip their weak learners with relevant adjectives to help them elaborate fast. These common words should be given to them; describing people (such as smart, famous, handsome), events/ programmes /activities (such as successful, grand, interesting), places (such as peaceful, beautiful, crowded) and feelings (such as happy, nervous, worried).

In short, the average and weak learners, both the SPM as well as PT3 candidates, need the S-CODE and wh-questions as their tools to elaborate ideas in essays. They are lucky if they have teachers who provide them with such THINKING tools. I am NOT claiming my S-CODE is the best. I am positive, other teachers also have their own strategies and perhaps, theirs are much better than mine. I am just sharing my S-CODE here with the hope that it gives insights to some English teachers out there that is is possible to develop ideas among weak and average learners.

We can also promote the 4Cs of the 21st Century when we implement S-CODE. Thinking of the relevant details promotes creativity. Average and weak learners can be creative too with their ideas! Through collaborative learning, our learners can be asked to compare and contrast their details and choose the best. In doing so, collaboration, critical thinking and communication can be promoted. Other than that, volunteers can be asked to share their details with the class and other learners are required to evaluate the suitability of the details and if possible, justify their evaluation. Again, this activity will promote the 4Cs; creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

if you are keen to apply S-CODE, please download it here and edit it as you wish. I hope your learners will benefit and be able to improve on their development of ideas. All the best! Hopefully, the inputs and tips shared here will help English teachers address the issues mentioned above; the average and weak learners' inability to THINK and their inability to THINK FAST. In shaa Allah.

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