HKDSE English exam: tips on how to ace the writing assessment

  • Make sure to choose the right tone and watch out for common mistakes, such as subject pronouns.
  • Review formats such as letters to the editor, proposals, reports, personal letters, speeches and business/formal letters.
Wong Tsui-kai |

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Paper 2 of the English exam counts for 25 per cent of your grade - here's how you can do well on it!

The writing portion of the English HKDSE exam, Paper 2, counts for a full 25 per cent of the entire grade. Young Post spoke to Patrick Chan of Beacon College, Alan Chan of King’s Glory Education and Eric So from Modern Education for their tips and tricks on writing well.

One common point that all three tutors emphasise is to be aware of the tone you need to take and the target audience of the piece of writing. 

They all say you need to adjust your level of formality depending on the purpose of the piece. In addition, you also need to keep the tone consistent through the text. 

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For example, a report or proposal would require a formal tone, while a personal letter would be casual, and a speech is somewhere in the middle.

Alan Chan suggests revising six formats: letters to the editor, proposals, reports, personal letters, speeches and business/formal letters. “Those six are high-value topics and knowing them will help in other papers as well, such as the listening exam,” he says.

“Some students think there is no point revising for the writing paper because you can’t improve. I think it is the best paper to study for improvement. You can study the format.”

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Remembering who you are writing for is also essential. “For example, writing for the school magazine is not the same as giving a formal speech. That would dictate whether you write about pop culture or refer to current affairs,” he says. 

In Part B, students must answer one of eight questions, each based on one of the three (or more) elective modules they studied. But Chan says to consider all the questions, and not just those covering “your” modules. 

“Don’t limit yourself. Look at all of the options. It’s not about which one you feel comfortable doing, it’s about getting a good grade.”

Remember who you're writing for: should your tone be formal or informal?So lists several common mistakes students make in their exams, calling them “old problems”. These are: subject pronouns – he, she, it – and pluralisation; parts of speech: nouns, verbs and adjectives; writing run-on sentences, and using too many commas. 

“Unlike in Chinese, you also need to use conjunctions, ” he says. 

So says it is also very important to write content that matches the question. “For example, in 2019, it was listed very clearly what you had to do. If it says ‘explain’ or ‘elaborate’, make sure you do that.” 

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Patrick Chan advises students to spend 50 minutes on Part A and 70 minutes on Part B. “Remember this includes proofreading,” he adds.“You must read the questions carefully and look at keywords to understand your role and the purpose of the writing,” Chan says. “Speeches are quite likely this year.”

Using a speech given by the chairman of a school’s parent-teacher association as an example, he explains the key things to keep in mind.

“First is your role. You are a parent giving a speech to other parents, not a student or teacher, so use that tone. Give yourself a role, as a father or mother of children, to make it more convincing.”

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A good speech is interactive, he says, not like a letter. “You can use rhetorical questions and pretend you are observing the response of the audience,” he advises. “For example, you can say ‘I see X in the audience’, where ‘X’ would be most of you nodding or shaking your heads or raising your hands.” 

A more formal piece of writing like an opinion piece or a proposal will require more formal word choices. Chan suggests some useful phrases to remember for formal writing are “it is suggested that”, “it is proposed that”, or “with a view to”.

Finally, check your spelling!