English Précis & Composition Paper, The Riddle of the Sphinx?

English Precis and Composition Paper

“Sir I got 700+ marks in other subjects but failed English Précis & Composition in my previous attempt. This time again, I have failed this very paper. I really don’t know what to do about this paper.”

These words of distraught are not unfamiliar to those who teach English to CSS aspirants. We come across many students who, despite being very good in written as well as spoken English, fail English Précis and Composition paper. Failing to find an appropriate answer, most teachers just try to hearten their students by saying: “Keep working hard, Insha Allah you will pass it next time.”

Ironically enough, the result of this paper comes as a surprise, not only for many of the failing candidates but also for the successful ones who wonder how they got through.

There is no denying the fact that the declining educational standard is one of the biggest causes for this dismal situation; however, putting the blame for this entire fiasco on only candidates’ poor performance would be unfair. The contents of the question paper definitely have something to do with the continuously disappointing results. Even a cursory look at past papers will expose a number of grey areas. A typical Précis and Composition question paper appears more like a puzzle, than a test. Instead of gauging their proficiency in the use of English language, it actually tests their nerves.

A good question paper, in the first place, must be realistic — having validity and reliability. Secondly, it should contain no ambiguity at all. Instead of asking candidates to solve ‘jigsaw puzzles,’ the examiners, through simple and easily comprehensible questions, must give them a fair chance to show their skills. It’s not an uncommon observation that even the candidates having great command over English language fail the paper. This makes the efficacy of the question papers questionable.

As a matter of fact, grammar is a tool for learning the language; it’s not substantive knowledge in itself. Admittedly, the candidates must have the ability to express themselves in correct English but what examiners often forget is that the candidates are not, at all, supposed to be grammarians, able to untangle the intricacies of the language. Moreover, a candidate’s ability to write grammatically—correct sentences can be judged in exercises like précis writing, comprehension, translation, and short essays. Demanding too much attention to grammar seems unwarranted.

Points to ponder

  1. Précis writing and comprehension, no doubt, are very useful exercises but the passages should be selected keeping in view the intellectual level of majority candidates. Précising is a challenging task even if the given passage happens to be simple. Writing a précis must not be a test of vocabulary.
  2. The legitimacy of Synonyms & Antonyms (MCQs) in Précis and Composition paper is debatable. As compared to MCQs, fill in the blanks and open-ended questions make a better option.
  3. Finding synonyms for words is a tricky business as there is no such thing like a perfect synonym for a word. Each word has a specific use in a specific context and cannot be a perfect substitute for a word. Only a professional writer can safely replace a word with an appropriate synonym, without changing the sense of the sentence. Most words can be used in more than one sense, each requiring a different synonym.
  4. Conversion of direct into indirect narration and active into passive voice requires separate training. In normal circumstances, students do this instinctively, without consciously applying rules.
  5. The examiners must be careful while selecting the passage for translation into English. Translation is a highly specialized art. Literary texts are a challenge even for the professional translators, let alone the ordinary university graduates. The passages that are too idiomatic or have a predominant cultural and vernacular tone must not be selected for translation.
  6. The most agonizing item for the candidates is that of analogies. This exercise might have some effectiveness in tests like GRE and SAT, but including it in CSS English paper has little justification. To add insult to injury, such difficult words are selected that can be unfamiliar even to the native speakers. Aren’t the examiners encouraging the candidates to resort to guesswork and conjecturing by including archaic and old-fashioned words?
  7. The correction part of the paper is also an awkward way to judge a candidate’s linguistic ability. Sometimes the errors are arbitrarily inserted in the sentences without any logic. Care must be taken in the choice of incorrect sentences so that only common errors made by the second language learners are put to test.

Admitted that question papers have to be tough and demanding, but this can be done in a more brainy way. It is possible to design a paper that looks simple but is solvable only to those who have studied a lot. It must be kept in mind that English is a compulsory subject and failure by even one mark means getting out of the race for at least a year.

FPSC’s instruction manual for test-makers clearly states that the question paper should contain vocabulary of ‘moderate standard’. But the actual papers tell a different story. Quarters concerned must take stock of the situation and tailor the paper as per the policy stated in the revised syllabus for this very paper. Measuring skills like translation, grammar, précis writing, comprehension, finding analogous pairs of words, idioms, ability to convert active voice to passive voice, direct narration to indirect narration in one go seems an unrealistic ‘ask’.

It’s a waste of resources and energy that candidates, who have worked hard on other subjects, are disqualified just because they do not know the nitty-gritty of English grammar.

Another risk involved is that we may end up in throwing talented candidates out of the competition. An untenable argument put forth by some to justify the weirdness of the question papers is that these examinations are meant to shortlist the candidates. But, this makes it all the more essential that question papers are designed judiciously. In all fairness, candidates should be eliminated only for the right reasons.

These question papers remind one of a Greek play ‘Oedipus Rex’ in which the people of Thebes are threatened by the Sphinx (mythicized as a treacherous and merciless monster). It propounds a riddle about the three ages of man, killing all those who fail to solve it.

Rule of thumb is simple: if you wish to ensure legitimacy of the examination, keep things simple. The questions asked in a simple, unpretentious way will be more challenging for the candidates.

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