Moving from primary to secondary English can be fearful for many. You may have struggled writing a 150-word composition or find yourself tongue-tied during oral exams. Or, you may have enjoyed English lessons but cannot seem to do well in the exams. No matter how you performed in the English language at primary school, it is not the final scorecard. You can continue to grow in your language abilities in secondary school (and hopefully in your love for the language!), and there are steps that you can take to make that journey a little smoother.

What are some new and potentially challenging aspects of secondary school English?

And how can you prepare yourself well for them?

The challenging aspects of secondary school English

1. Writing more engaging narratives

You will mainly write narratives (or stories) at Secondary 1, before proceeding to the more challenging expository essay. While you have pictures and prompts to guide you along in your composition at primary school, these are not present at secondary level. These essays are also greater in length, but they are meant to give you space to develop your storyline and captivate your reader through vivid descriptions.

You should strive to:

a) Develop more sophisticated storylines, which includes introducing the problem or conflict, building tension towards the climax and resolving the problem meaningfully.

How to prepare:

A key part is learning to build suspense in your story. For example, when recounting a misunderstanding with a friend, show how multiple incidents, and not just one, worsened the conflict. How did these then lead to a major fallout (climax)? As you end the story, think about how the conflict was gradually resolved (not abruptly with say, an apology and almost immediate reconciliation). There could still be some bitterness to this day.


If it is possible, speaking from personal experience helps make the story more realistic and convincing!

b) Use more vivid descriptions. The more novel and vibrant your descriptions, the more it draws your reader into the world of your story.

How to prepare:

Start building your vocabulary through reading widely. The next time you pick up a novel, take down new words and interesting expressions. Practise using your newfound vocabulary, or even writing a paragraph or short story (if you are up for the challenge).

c) Think of a meaningful closing, in particular the ‘moral’ or the lesson learnt. This helps your reader to reflect on what they just read.

How to prepare:

Avoid a clichéd or overused ‘moral of the story’, but share an insight or a lesson learnt from the incident. A heartfelt, thought-provoking one helps your reader to linger on what you wrote (that’s quite an achievement!).


Let’s take an essay topic you might encounter in Secondary 1.

Write about a time when you caused great disappointment to a person. What did you do about the situation? (O-Level Paper 1, 2017)

Though prompts and pictures are not available, you can still identify the topic / theme easily — the key words “caused great disappointment”. Notice that it is not just a disappointment, but an especially significant one as signalled by the word “great”. This means you will need to be build up the tension to enable the reader to feel the weight of the disappointment (refer to bullet point 1 above). Also, think about who is likely to be most hurt or let down by you.

Here are some suggested paragraphs that focuses on building up the disappointment through a series of events:

[Context: Writer is having a gathering at her place with new friends from Secondary 1. A primary school friend contacts her for a catch-up, but is seemingly ignored.]


It was the third notification in a day, but I was in the midst of preparing for the movie marathon. All of this term’s assessments were over and we couldn’t wait to celebrate.

Why can’t she just wait for my reply? She never used to bug me like that, or send multiple messages. Is it really that urgent? Argh.

“Ok” I replied, without sparing another look at the message, before carrying on flipping through my selection of Netflix shows. I then went on to bake a chocolate cake, set the table and made sure all was in order. I needed to be the best host my newfound friends in Secondary 1 could expect. All this I did, leaving my phone unattended.

The movie night was so thrilling, as we went from fantasy to comedy and ended off the night with a crime thriller. I was so engrossed that I didn’t hear my phone buzzing repeatedly.

As I sank down in my sofa after the night ended, I picked up my phone and realised it was heavy with 10 unread messages and 23 missed calls. “Gosh, Sarah!” I had long forgotten about her with all that frenzy. Were we supposed to meet? Did I forget to say something? Is there a miscommunication…

Suddenly, the doorbell pierced my thoughts. And there Sarah was, standing at my door. “For you,” she murmured, holding out a crumpled box. “I couldn’t reach you so I waited. Did you see my messages? Why didn’t you take my calls? Have you forgotten…”

Notice that the first event was the writer’s slipshod reply of ‘ok’ and not responding to her friend’s calls or messages. Suspense is also built by showing how all her friend’s attempts at contacting her were missed. This causes potential misunderstanding and makes the friend think that the writer was ignoring her, setting the stage for disappointment. Think: How would you continue the story to bring it to a climax? What would the writer do or say that would further disappoint her friend?

2. Adopting varying tones in writing

The situational writing component will remain, but you will have to write for a wider range of purposes. This includes writing to persuade (e.g. proposals, speeches), and writing to enthuse or entertain (e.g. feature articles, brochures). This requires you to adopt different tones and levels of politeness, depending on who you are addressing. How would you write to your school Principal, and how does that differ from a speech given to your schoolmates?

How to prepare:

Start by watching well-known speeches by Steve Jobs or Martin Luther King (the famous “I Have a Dream”). Notice what makes you sit up or ponder on, and what makes their speech so captivating. You don’t have to go so deep as to analyse their speeches, but exposing yourself to them will give you some inspiration!

If you’re interested in articles or brochures, go to travel or tourism articles — and learn how to inject excitement into your writing.

3. Appreciating effects of language use

Being able to understand the use of language is important for the comprehension paper (Paper 2). This includes appreciating metaphors, irony and imagery, and how they evoke a certain atmosphere or feeling in the reader. You will have had a taste of this when analysing visual text at primary school, and learning about the impact that a certain word or expression has on readers. At secondary level, you will need to understand them in the context of the passage and articulate it in your answers. But fret not, this skill of explaining concisely and precisely is one you will develop through your years in secondary school.

How to prepare:

Get a head start by reading more narratives and descriptive writing, and think about how the author makes his or her writing so moving, intriguing or sorrowful. Ask yourself, what words or expressions were used? Would you have alternative words or phrases, and how would that effect differ?

4. Engaging on a variety of topics

This is beneficial especially in the Spoken Interaction component of the oral exam. The focus will shift from merely discussing the picture stimulus itself, to engaging on topics related to the picture and the passage. Questions are usually about: (i) your personal experience and (ii) your standpoint on issues like animal conservation or technology. This means you will need to be able to think on your feet and develop a response that is well supported and coherent.

How to prepare:

Reading the newspapers regularly cannot be emphasised enough when it comes to keeping up with current affairs. Add some non-fiction reading to your ‘fiction diet’, if that is the case. If you don’t have a physical copy of the papers, access the online versions of Today and Channel News Asia for free. These news agencies are also active on social media so you can follow them on Instagram or Telegram to get regular updates.

Tip: Read ‘The Big Read’, ‘Commentary’ or ‘CNA Insider’ sections which delve deep into a particular issue and usually consolidates the main discussion points. ‘CNA Insider’ also comes with video clips which you can access on CNA’s social media.

Secondary English may present a fresh set of challenges as detailed above, but there are concrete steps you can take to prepare yourself. Pick one of the above 4 areas (or a sub-area for #1) to work on first. Once you have made some progress, move on to other areas. Keep taking stock of where you are, and believe that you can improve your English with the right strategies!

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2024 Bukit Timah Branch Secondary English Tuition Timetable

LevelClass TypeDayTime
S1All Components ClassSAT5 pm to 7 pm