AN ENGLISH essay competition organised by the Open society foundation (OSF) NGO in Slovak high schools will celebrate its 10th birthday in 2004.
OSF created the program in cooperation with the Slovak association of teachers of English and the British Council to encourage students to improve their English language and writing skills as well as to support talented and creative students.
"I suppose that the competition is popular. Almost every second high school in Slovakia applies to take part in it. The number of schools, students, and essays rises every year.
"There are probably many reasons why teachers and students like it, although for both of them it is extra work," said Elena Smolinská, OSF program manager.
In the first run of the annual English essay competition there were 45 entries, while last year 815 students submitted their essays. The conditions of the competition have become stricter during the time in-between.
In 1994, students wrote their works at home and students were given only one topic. Last year,they were supposed to write their essay at school in 120 minutes. Their teachers revealed three topics from which students picked only one, just before they start writing.
Teachers are not allowed to help their students while they are writing, but using dictionaries is not forbidden.
"We tried to make the competition similar to the new form of high school exit exams in the English language. The difference is that in the exams students cannot use dictionaries," Smolinská said.
The rising number of essays made OSF limit the number of student works each school could submit to 12.
A commission composed of English native speakers and Slovak lecturers and teachers assess the essays. "I usually address people that are also familiar with literature and the arts, for example, Paul McCullough who writes for Friendship [a Slovak magazine in English for schools] and Jonathan Gresty, who wrote his own play," explained Smolinská.
The main criteria for a good English essay are correct essay structure, vocabulary, and grammar, and, of course, originality. According to Smolinská, the knowledge of Slovak students and their English language ability is improving every year, although the level can vary from excellent to quite poor.
"I understand that there are schools where about 30 students write an essay from which a teacher chooses 12.
And then there are smaller schools where five or six young people apply and a teacher sends all of them," she said.
Statistics show that usually most of the students taking part in the competition are from western, then eastern, and finally central Slovakia.
"And this, I think, also reflects the level of English language knowledge. But as for winners, it can be anyone who has an original and a good essay," added Smolinská.
The competition organizers prepare the essay topics in cooperation with lecturers.
Usually, students can choose a personal topic where they have space to express their emotions or a current social theme, sometimes provoking discussions even among adults.
Here are some topics from previous years: America - peacemaker or troublemaker?, how important is music in your life?, marijuana - should it be legal?, and the Olympics are no longer about games but about business.
"In general, students tend to choose emotional topics. Last year however, most students decided to write about music, but the majority of the best works were among those about America," said Smolinská.
The competition gives students a unique chance to test their knowledge of the English language.
Apart from the prizes, which are usually English books, dictionaries, etc., winning competitors can also acquire an important note in their curriculum vitae. "Some have told me that it helps in entrance applications for universities," the manager said.
The most successful works are published in a volume of essays issued by OSF every three years. "And those little books are now all over the world. We send them to almost all our colleagues working in NGOs associated with the Soros foundation and other institutions," Smolinská said.
8. Dec 2003 at 0:00 | Marta Ďurianová