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7 Essay Types at the O Level

Hello everyone! I’m Mr Ng Guo Liang, an English Language Curriculum Specialist and Teacher at Lil’ but Mighty.

When I was still teaching in a secondary school, I often had to address many questions — from both parents and students alike — about the different composition or essay types being tested in the O Level examinations; chief amongst which were:

– What composition or essay types will appear in the O Level examinations?
– What is the difference between a discursive essay and an argumentative essay?
– What is the difference between a recount and narrative essay?
– What is the difference between a descriptive and reflective essay?

There were (and are) of course, many other questions pertaining to composition writing for the O Level. The ones above however — those concerned with conceptualising the types of compositions — are the ones I have had to address the most. In this blog post therefore, I will list the various types of compositions that could be tested in the O Level English Language Paper 1, and attempt to very briefly describe each of them.

Before I continue, I must make a disclaimer. This post is not meant to be a comprehensive set of notes or guide detailing and explaining each individual essay type, their features, and nuances. I must make it very clear to my readers that what I write and elaborate on in this post should not be taken as the absolute and definitive word on the various essay types; we should note that different teachers, authors, publishers, and reference materials describe, explain, and conceptualise the various essay types differently (and very possibly with different terminology). That being said, the descriptions I’ll make in this post are meant only as a very brief explanation of the various types of essays so that you can better understand what they generally require students to address in the examination.

Should you wish to enquire about and discuss the individual essay types at a more comprehensive and deeper level than that provided in this post, you can do so with your English teacher in school, or contact us and we shall endeavour to address your queries!

In the O Level examination, the following essay types could be tested:

1. Narrative
2. Personal Recount
3. Descriptive
4. Reflective
5. Discursive
6. Argumentative
7. Two-Part Essays

1. Narrative Essays

7 Essay Types at the O Level

Narrative essays, as the name suggests, are essays that narrate a story. Most students reading this post should, by the end of primary school, be familiar with narrative essays as this is perhaps the essay type that they see the most in primary school and in creative writing classes. These essays are generally fictional in nature, and adhere to how narrative stories are developed in terms of their plots (beginning —> build up —> climax —> events that lead to a resolution —> a resolution —> and a coda/conclusion). Although these essays are generally fictional, that is not to say that students cannot use their own experiences to address the question. As long as the experience is relevant to the question, and features a rising plot which leads to a resolution, students are free to use their own experiences to inspire the narrative essay.

Sample questions:

– Freedom.
– A challenge.
– Write a story about kindness.
– ‘It was my proudest moment.’ Write a story based on this.

2. Personal Recount Essays

7 Essay Types at the O Level

Similar to a narrative essay, a personal recount essay retells a series of events that should be written in a linear and sequential manner. A personal recount essay is not to be confused with a narrative one. Narratives are often fictional in nature, and generally adhere to a rising plot development structure (most often with a climax and resolution). Personal recounts however, are not fictional in nature, and often relate to an event or experience which is meaningful or memorable to you (in other words, you should have personally experienced or witnessed this event or experience taking place.) Depending on the question asked, it can, of course, include a plot structure with elements similar to a narrative. However, unlike narrative essay writing, it does not require students to adhere strictly to a rising plot structure.

Personal recount essays, by nature of the questions given, typically require students to include an element of reflection. This usually focuses on the impact and significance that an event or experience have on them, and their thoughts, feelings, changing beliefs and attitudes as the series of events unfold. Such reflections should be interspersed and woven in and between the paragraphs of the essay. This is different for narratives, where reflections typically appear in the coda.

Sample questions:

– Write about an interesting day out with your family.
– Write about a mistake you regret making.
– Write about how you conquered one of your fears.
– Write about a task which turned out to be more difficult than you initially thought.
– Write about a time a great act of kindness took place.

3. Descriptive Essays

7 Essay Types at the O Level

Descriptive essays contain and emphasise descriptive elements. That is to say, such essays are written to appeal to the five senses, and should create vivid mental images for the reader when it is being read. This genre goes beyond describing physical attributes, but abstract ones as well (e.g. feelings, ideas, or a situation), and often involves reflecting on why something or someone is special or important. Unlike narrative essays, descriptive essays do not require a plot structure or storyline. This essay type most typically require students to write about and describe in detail one of the following topics:

1. An object
2. A person
3. A place
4. An event or incident
5. An experience

Sample questions:

– Describe an individual who has had a great influence on you.
– Describe a memorable celebration.
– Describe your typical day in school.
– Describe an object which you hold dear.

4. Reflective Essays

Reflective Essays

Essays of this genre require the students to reflect on themselves. Despite the reflective element, this is not to be confused with a personal recount. Personal recounts require students to recount and reflect on an event or experience which actually took place. Reflective essays however, are not about an event or experience, but are more about the students themselves.

Reflective essays typically require students to reflect on and make observations about their own personality and character. As such, it is more philosophical and insightful in nature.

Sample Questions:

– What would you consider to be your best and worst qualities?
– What is your idea of a perfect day?
– What are the type of books you enjoy reading?
– Write about some of the things you value most in life.

Expository Essays: Argumentative and Discursive Essays


The next two essay types fall under the category we call ‘expositions’. An expository essay is one that explores and considers in depth the different aspects and perspectives to a particular topic or subject matter. We typically see two types of expository essays appearing in the O Level examination: argumentative and discursive essays.

5. Argumentative Essays

Argumentative Essays

In an argumentative essay, students are typically given an issue, topic, or subject matter on which they are supposed to take a clear stand, and argue for that stand they have taken. This essay type is ‘biased’ in that regard, and the aim of the essay is to persuade the reader, with the strength of their points and arguments, that the stand taken in the essay is the right one.

1. The key features of an effective argumentative essay are:
2. There must be a very clear stand taken on the topic/subject matter given in the question.
3. Points/arguments given are supported by facts, statistics, observations or examples.
4. Points/arguments appeal to logic and emotion.
5. Using a persuasive tone and register.
6. Considering the opposing views and being able to rebut or refute them – this makes an argumentative essay the most persuasive and effective.

Sample questions:

–  ‘People can only be happy if they feel they are treated fairly.’ Do you agree (2019 O Level 1)
–  Do you agree with the view that students should never engage in part-time work?
–  ‘Social media has destroyed communication.’ What is your opinion?
–  Who has more problems to deal with — adults or youths?

6. Discursive Essays

7 Essay Types at the O Level

Like argumentative essays, a discursive essay focuses on and concerns itself with one particular topic or subject matter. Unlike the argumentative essay however, one is not required to take a stand on the subject matter. Rather than pushing for and validating only one particular perspective, students are required instead to discuss and explore the multiple perspectives regarding the subject matter in an unbiased manner.

What is important to note is that students can state a preference for a particular perspective or viewpoint at the end of the essay, but the tone and register of the essay should not be a persuasive one (i.e. the way the essay is written should not dominantly favour one particular perspective or viewpoint over others). It should be written in a manner which reflects that all the perspectives and viewpoints you discuss in the essay are equally valid (even if you do eventually state a preference for one at the end) — in essence, an effective discursive essay is one that achieves balance.

Sample questions:

–  What are the advantages and disadvantages of social media?
–  What are the qualities a good leader should have?
–  Discuss the implications of making home-based learning a permanent mode of education.
–  Discuss your views on discipline.

7. Two-Part Essays

7 Essay Types at the O Level

As the name suggests, two-part essays are essays which could comprise features and elements of two different essay types. What you will typically see is a question which explicitly has two distinct and separate parts students would have to address. For instance, the question would not only require students to describe something or someone, but also require them to reflect on that particular thing they are describing in the essay; such that the essay becomes a ‘mixed-genre’ essay.

For two-part essays, students need to ensure that they address both parts of the question, and do not make the common mistake of devoting too much time and too many words to the first half of the question and neglecting the second half of the question.

Sample questions:

– Write about a mistake you regret making. What lessons did you learn from it?
– Describe an individual who has had a great influence on you. Why is this person so special to you?
– Describe an object which you hold dear. Why is this object so important to you?
– Write about a time you were misunderstood by others. How did you feel?

This brings us to the end of this blog post. Although there is much more to the respective essay types regarding their features and styles, I hope that I have managed to provide you with brief but lucid explanations that will make it a little easier for you to understand the various essay types that could be tested in the O Level.

Until my next post, and on behalf of the Lil’ but Mighty family, stay happy, stay safe, and stay healthy!

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mr ng
Mr. Ng

Mr Ng firmly believes that there is a strong correlation between effort and eventual success, and that finding success in English is something that is attainable by all of his students regardless of their background and starting point. He has a strong love and passion for the language and hopes to inspire that same passion in his students through his lessons. That being said, he looks forward to bringing out the best in his students and guiding them to fulfil the potential they all have.

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