15 Reasons Why Students Fail in Essay and Letter Writing - Stephen Wholesome


The education sector is massively changing. The performance of students in examinations is shamefully deteriorating. The number of websites supplying answers to students before they write their examinations is rising by the day. Because of temporary gains, we are watering down the value of education in our country.

But I believe there are still students out there who are not given to examination malpractices. They understand that the only way to have good grades is to study their books and do excellently well in their examinations.

I also believe that some teachers and parents will never withstand their students or children getting involved in exam malpractices.

This article is meant for such students, teachers and parents.

After more than twelve years of teaching the English Language and studying senior secondary school students, I have come to understand some of the most important reasons why students fail in their letter and essay writing.

There are many reasons for students’ failure in Essay and Letter Writing today. And this article is set to discuss these reasons and how parents and teachers can help students to get back on their feet.

External Factors

1. Lack of Good Preparations

2. Poor English Language Background

3. Poor Writing Skills

4. Lack of Right Information

5. Not Studying the Past Questions

6. Encouragement of Exam Malpractices

7. Lack of Motivation

8. Peer Pressure

Internal Factors

9. Lack of Good Introduction

10. Legibility

11. Relevancy.

12. Not Paying Attention to Details

13. Time Management

14. Grammatical Inconsistencies

15. Punctuations and Spellings

Final Thought

But before I continue further, I want to point out that this article is categorised into two groups. Some factors affect students in their essay writing but are not about writing exactly. I call these external factors.

These are circumstances that surround students’ failure in their essay writing, which are not exactly about what’s happening during the examination. These factors deal essentially with students’ preparation or lack of it before their examination.

The second category includes factors that have to do with the writing exactly in the examination room. I call these Internal Factors that affect students’ success in their essay writing or letter writing.  

Now let’s begin with the external factors.

External Factors

1. Lack of Good Preparations

A female student reading her book

One of the most crucial reasons why students fail in their essay and letter writing is lack of preparation.

Most students don’t start preparing for SSCE until they’re in their final year and until the final examination is close.

You see students running around to tutorial classes just about a month before their examinations trying to shovel all the topics in the English Language into their brains before the exam day arrives.

But the skills of writing are not something you build in just a month or two. You build it over the years.

Some people have been training themselves to write from a young age and as they grow up, they keep discovering how much they still have to learn.

Of course, essay writing does not require understanding all the rules of writing and being perfect at it. But understanding the rudiments of writing will go a long way in helping any student fly high in their essay or letter writing.

Now, if you’re an English Language teacher, you certainly know that the examiner has been trained to catch the tiniest errors in every essay they read and mark, so the more errors your students make (spellings, concord/agreement, punctuations and more) the less their grades become.

But with years of practice, students can perfect all of these and by the time they’re writing their examinations, they will have minimal or no errors to deal with.

2. Poor English Language Background

I have noticed over the years that the level of improvement a student experiences in their writing can be fast-tracked or slowed down because of their background and the home they came from. But no matter what a student’s background is, he or she can improve.

It just might take a while.

Many students have made me proud as an English Language tutor over the years, improving dramatically as I began to teach them.

When I started teaching Iben (not the real name) together with his colleagues, his essay was so poor that it was difficult to read. But he was only one among other students that had a similar challenge.

All I needed to do was to keep introducing new styles of teaching to them until I made sure I understood their weakness and how to help them improve.

What did I do?

I gave them more work to do, more essays and letters to write. The more they wrote, the better they became and before long, their writings started improving.

By the end of six months, they had all experienced different levels of improvement. But Iben blew my mind.

He started writing so well that I almost doubted if the changes I was seeing in him just started occurring. It was as if he had been writing beautifully well long before I met him. But I discovered that it was my patience with him and the daily practice that helped him improve.

Now, you don’t have to teach students for six months for them to perfect their essay writing skills. But considering the background of these students, I understood that they needed enough time and was patient with them until they started showing improvements.

Even with that, not everyone had improved. Some had slow improvements in their essay writing and it took me a long time to get such to catch up. And they did catch up.

But we were able to achieve that because I started teaching them while they were in SS2 and they still had more than a year to spend in school before their final examination.

Interestingly, I started teaching another set of students around the same time. They were in SS3 and were just about three months into their WAEC examination.

I’m telling you the absolute truth. These students believed they’d gone far in life and didn’t need anyone to teach them anything anymore. Of course, they knew that they didn’t know anything, but they weren’t interested in learning.

They were noncommittal and apathetic to anything learning and were just having fun around even when their exam was very close. They had difficulties paying attention whenever I was teaching them. Sometimes, some of them would be outside pressing their phones while I would be in the classroom teaching the others who seemed to be more serious.

Now, I believe you must have guessed why these students behaved as such.

Let me remind you, they didn’t know anything. They weren’t reading their books but they were confident about their forthcoming examination.

If by now you can’t guess why they were behaving that way, you will understand when you read the sixth point in this list.

3. Poor Writing Skills

A student working on the computer

There’s a difference between understanding the English Language as a speaker and being able to write it well. Not everyone that can speak fluently can write well and vice versa.

Many students today grow up in a home where parents speak the English Language to them. This helps them in being able to express themselves in correct English to a good extent.

But not all students can express themselves beautifully well when it comes to writing. There are many reasons for this.

Primarily, writing is a skill different from speaking. Hence, it must be learned. And this applies to everyone, not students alone.

But a student’s main job is to go to school and learn, isn’t it? After all, that is what their parents are paying for. So, it won’t be too much to expect them to perform better in their writing just as they do in their speaking.

Sometimes, it baffles me that students have been in secondary school for more than four years and find it difficult to read and write. And then you start wondering what they’ve been doing since they got to the school. How they passed from JSS 1 to 2, 3 and then to the senior class.

Ask students in this category a simple question. Ask them to define adverb or adjective and you hear a lot of strange definitions. Ask them to recognise the nouns, verbs or pronouns in a sentence and they can’t.

I’ve met a lot of students at this level and have been privileged to help reshape their writing direction. But just as I mentioned earlier, sometimes, it is more difficult to do that with those in SS3 who are already preparing for the final examination. At that stage, it seems as if they’re already overwhelmed and they just need to write the examination and leave.

But students must be well-informed that High School is not a place to just prepare for the WAEC or NECO examinations. It is a place to build the foundation for their future, to determine what their future will be like and what direction they will go.

Being serious in school should not be about passing an examination. It should be about understanding the fact that life has a lot of examinations for them, of which they must always try their best and strive to excel.

Developing your writing skills as an individual is one of these examinations. And I use that metaphorically. You will always need your writing skills in every field you are in, even as an adult professional.

4. Lack of Right Information

Are you well-informed?

About twenty years ago, when I was still an SS3 student preparing for my SSCE, I didn’t understand what it meant to pass ‘WAEC’. I didn’t understand what it meant to study and do well in an external examination.

There were many reasons for this, which I wouldn’t bother to delve into here.

But immediately after my SSCE, my eyes opened. It was a lesson I learned the hard way. But it wasn’t too late. In fact, I was just starting. So, I started studying, reading all I should have read as a student.

I studied to the extent that I started reasoning as a teacher of the English Language. And it wasn’t long before I started teaching Senior Secondary School Students, preparing them for their SSCE examination.

That was what drove me to go and study English Language and Literary Studies at the university. I told myself, ‘If this thing is my strength, why don’t I pursue it as a course?’ And that was what I did, even though it took me a while before I could achieve it.

Now, as a long-time and experienced English Language teacher, I’ve discovered that many students fall into this same category I was when I was in school then. They don’t understand what lies ahead of them after school, so they’re not motivated to study. They only live in the moment, gist around, go out with friends and have fun.

You would think this is caused by a lack of motivation in the students. But that’s just partly true. Sometimes, it is a lack of motivation, which I will talk about in a moment. But at other times, it is because students simply lack the right information.

Students sometimes don’t understand why they should study hard, what is at stake when they don’t study and what will happen if they don’t study.

Of course, the understanding lives in their subconscious. But they hardly ever see the reality of it. All they want to do is to live in the moment.

If you notice, even as adults we love to live in our comfort zone. It is not easy to put ourselves in a situation of hardship and inconvenience. We only do that because we understand that something is at stake. We go to work whether we like it or not and that’s because we understand what’s at stake if we don’t.

For students, life is a bit softer and more lenient. Someone else is feeding them and paying for their school fees.

Unless someone gives them the right information, or unless they learn it by studying their parents, listening to people speak about why one needs to work hard, or unless some of this information is incorporated into their curriculum, they may not understand really why they should study hard.

Even though your job as an English Language tutor is to teach your students how to improve their skills in the language, it is more than that. Let them understand what’s at stake if they don’t study well. Then remind them of this fact again and again.

Who knows, the right information can encourage them to become more studious and help them in the long run.

5. Not Studying Past Questions

Waec English past questions and answers

One of the best ways to improve your essay and letter writing skills as a student is to read your past questions from beginning to end.

The past questions series should be the friend of every student as soon as they get to the senior class. Apart from helping you to master the questions and answers, they help students get familiar with the format of the external examination.

Imagine that from SS1, you practice an essay writing or letter writing question per week, do you know how many essays you will have written by the time you’re in SS3?

Apart from practising with past questions, you can also help yourself by reading the letter and essay writing answers recorded in the series. The more you do that, the more you allow the answers to sink into your brain. And that presents multiple ways of possibilities for you to answer different questions you may get in any examination.  

I remember bragging to some students about how I used to revel in reading the comprehension passages in the English Language Series. I read the passages so much that I still remember some of the stories in those comprehension passages today.

I have noticed that the problem with students is not about having books. It is about having books and not reading them.

Sometimes, as I start teaching a group of students, I ask myself how they ever got to SS3 without being able to present their thought in simple written English.

What is more disheartening is that while I’m teaching them, they will proudly bring out the books they have on English Grammar, Oral English, how to answer comprehension questions or how to write an essay. But they can’t defend anything that’s written in the books.

And then I would go ahead to encourage them about the need for reading books beyond just owning them.

If you’re still in your first or second year in Senior Secondary School, you still have enough time to start practising and hone your essay writing skills long before your final examination gets near.

This is not intended to scare you about how difficult essay and letter writing can be. It is an attempt to get you to see reasons why you should take it seriously and start practising long before your final exams get close.

6. Encouragement of Exam Malpractices

student cheating during examination

A moment ago, I mentioned a case study of a group of SS3 students that were apathetic to learning when I was teaching them.

They were preparing for their SSCE exam, right? But they were so bold about the upcoming examination even though they knew nothing and were aware of that fact.

One of the reasons why students don’t take studying seriously anymore today is the encouragement of malpractices. Imagine SS1 students seeing how their seniors are contributing money for ‘expo’ before their examination. Will they want to study anymore?

Students often believe that they’re in high school to pass ‘WAEC’. And if they discover that they don’t have to study to pass it, then their interest wanes. 

But sod’s law always applies to situations like this, isn’t it? That things don’t always work out the way we expect because ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong.’

Sometimes, students get to the examination room and find out that there’s no opportunity to carry out exam malpractices. And when that happens, they have nothing to write.

But even if they are allowed to, copying and pasting in an examination is more difficult in essay writing or letter writing than in other subjects.

As an English Language teacher, when I’m marking students’ essays and the content of the 25th paper I’m marking is similar to the content of the 1st essay I marked, I would know.

Now imagine the situation where about 50 students in an examination room have to copy just one or two essays. Won’t it be too easy for the examiner to find out that a serious ‘dubbing’ had taken place in that examination room?

Examination malpractice is very damaging to the future of any country. But it is saddening that both teachers and parents now encourage it in students today.

If we think deeply about it, though, we will realise that every time we encourage students to engage in malpractices, we are encouraging them to forget quality and pursue a less-than-average lifestyle. We’re inculcating a mediocre mindset in them. We’re teaching them that hard work is not important. We’re telling them that what is more important is getting results by any means, whether shady or genuine.

Why students fail in letter and essay writing - Exam malpractices - image quote

The more students like this we have, the more we put the future of our country in jeopardy.

If we have fewer occurrences of malpractices with fewer teachers and parents supporting it, students will have no choice but to study hard. That’s because they know that there is no other way.

I tell students always that the only help I can offer them is in the classroom. I don’t help students in the examination room.

But most of the time they just nod and expect me to move on. And that’s because they know that if I choose not to help them with their examination, someone else will be willing to.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. And until as many students, teachers and parents understand this, failure in examinations may keep increasing by the day. 

7. Lack of Motivation

Apart from the fact that students are not well informed, students fail in essay writing sometimes because they lack the motivation to write and do well in essay writing.

Many students prefer to do anything else besides studying or paying attention in class. Of course, many things account for this. The use of mobile phones has reduced the level of students’ attention to learning. Students now prefer to stay on their phones than study.

Students pressing their phones

Regarding this, a lot of studies, suggestions and conclusions have come up, such as bringing educational resources to students through mobile phones. All these are great ideas and can be helpful for students to study. It has also encouraged some schools to allow students to use mobile phones in the classroom.

But the problem with such a solution is that it is only temporary. It doesn’t deal with the real problem, which is addiction.

We can’t continue raising students who are all about mobile phones alone and nothing else.

Reasons why students fail in essay and letter writing - students and mobile phones - image quotes

There can be times for students to study on their phones or with their phones. But it shouldn’t be all the time.

Students should be trained to live without their phones. They should be motivated to study through other means available such as reading their notebooks and textbooks.

There are many ways to motivate students to study. One example is to involve them in the teaching process by asking them to discuss what they learned while studying alone. Another is to help them set short-term achievable goals that can impress them when they achieve and encourage them to want to try again.

Essentially, English Language teachers should always look for different ways to motivate their students to study and write essays until the students become more familiar with it to the extent that there’s almost no challenge for them anymore.

8. Peer Pressure

Some students came from a good home and are well taught to prioritise their education. But one way or the other, they find themselves being friends with others who are not so keen on studying.

When I was in primary school, my mom would wake up early to dress me up so I could get to school early.

My school was about a kilometre from my house and I used to trek there alone, which I didn’t like. Beside my house was a senior colleague whom I liked to go to school with. But he always woke up late, thereby getting to school late.

But I didn’t mind. After my mom had gotten me ready and sent me away to school, I would enter this guy’s house and wait for him until he was ready for school. Then we would get to school and be punished together for coming late.

This went on for quite a while. I neither minded getting to school late nor being punished, as long as I went to school with him.

But one morning, about two hours after I’d been in this guy’s house waiting for him, we came out to start going to school and my mom also came out of our house around the same time.

She was surprised to see his son, whom he had dressed up for school about two hours ago, just coming out of a neighbour’s house.

That was the end of my going to the guy’s house in the morning. But if my mom didn’t find out, I could grow up like that, lacking any respect for punctuality and thinking that I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

I’ve studied students for so long to discover that sometimes, some of them do things not because they want to, but because their friends are doing it. Now, this is not ultimately bad, as positive influence can have positive effects on students at times.

Students discussing their books

But most times, the influence is negative. Take bullying for instance. It always comes up as an idea from a student. Then others are influenced to join.

Students are easily influenced because they learn together and do things together in school. If a student is studious but has friends who are not, such a student can be negatively influenced.  

So it is important to know the kind of company students keep in school, as such a company can determine whether they’ll be more studious or not.

Internal Factors

9. Lack of Good Introduction

Grab their attention with your introduction

Vital to every essay and letter writing is a good introduction that can pull the reader in and compel them to continue reading. Every essay needs this kind of introduction, or else the reader may not show interest in reading further.

When you write an essay or letter during an examination, it seems as if you’re writing for an audience. But in the real sense of it, you’re writing for just one person, the person that will read and mark your essay.

Having understood that, you need to include spices that will make your essay delectable in the taste of that one reader. The more you’re able to impress him or her, the more your chance of getting a better grade.

So before you start your essay, remember the fact that your first paragraph is something worth investing your creativity in. You will be doing yourself a lot of good by starting well and continuing as such. 

Even if the examiner is unable to read everything in detail because they have many other essays to mark, you can grab their attention with your introduction and thereby give them a good impression of you.

10. Legibility

Illegible handwriting example

Students may not understand how much this affects their letter writing, but as an English Language tutor who reads and marks letter and essay writing, you probably understand how important legibility is in essay writing. And things become more interesting when you have to mark about 50 or more essays.

Sometimes when I’m marking students’ essays, I’m wondering if they wrote their essays for someone to read and mark it. This is because sometimes, the writing is so terrible that you only need to struggle to read it.

Granted, it is not that serious in internal examinations. By marking a student’s paper over the years, a teacher becomes familiar with their student’s writing and may not have difficulty in marking the student’s essays subsequently.

But this is different from external examinations such as the ones organised by WAEC and NECO. Your essay is going to be marked by someone who never saw your writing before. You want that person to be able to read whatever you write.

No matter how brilliant your essay is, if it is not readable, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot. But you can still make adjustments now that you’re yet to write your external examination.

legibility in essay writing - image quote - Why Students fail in essay and letter writing

If your teachers, classmates or parents have been complaining about your writing, then you should try to adjust. Your handwriting doesn’t have to be the most beautiful in the world or even in your class. It just needs to be legible enough for anyone to read it.

11. Relevancy

Here is a question every student should ask themself before they start writing an essay: ‘Is what I’m about to write going to be relevant to the question?’

And after every essay, after every letter writing, every student should ask themself the same question, ‘Is what I just wrote relevant to the question given to me?’

Asking yourself this question while writing an essay will help you stay on track. It will guide you into writing the essay required of you without steering a bit away from it.

Even as a teacher, whenever I’m writing an essay, I keep going back to the question to guide me so that I can stay on track with what I’m supposed to be writing. This is an important point every student should put into consideration.

No matter how beautiful your essay is, if it strays away from the topic, it has not successfully achieved its aim. The same is applicable to letter writing. So always make sure that whatever you write in your essay is relevant to the question you’re treating.

12. Not Paying Attention to Details

A board of lines

To be able to stay on course, students should learn how to pay attention to details in their letter and essay writing.

Of course, there’s the need to pay attention to details regarding concord and agreement, spellings, punctuations and consistency of tense.

But even though these are important in letter writing and essay writing, they are not as important as paying attention to the details of treating and focusing on the subject matter.

Let me show you how to achieve this by using this WAEC past question as an example:

‘Your close friend missed an interesting event that took place in your school when he was on admission at the hospital. Write a letter to him describing what happened.’

Paying attention to details means treating every point mentioned in this question as important. It means you are not to jump straight into your letter, describing what happened at a school event your friend couldn’t attend.

Instead, you should note the salient points in the question and mention them while writing your letter. Let me show you how to do this.  

Your letter, from the introduction you give in the first paragraph(s), should contain the following facts:

  • You’re writing to your close friend.
  • You both attend the same school.
  • An event took place in your school.
  • Your close friend was unable to attend because he was on admission to the hospital.

You should try not to leave any of these points out of your introductory paragraphs. Mentioning everything suggests to your examiner that you understand the question very well and you don’t overlook the details of the question you’re treating.

But that’s not all, even the body of your letter too should show that you understand the question. This means you should touch on every part of the question in your letter without leaving anything out.

Your watchword in essay writing and letter writing should be ‘Every word matters.’

Every word matter in essay and letter writing - image quote

For instance, the event that took place in your school isn’t just any kind of event. It is ‘interesting’.

You could hit this home well in your letter by writing to your friend that you’d never had an event as interesting as this in the school since you became a student there. That would express your feelings more about how much your friend missed.

Consider the following introduction as an example.

Dear Junaid,

I heard about your ill health and came with a few friends to your home after school on Friday to check on you. But we met only your sister at home. She told us you had been at the hospital for three days and you would be discharged next week. We were sorry to hear that and we hoped you get well soon.

The end of the year party we had been planning was held last week while you weren’t around. I must confess that it’s the most exciting event I’ve ever witnessed since I became a student at St Gregory’s College.

Then in your next paragraphs, you begin to detail the important activities that made the end-of-the-year party interesting.

13. Time Management

A book and time

Being able to manage time is a skill every student needs to build alongside their writing skills. Writing skillfully is good. But doing it fast is required. This is because both your writing skill and speed are tested in the examination room.

Every student needs to understand that even if their writing makes sense, without good time management in their essay writing examination, they may not be able to get the mark that is due them.

This means you have to learn how to think fast and write fast. The best way to achieve this is to do a lot of practice long before your examination gets close.

Doing a lot of writing practices helps you in many ways. But most importantly, it gets you familiar with the different types of letter and essay writing questions that have been asked in the previous examinations.

Tackling those past questions is a test of your brain. The more you can tackle, the easier it becomes.

But this involves a careful process. Even though you have to write fast, you still need to understand the question you’re treating very well and take time to plan for what you’re going to write.

Sometimes, the question can be straightforward and won’t need a lot of thinking for you to start writing. But you can also get a question that is not so straightforward and that needs you to think very well before you launch into writing.

For instance, I gave a question on letter writing to some students from WAEC past questions. Here is it:

‘A nagging problem in your family has so far defied all solutions. Write a letter to an uncle of yours stating what the problem is and giving him reasons why he should intervene.’

While some of the students started writing immediately, it took a few students about ten minutes before they could decide on what to write about.

With this in mind, you have to be prepared for questions that may throw you off-guard and cause you to spend more time than expected thinking about how to start your essay writing.

But it still boils down to practice. The more practice you do, the better you’re able to think fast for the subsequent practices you do, and finally during your examination.

14. Grammatical Inconsistencies

If your writing falls short of the rules of grammar that every essay or letter needs to follow, your essay may be going down a spiral of failure.

A lot of letters and essays written by students fall victim to this fact.

As a good student of the English Language, you are expected to understand these rules and follow them duly. It is one of the ways to avoid the minuses such errors receive during marking.

There is agreement or rule of concord. It requires that your subject and verb (phrase) always agree. Same as your tense usage. There should be consistency in the use of tense. That means you stick to the past tense if you’re narrating a past event.

You should also learn how to write meaningful sentences that link with each other and how to connect a paragraph with another so that no sentence or paragraph is an orphan.

It is also required that you understand how to use transitions. This will help you to link sentences and paragraphs together with ease. Examples include ‘in addition to,’ ‘again,’ ‘as a result,’ ‘as well as,’ and so on.

Before you become too scared, it is not as difficult as it seems.

If you speak correct English, then with good practice, your writing can be better too. All you need to know is how to spell all the words you speak correctly, how to break your ideas into separate thoughts and how to link them together in paragraphs.

When you’re able to achieve this, your writing will thank you for it.

15. Punctuations and Spellings

Correct punctuation can save a life!

Finally, most students don’t know how to use punctuations correctly and this affects their grades in essay writing. Use the wrong punctuation marks and you’re piling up for yourself many minuses that can eat deep into your mark.

An important point to consider is to reduce your use of commas and increase your use of the full stop.

Remember the introductory paragraphs I wrote for you while discussing ‘not paying attention to details?’ If you study the two paragraphs very well, they show a good example of punctuation usage.

Let me break this down for you.

The first paragraph (I heard about your ill health…) has four sentences. But none of the sentences has a comma.

The second paragraph has just two sentences but without a comma either.

Of course, you don’t have to write a complete letter without a comma. But the less comma you use, the better. It makes your writing clean, straightforward and easy to read.

Now, why is this important?

A full stop shows that you have just written a complete sentence. A comma shows that your clause is dependent and needs other sentences before it can make meaning. This means that your sentences will be long, which is not good enough in essay writing.

When you write in long sentences, you sustain the attention of your reader until they get to a point where you ask them to pause.

If your sentence becomes longer, your reader may have forgotten what you wrote at the beginning of the sentence.

Always remember that short sentences aid in comprehension.

Short sentences aid in comprehension - image quote

Apart from that, long sentences give more room for punctuation errors. That’s because to avoid ambiguities, you will be using as many commas as possible.

In short, make the full stop your primary punctuation mark and the comma your secondary punctuation mark. Then use the question mark when you ask a question.

As much as you can, avoid the use of other punctuation marks apart from these three.  

But that’s not all. Students are also prone to spelling errors while writing. One of the best ways to learn the correct spelling of words is by reading wide. Reading wide exposes you to as many English words as possible, making you familiar with their usages and spellings.

One thing to do in every examination is to always try to manage your time. The earlier you finish your essay writing, the more time you have to check through it for spelling and punctuation errors.

What’s the tip here? keep your sentences short, use the full stop more and correct every spelling error.

Final Thought

Do you know some other reasons for students’ failure in their letter and essay writing? Or do you have more ideas on how to tackle some of the points raised in this article? Discuss them in the comment section so that we can have a broader view of this thing.

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