Teaching Exam-Based Writing Skills

Today’s guest writer is Jenny Bedwell. Jenny has been working in EFL for 10 years - mainly in Europe, but also with a short spell in Japan - teaching a full range of levels and ages in general English, as well as English for exams and business. Other experience has included teacher training and materials writing. She is now based in Barcelona where she works for the British Council. She also runs a website, IELTSuccess which provides practice for the Academic Writing section of the IELTS exam.

Getting students to participate in writing activities in class can be an arduous task. Despite our best efforts as teachers to make the prospect of writing a fun and collaborative activity, it is often met with groans of reluctance. This could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps students have had negative experiences of writing in the language classroom in the past, perhaps they see it as a waste of class-time, which could be better spent practising their oral skills, or perhaps they simply find writing a difficult and laborious task even in their first language. Whatever the reason, getting adult students motivated to write in class can be tough!

However, for teachers it can be very useful to monitor students writing in class. You are at hand to answer any language difficulties, give advice on how to structure sentences in a more natural way, provide vocabulary that students are lacking and generally be available to deal with individual needs as well as noting common problem areas. This is of great benefit to students too of course, much more so than receiving a marked piece of written homework covered in red pen!

Students who are studying for exams do tend to be slightly more motivated when it comes to writing in class but still often prefer to do the actual task for homework. The following activity ideas are ways in which we can teach the nuts and bolts of academic writing in an analytical way, illustrating a step-by-step approach that will hopefully show students the value of writing in the classroom without the pressure of simply being told to put pen to paper!

Each of the six activities focuses on a different writing task (formal letter; article; report; transactional letter; discursive essay) and one specific area (planning; layout; organisation; content; style; accuracy). However, the activities are fairly general and could be easily adapted to suit most task types.

Activity 1 – Comparing model texts/candidate answers (Report ~ Layout)

· Students look at 2-4 model texts (real candidate answers are ideal if you can get them) ranging in level from a fail to a strong pass.
· Students note the good and bad points about each answer and write comments under headings such as layout, organisation, content, style and accuracy. (You could easily focus on just one of these areas and discuss in more detail)
· Students share their comments with each other before looking at the real examiner’s comments if you have them. (Cambridge Exam Handbooks are a good source for these) Alternatively, you give the students your own opinion on the model texts.

Rationale ~ students get a good idea of what examiners are looking for and learn how to avoid making common mistakes while also picking up tips on good examples of language.

Activity 2 – Register Transformation (Formal letter ~ Style)

· Students receive a formal letter which has several phrases written in the wrong register, ie informal/slang.
· Students identify which phrases they think are unsuitable for a formal letter and underline them.
· Then, they try and rewrite the phrases using a more formal style of language.
· Finally, students choose the correct answers from a list provided.

Note: You can make this activity more communicative by dividing the class into two groups and giving each group a different letter to work on. When they have rewritten their phrases they pair up with a student from the other group who has the answers for their letter and vice versa.

Rationale ~ students are made aware of differences in register and appropriacy of language, while building up a stock of suitable phrases they can use in formal letters.

Activity 3 – Error Correction (Transactional letter ~ Accuracy)

· Divide class into three groups (each group will focus on a different area for correction – spelling, vocabulary or grammar).
· Each group will look at an example letter which contains 10 mistakes (tell them that all the mistakes are either spelling, vocabulary or grammar).
· First, students identify what type of mistakes are contained in their letter and then they work together to try and correct them. (Each group has the same letter but the mistakes are different).
· After a set time limit, regroup the students so that there is one person present from each of the original groups. They compare their letters and in doing so they find the answers to the mistakes they have corrected.

Note: This works particularly well if you have carefully selected errors which are often made by your students.

Rationale ~ students are made aware of common errors and learn the invaluable lesson of self-correction.

Activity 4 – Topic Sentences (Discursive Essay ~ Organisation)

· Students are given a set of topic sentences taken from a model composition.
· They work in pairs to put the sentences in a logical order.
· Then, students are given the missing paragraphs from the composition.
· They match the paragraphs with the topic sentences.
· Finally, they compare their order with the model text in a class round-up.

Note: To make this a longer activity you could have 4 sets of topic sentences/paragraphs which students pass around the class, taking turns to complete the activity.

Rationale ~ students are made aware of how topic sentences function to produce a logical, coherent set of ideas.

Activity 5 – Removing irrelevant details (Article ~ Content)

· Students are given a list of sentences each with an extra word which is not necessary. They have to identify which words needs to be omitted.
· Then, students look at an exam question and a list of points relating to that question. They have to decide which points are not really relevant and which they would therefore not include in their answer.
· Then, students are given a model text containing superfluous sentences which they have to identify and omit due to their irrelevance. Each time, they have to justify their decision.

Rationale ~ students are made aware of the need to be selective in the details they choose in order to present their ideas clearly and concisely.

Activity 6 – Guided brainstorming (Any text type ~ Planning)

· After reading an exam question students brainstorm all related vocabulary on the given topic. This could also include a list of expressions used for making suggestions or giving opinion, depending on the text type. (Content/Style)
· Then, they make a list of key points that they need to include in their answer. (Content)
· Then, they organise the content under suitable headings depending on the layout of the text type. This could be a simple paragraph plan including an introduction and a conclusion for a discursive essay. (Layout/Organisation)
· When students have a comprehensive plan of what they are going to include, they are ready to write their answer.

Rationale ~ to get students into the habit of planning their answer before they start writing to ensure it is well-structured and logically ordered.

By using this very guided approach to exam writing it is hoped that some of the fear that students feel when faced with a blank piece of paper and told to write will be removed.

All of the activities are intended to facilitate each stage of the writing process, from planning a first draft to editing the final answer. By analysing both good and bad model texts, students are made aware of what examiners are looking for and can learn to avoid common errors.

The overall aim is to provide the students with a solid framework from which they can construct their answer and to encourage useful exam techniques such as planning and self-correction. As students become more familiar with the various structures of different text types they will feel more comfortable in approaching written exam tasks. As a result, they are then able to focus their attention on expanding their range of vocabulary and improving their grammatical accuracy.


Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by topgold via flickr

Recommended Reading

Harmer, J. How to Teach Writing, Pearson

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