Teaching Writing for Cambridge Exams

This post was written by Ruth Marin, an experienced ELT teacher and trainer working in Granada. She is one of the tutors on our TEFL course.

Writing is a big challenge for many students, especially when preparing for an exam: not only they need to write well under time pressure but there’s also a word limit!

These are a few tips for teachers to help students improve their writing.

These tips are designed to shape 2 classes:

Class 1 (90 mins) would cover points 1-6 in order, and point 7 (proofreading) is homework

Class 2 (90 mins) is dedicated to point 7

Let’s look at these exam task examples

a) PET (Part 2)

Your family is visiting Edinburgh next month. You have a Scottish pen friend called Emma who also lives in Edinburgh. You would like to meet her when you go to Edinburgh.

Write an email to Zara. In your email, you should:

  • say when your family is travelling to Edinburgh
  • ask if you can meet up, and suggest a day
  • suggest what you can do together.

Write 35-45 words.

b) FCE (Part 2)

You have received the following letter from your English-speaking friend.

………….Thanks for inviting me to stay with you when I visit your country next month. I’m not sure how to get to your apartment from the airport. Could you write back giving me some basic instructions? What would be the best method of transport for me? I’d prefer one that isn’t too expensive! Just one other thing – what will the weather be like when I get there? (Just so I’ll know what clothes to pack!) ………

Write your letter of reply to your friend (around 140-190 words).

Tip 1. Identify genre and purpose

Ask your students to read the exam task and instructions carefully to

  • identify the genre: a letter, an email, an article…(make sure you explain its common features – don’t forget to use an example)
  • underline key information about what they need to include
  • remember the word limit

Tip 2. Importance of register

In both examples, we know that a letter and an email to a friend are written in an informal style. Still, it is generally a good idea to dissect and highlight the distinctive features of formal and informal styles in writing for your students to identify register and use it as a model for their own writing.

e.g.

  1. a) Since there isn’t a model in the exam task: Provide a few examples in your class!
  2. b) I’d prefer one that isn’t too expensive! (use of exclamation marks)

Tip 3. Brainstorming

Once your students know what they have to do, they can start thinking of what information they’d like to include

e.g.

  1. a) List of things to do on holiday
  2. b) Info about weather and transport in my town

Tip 4. Vocabulary and grammar

I always suggest (in pairs/groups) writing a list of topic related vocabulary the students have seen in class, along with collocations and prepositions

e.g.

  1. a) GO hiking/cycling/shopping, ON Friday AT 6pm  
  2. b) Chilly/warm, heavy rain, boiling hot

I revisit grammar worked on in class, I ask them to remember examples of what we talked about when we saw it in class (context), so they can identify use and form. Then I ask them to choose 2-5 structures (depending on the level) they might need to get their message across, and encourage them to include them on purpose in their writing:

e.g.

  1. a) making suggestions: How about + ing…? We could + base form

How about going hiking on Saturday? And we could go shopping on Sunday

  1. b) Recommend: Modal verbs, second conditional and compare your options

I think you should take the train, it’s slightly more expensive but much faster. If I were you I wouldn’t pack too many clothes as we may want to go shopping.

Tip 5. Organisation and Layout

Organisation very much depends on genre, which is crucial for pre-intermediate students. In the case of upper-intermediate students, I recommend noting down the number of paragraphs they’re planning to write, why and what’s the message:

e.g.

  1. a) Organisation of a basic email: Dear Emma,…
  2. b) 1. Open, thank and welcome
  3. Instructions and transport
  4. Weather and clothes
  5. Say goodbye and close

*This also helps them with their FCE Reading Task Part 3

Tip 6. Drafting

It’s really good to do this in your first writing class; they can take the draft home and work on a final version as homework.

However, I’d say this is the optional step in a real exam because students don’t usually have time to transfer their writing piece during the test. When they do, they often make a large amount of spelling errors and don’t have time to proofread their own work, which I believe it’s the most important part.

If they follow the previous steps, they should be fine. However, each learner is different and they should decide what suits them best.

Tip 7. Proofreading skills and Feedback

I usually recommend leaving the piece of writing aside for a while to take a fresh look when trying to proofread it.

If it’s homework, I’d suggest leaving it overnight and proofreading it the day after. During the exam, students could get on with the next task, and proofread both pieces of writing afterwards.

Feedback is really important for students. They really want to improve and stop making mistakes, so raising awareness of how language works is a substantial part of our job.

We all know error-correction takes all sorts and it’s hard to tell which approach is best. I’d say: let’s try different approaches and go for whatever works with your students!

Personally, I prefer not to overwhelm my students (especially lower levels) with tons of corrections. I use pencil if they write in pen, and I never correct in red. Using the writing correction code really helps…

This is what I do in class to train my students in proofreading skills:

  • I spend 15 minutes of class-time explaining to my students how the writing correction code works when I return their first writing task. It might seem long but it saves me time later and it shouldn’t be boring since all students can refer to their own examples.
  • It would be really hard for them to identify the mistakes unless they know what they’re looking for, so I ask them to keep their first 3 corrected writing tasks in a portfolio.

(Class 2)

  • Before I assign the 4th writing task, I ask them to look at their previous corrected writings and decide see if they can identify any recurring mistakes.

e.g.

People *is very friendly – Grammar: Wrong Form

I have a *sister nice – Word Order

  • I ask them to include their most common mistakes in a proofreading checklist. Errors should be listed with an example and a brief explanation (when possible, that depends on the level and the type of mistake):
Incorrect Correct Frequency
People *is very friendly

Person – singular

People – plural

People are very friendly
I have a *sister nice

WO: adjective + noun

I have a nice sister
My sister *work in a hospital

Present simple: 3rd person singular -s

My sister works in a hospital

This checklist will be a tool for them to proofread their own work.

  • Every time they want to proofread a writing exercise, they should refer to the common mistakes-checklist and look for specific errors.
  • They can also note down how many times they’ve made the mistake. They’ll be surprised by how quickly they start crossing mistakes off the list because they don’t make them anymore.

Careful!!

Sometimes they feel they can work on the mistakes before proofreading, which is great as they actively decide to focus on learning and also get to choose what they’d like to work on.

However…

Remind them that if they try to do too much, they could easily get frustrated. Working on just 1 mistake per week is challenging but doable, and they’ll have a sense of achievement.

When there’s a good class dynamics, they sometimes prefer to do this in pairs or groups and they create a group list, which allows for peer-correction.

Proofreading one’s own work could be tough but it’s part of the students’ learning process. Self-correction promotes students’ self-awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses and, consequently deeper involvement in their own learning process. They make mistakes automatically but they’ll feel empowered when realising they can correct them themselves.

Fostering learners’ autonomy is also a weight off your shoulders! We will still help to create a supportive learning environment, but…

the more students become aware of their own needs and set their own goals responsibly, the more they’re likely to learn

 

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