In my last two posts I dealt with general tips for exam preparation and some advice on how to prepare for the Reading section of any exam. Today, I’d like to continue with the Free Writing part.

Paper: Free Writing
Exercise Type: Writing a letter of complaint or application/essay/review/report, etc.

Students, mainly at higher levels, are asked to do a free writing task in a fairly limited time. They usually have the option to choose what type of text to write.

Why might it be difficult?
1. We live in the era of communicative language teaching, which also means that written communication is often neglected in the lessons. So students often perform very well in the Speaking exam or they are really good in the Reading and/or Use of English part, but they often underachieve in the Free Writing papers.
2. Free Writing is the skill where L1 interference might cause serious difficulties. Students often translate from their mother tongue and write very artificial or inaccurate sentences.
3. Free Writing doesn’t only test language knowledge, but it checks on the students’ knowledge about:

  • register and features (appropriate expressions usually used in the given genre), e.g. I’m writing to you to express my deep dissatisfaction with your company’s customer service,
  • format and layout (what different genres look like), e.g. a report has headings at the top of each paragraph and there is a blank line between each paragraph, etc.,
  • style. It is not true that English uses only informal language – modal verbs and conditionals are used to express formality in English, however, the person remains ‘you’.

All these things need to be analyzed and explained to students.

How to prepare for Free Writing?
a) Be good at 2-3, not all genres: Your student might be good at writing reports, because he/she is often asked to do it in his/her job, but understands little about reviews. No problem. Help your students to understand which genres they are good at and prepare them for these. Every student should be prepared in 2-3 genres (my favorites are letters/emails, essays and reports). Leave the other genres, so your students won’t be overloaded.
b) Have a template in mind: Every genre has its very own set of useful phrases or common expressions and a typical format. Teach these to your students. For example: a report has a longer and expressive title, starts with an Introduction, every following paragraph has a heading and needs a Conclusion. All these paragraphs are separated with blank lines. Typical expressions would be: This report aims to give feedback about the school canteen… or The aim of this report is to understand the advantages and disadvantages of computer-based exams... or This recent report tries to give suggestions about what type of leisure activities students of our college are interested in. The results are based on a questionnaire given to 100 students on the campus etc.
c) Be a good writer, but don’t try to be Hemingway: How good somebody really is at writing counts little in an exam. Even students who are not particularly talented at writing can get a high pass mark in the free writing part if they show their knowledge about the genre and the general rules of the language and the written communication in English. So the target is much lower than the sky. Moreover, being very keen on writing long and beautiful stories might result in running out of time and leaving a second task untouched. Extra words are not rewarded (although not penalized), and students should really stay in the given number of words for each writing task. As always, time is the lord over perfection.

(To be continued)

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