How to teach students to write texts for exams? Tips and examples

Teaching writing for exams

Teaching writing for exams


  • Writing
  • Cambridge English
  • Methodology

Our today’s focus is exam writing. Teachers know that writing isn’t something many of our students look forward to. It requires a lot of work and it is time-consuming. For many exam candidates, the writing paper is the least favourite one.

Obviously, teachers who prepare for examinations have to know the kinds of writing tests and the types of the tasks. Research shows that the best way to make our students good at exam writing tasks is teaching them writing strategies and skills. 

Strategies and skills

Learners often think that they need to possess a special talent to produce a decent composition. However, the truth is that knowing and practising the appropriate strategies and skills will help anyone become a writer.  Let’s take a look at those strategies and skills.

  1. Identifying and including all the necessary elements of the message (content)
  2. Identifying and producing a text of an appropriate genre
  3. Using appropriate register (informal/ semi-formal)
  4. Brainstorming and planning 
  5. Paragraphing
  6. Using appropriate and varied linkers 
  7. Using a wide range of vocabulary
  8. Correctly using a wide range of grammar structures
  9. Using correct punctuation

Writing assessment criteria

It is pretty common that teachers pay a lot of attention to grammatical and lexical errors. However, the assessment criteria show us that those errors won’t lower the final marks significantly if they don’t impede the meaning. If examiners understand what a candidate wanted to say, they won’t penalize the candidate severely.

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Let’s imagine that you asked your students to write an email inviting a friend to a party. One email was written without any grammatical or lexical mistakes, but failed to mention the time and the place where the party would be held. The other one wasn’t that accurate, but provided all the necessary information and the mistakes didn’t impede the meaning.

The first email would get a very low mark regardless its perfect language. The conclusion could be drawn that the content of the piece of writing is crucial. It has to contain the required information and those requirements are given in the task. That is the first criterion of assessment.

If that invitation-to-a friend email with all the correct grammatical structures and perfect spelling begins with “Dear Mr.Smith, You are cordially invited to join…”, it is difficult to call it successful as the friend might think it was a bad joke. The reader of the piece of writing is important, thus, the style or register that is used plays a significant role in achieving the communicative purpose of that writing piece. 

This criterion is very conveniently called communicative achievement.

A writing task ought to have the communicative purpose and a writer is supposed to use the appropriate style and follow conventions of the communicative task- an informal or formal email, a report, an article, etc.

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You probably want to ask me if we finally arrived at the grammar and lexis point. Not yet. A grammatically and lexically perfect piece of writing might be very hard to read because of its bad organisation. Any text needs to be coherent, well-organised and logically linked. 

Only in this case the reader will be able to follow a composition easily. We need to look at paragraphs and logic behind constructing them, at linkers and discourse markers. These are the tools which make it possible to comprehend the writer’s thoughts and ideas. 

This criterion is called organisation

Finally, the language is assessed. Of course, appropriate vocabulary and a good range of grammar structures also influence the final mark. But now we know that before starting correcting grammar mistakes, teachers have to look at three very important aspects of their students’ written work. And students need to be made familiar with those criteria.

Practical tips

We’ll look at the problems/solutions essay, which is a typical examination writing task.

Many people believe that the high levels of violence in films today are causing serious social problems.

What are these problems and how could they be reduced?

If your students don’t like the topic, it might be a good idea to modify it and give the learners an opportunity to write an essay which is more relevant to them.

For example, for young adults the topic could be modified like this:

Many young people believe that a decision to study abroad is causing some serious problems for them and their families.

What are these problems and how could they be reduced?

Of course, in a real examination candidates aren’t allowed to change the topic, but in a preparatory class it might work well.

Let’s continue with the steps which need to be followed. Ask your students to highlight the key words. Then they should brainstorm the ideas in groups and jot them downWriting the plan of the essay is the next step. A detailed plan is a must for exam writing. The plan should look like this:

Paragraph 1: Introduction

         a. studying abroad causes problems for young people and their families

Paragraph 2: Problems

          f. missing family and friends, being homesick

          b. financial responsibilities 

Paragraph 3: Solutions

         e. schedule regular zoom meeting with friends and family

         d. ask parents to teach you money management

 Paragraph 4: Conclusion

          c. personal opinion that it causes problems,

          but preparation and regular meetings online will help

The teacher needs to think of activities which provide some practiсe of the useful language, register, vocabulary, possibly punctuation. 

Learners can assess each other’s work using a checklist similar to the one below:

  • Content 
  • Genre + Register
  • Paragraphs and linkers
  • High level vocab

Students could use various smileys for the assessment. And of course friendly and constructive feedback from the teacher regarding all the criteria is necessary.

Learn more about teaching IELTS essay writing

Article authors & editors
  • Helen Taranenko

    Helen Taranenko


    CELTA, CELT-P/S Course trainer, International speaking examiner



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