Exam prep

Writing at CAE: milking the test books and upping the game

Do you currently teach CAE? Maybe you’ll be familiar with some of these complaints from students in the months leading up to the exam. And if you don’t teach it at the moment, but might in the future, then see below for the trials and tribulations of the average CAE student, and some ideas which I hope might shed some light on why the Writing paper doesn’t need to be as scary as students think.

I’m working on the assumption that you and your students are using at least a practice test book, with transcripts of the Listening tracks included.

Reasons why practice test books are great:

  1. Practice makes perfect
  2. They give candidates examples of the kind of language they’re expected to be able to produce
  3. They are chock-a-block full of linguistic gems

I don’t have the vocabulary!

Yes, you do! It’s just not flashing disco lights saying “Pick me, I am useful vocabulary”. It helps to get your students into the habit of doing tasks under exam conditions, then selecting new vocabulary that they sort into categories. For instance, you’ve just done a Listening Part 4 task that’s all about work-related problems, so students should record new collocations in their notebooks or Quizlet set (more on this in a later post).

It sounds obvious, but you’ve probably asked them to get the vocabulary from the transcript, right? What about the task input? There are lots of bite-sized lexical chunks in there too, and they’re often overlooked. Help your students notice the task input! This way, they can see how the same idea can be expressed in different ways, which can help them understand how they can avoid repetition in their writing. This technique doesn’t just apply to Listening tasks – use the task input from Reading tasks too.

I don’t know what to say!

Role play it! This works for any type of text that your students need to write. Imagine that your students are faced with the following task:

Disclaimer: this is not a task from a test book. You can make your own, or even get students to make them! More on that in another post…

Get students to think about where this is all happening: a college. Think about who operates there: not just students, but also teachers, cleaning staff, administrative staff, library staff and so on. Sort your students into small groups (ideally a minimum of three per group) and assign one of these roles to each student in the group. Give them a couple of minutes to put themselves in that person’s shoes, and make some notes on what they would expect from a greener and more eco-friendly project to suit their character. Then get your students to talk together comparing their notes and ideas. It might help if you have a “scribe” student who takes notes for the group on a piece of A3 paper or in a Google Doc if you’re teaching online. Once the discussion is over, you can display the A3 paper, or share the Google Doc links in the chatbox, and students can pick out 4 or 5 points that they feel they could expand on.

I don’t know how to use “complex grammar structures” (and I don’t reeeeally know what they are, either!)

If you’re using a coursebook, get students to make a list of the grammar structures you’ve covered so far. Use this as a checklist. If you don’t have a coursebook to rely on, this needs rethinking a little bit.

Look at some Transformations from the Use of English Part 4 section. There are often structures that lend themselves well to certain writing tasks. For instance:

Answer: was held in such high regard

Get students to think about where they might see this sentence. It could be in any number of texts, even ones that they won’t be asked to write in the exam, like a newspaper article. Then elicit the level of formality, and elicit the exam writing tasks where this level of formality is required. After you’ve done this, ask students to try and include that structure somewhere in their text. Here’s an example from one of my teenage students writing a proposal about why her school should host a conference:

She actually managed to include all 6 structures from a transformations task into one piece of writing! Remember, though, that this isn’t always possible because some of the structures in transformations might not be suitable for more formal texts.

I’ve tried to use “complex grammar structures” but my teacher says they makes no sense!

I’ve noticed that this tends to happen when students want to use a conditional structure, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. Maybe you can apply a similar procedure to other grammar structures, too – if so, let me know so I can give it a go!

  1. Write the conditional in its simplest form.
  2. Decide on the “certainty” and “time frame” of the conditional (this helps them decide if they need zero, first, second, third or mixed). Example: If we implemented these changes, there would be a significant improvement in student motivation.
  3. Change the conditional into an inversion. Example: Were we to implement these changes, there would be a significant improvement in student motivation.
  4. Change the sentence in step 2 into a passive structure. Example: If these changes were implemented, there would be a significant improvement in student motivation.
  5. Change the sentence in step 3 into a passive inverted structure. Example: Were these changes to be implemented, there would be a significant improvement in student motivation.
  6. If that’s going well, try a participle clause! Students may need to change some words for this to work. Example: If these changes were to be implemented, these changes would be a significantly improvement in student motivation.

Who’s reading this? Why am I writing?

If your students reply with “You” or “the examiner”, this is the perfect opportunity to show them how important the task input is to help them write for the right audience! Let’s use my task from earlier:

Get students to identify the main characters, and the relationship between them: the students are members of a student council, and they’re writing to their principal. The relationship is unequal, because the principal has more authority. However, the students have been given a responsibility to report on how successful the project has been. Elicit what information students could include to make their report credible: statistics and quotations, for example. Ask your students to think about the tone they’ll need to adopt when writing to someone in authority, and to consider it from different angles.

Imagine, for instance, that the project was a disaster. Could the students write a report in an accusatory tone? Probably not, because if the principal gave the go-ahead to something that was ultimately a failure and she’s reading a report, she wants constructive criticism rather than “This was terrible. We hated it”. This is good practice for students to criticise politely yet honestly. Notice the difference between “The project was a dismal failure” and “The project lacked some organisation which could be addressed for future initiatives”.

If you have time to experiment, it can help to use the same task to write different text types – this is something I discovered thanks to a presentation on mediation by Ethan Mansur and Riccardo Chiappini at the IH Spain Ñglish Conference 2021. It’s incredibly useful to help students understand how the same information can be conveyed in different ways to different audiences. For instance, you could use the task above as the basis of an informal email between two friends who are both members of the student council, commenting on the success (or failure) of the project.

To sum up…

I hope these tips help you and your students feel more confident about the writing tasks in the CAE exam! As ever, if you try any of these, please do let me know in the comments below.

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