Friday, March 30, 2018

What do I do with the sample writing found on this blog?

This blog contains a number of sample pieces of writing for a variety of exams because throughout the years, I've seen that the writing section of English language assessment examinations is most likely the area candidates, regardless of age, find the most daunting. Let's be honest -- many students hate writing assignments given as homework, so writing under exam conditions with the image of a scrupulous marker hovering in their mind is not what I'd call their cup of tea.

Hence the sample essays, letters, reports, proposals and the like that have been uploaded. Exam candidates need to read something someone else has written to get ideas, and not just get back a marked assignment of their own with a few comments interspersed here and there among the monstrous red ink corrections.

Problem numero uno has always been students' lack of motivation when it comes to writing. Yet, unfortunately it is precisely that which brings about inadequate results. The best way to summarize writing (which is what I've told students time and again) is that writing is exactly like a sport -- apart from bonus points given to those with a knack for it, it requires regular training, careful study of set plays and star players' moves, knowledge of your opponent, and repetitive practice of specific ploys.

Let me explain. 

By regular training, I mean regular writing. The more you write, the more acquainted you get with the process involved, the quicker your ideas come out because you've already managed to express thoughts once before so that means you gain a little more confidence and repeat the use of certain words you found more ornate the first time round. Since all examinations have a set time limit, speed is essential.  Someone who has taken a path through the woods ten times already is better prepared than someone who takes that same path just twice or three times at the most. The trained mind has already seen pitfalls and maneuvered around them after trial and error whereas the rookie will take longer to reach their destination. I cannot stress it strongly enough -- write, write, and then write some more.

Careful study of set plays and star players' moves involves reading sample essays, both good and bad, and separating the wheat from the chaff. No essay is perfect, so wheat and chaff are found in all types of writing, even the sample essays provided by examiners. What I mean to say is that there are nicer phrases or more advanced grammatical structures that can be singled out and learnt for later use. Good writers have a number of good traits such as clarity, strong and gradual buildup of argumentation, vocabulary range and so on, that should be studied carefully like any pick and roll in basketball or offside trap in football (that would be 'soccer' to my American friends). Writing for examiners regrettably requires strategy and not just a flair for words, so incorporate what it is they want to see and avoid what will make them subtract points from your overall writing score. 

Which brings me to my next point: examiners, a.k.a. learn your opponent. Know where the marks come from and cover your bases. Although exams vary in format or are awarded by different examination boards, the main areas markers grade in the writing section are the following:

  • discussion of the topic
  • organization
  • grammar
  • vocabulary
  • register
  • mechanics (spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations)
  • overall effect on the reader

There may be 3 categories or 4 which cover all these aspects, but that is not a candidate's main concern. Their main concern should be to satisfy the examiner's requirements in all of these areas as best they can no matter the mistakes they undoubtedly make. And this is where the sample pieces of writing come in. 

These samples are meant to help students in their overall academic writing skills. If teachers or students want to get the most out of them, they should do the following:

1) Look at the organization of the essay
  • see what organization has been used in conjunction with the type of question asked in the rubric (opinion essays/letters are different from for and against essays/letters)
  • read my B2 Writing: The Basics to see the organization of these types of essays/letters
2) Make a note of the arguments, explanations and examples used
  • have an archive of brainstorming notes for each question encountered because chances are you'll see that question pop up again in a slightly mutated form
  • the best thing would be to have a separate notebook with the question written at the top of the page and notes made based on the arguments presented in the sample essays beneath, in columns, with clear headings

  • once you've collected a number of topics with brainstorming ideas, study them before the exams to whip out some arguments pronto on the day itself so you can focus more on recalling advanced vocabulary and grammatical structures to include

3) Jot down useful phrases, vocabulary, linking words and expressions on separate lists for further study
  • have lists of adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs ready to study that 
    • a) go beyond the basic vocabulary required for the exam level you're at and 
    • b) would suit in any situation, no matter the question asked
  • make a short list of connecting words and phrases that will create cohesion between sentences and paragraphs
  • make a list of words according to topic. If, for instance, the question asks you to deal with the environment and pollution, have a set list containing words such as: 
    • sustainability
    • solar energy
    • landfills
    • waste
    • toxic chemicals
    • erosion
    • fossil fuels
    • depletion of natural resources
  • systematically use the whole collection of words and phrases you've amassed from the sample essays in your writing all the way up to the exam date so by the time you get there, you will know what to do

It's a lot to take in, but start early and you won't find the writing section of the exam insurmountable. Don't lose heart. 
"The scariest moment is always just before you start.” - Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft 

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