Exams: What can go wrong during a writing skills exam?

Exams:  What can go wrong during a writing skills exam?

Special thanks to Eva Cota for her feedback on my workshop

The door has closed and your candidates are in the examination room, about to take the writing part of the exam. What can possibly go wrong there and how can you prevent it?

Based on a workshop I gave abroad last week, this post highlights some common mishaps and suggests some "proactive" remedies.

Even though statistics may vary from country to country, most teachers complain about their students low performance when it comes to producing written language i.e. essays, mails, reviews, narrative etc.

Sometimes candidates have worked very hard and some have even memorized (sic) chunks of language or even whole essays. Yet, they often fail to perform up to standard. Here are some reasons why:

The "we have done it in class" syndrome
 Students often read the first lines of the task and recognize a topic. However, every topic, for example the environment, usually has many aspects. The task can be

about recycling while your students may have written in your class about pollution. It may be partially relevant or sometimes completely irrelevant. Usually the chances of writing exactly the same task you had assigned them for homework are extremely slim! Unfortunately, some of the candidates will be tempted to 'copy-paste' the writing they did in class thinking that they have worked on  exactly the same task and they will get a high mark. Asking your students to underline the key words in the task usually helps them focus. Also raising awareness in class about the various aspects of most topics usually helps the learners analyze the task.

"Nowadays young people don't write. I remember when I was..."
We tend to think that young people, especially teenagers do not write as much as younger generations and they have no clue about writing whatsoever...
Yet, judging by my students, they spend most of their day texting on their mobile or in front of a computer monitor chatting -in writing- with their friends who often happen to live abroad. Therefore, when we go into the classroom to "teach" them how to write, they often resent the idea and simply switch off.  Could your average student write the mail below? Does it convey successfully a message to the intended reader?

The answer is that it does convey a message. The right question though is "who is going to read it?"  If the task your student has, is to send an email to a friend coming from abroad, obviously it is successful. If the task though is the following, how successful will your candidate be at the exams?

"You work for a multinational company. Mr Jack Brown, the regional manager based in London, is visiting your country for the first time. Write an email to let him know that you are meeting him at the airport"

The key is to raise students' awareness and help them select the appropriate register for the task. Asking the students the  following three questions before beginning to write, usually helps them have a clear idea of the "role" they have been assigned in the task and who their target reader is.

Below there are the problems mentioned earlier and a few more. Before elaborating on them,  here is a matching task for you with problems and remedies. Some remedies maybe helpful with more than one problems.

The inspiration muse
Undoubtedly, some gifted writers can produce masterpieces writing locked in their bedroom when inspiration "visits" them. But when it comes to exams and the pressure students feel, it is not wise to bet only on inspiration. On the day of the exam - and even before that- many students can not sequence their thought which often leads to completely disorganized pieces of writing that often do not make sense. Asking students to produce a rough outline with the main facts or their arguments helps them put their thoughts in order and convey their message clearly. I often ask them to draw a "bubble" for each paragraph and jot a few key words. It is not as time consuming as we tend to think and on the exam day, they can follow the process mentally before beginning to write.

Another technique I have found useful and good fun is to print a paragraph or an essay, then cut it into pieces (sentences or paragraphs depending on my aim). Then, I ask students to put the jumbled sentences or paragraphs in the right order.

"My essay has no mistakes, sir!!! Why won't it get a pass at the exams?"
It takes several years of training and experience for teachers to distinguish the different levels and grade our students fairly. It is unfair to expect our students know what criteria they have to meet.  Apart from/ Instead of (depending on your personal policy) giving your students a grade, give them a list with simplified criteria based on the assessment criteria of the examination. For example:

  • Clear message
  • The reader's reaction (right register)
  • Clear paragraphs
  • Linking words
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar

Most publishers provide models in the teacher's book. Swap roles with the students and ask them to assess them - as if they were teachers -based on the criteria you have given them. In this way, they will perceive what the examiners will assess them on and what the desirable level is.

" I need to take the exam.... yesterday! Of course, I am ready"
Writing takes time and practice. If I was asked to write an essay in Greek - my mother tongue - in 30 mins, I have serious doubts whether I would succeed. Not because my level of Greek is not good but because I have not written an essay in Greek for more than 20 years and it would certainly take me more than half an hour to write it. A placement test or a mock exam at the beginning of the course usually makes learners realize they need to work consistently to achieve their aim.

Building a culture of writing from day 1 of the course, will definitely help your candidates succeed when the "big day" comes.
Good luck to your candidates!!! 
Dimitris Primalis


  1. Well said, Dimitris! This is what my experience has proven and, yes, building a culture of writing from Day 1 is definitely the key. Thank you for one more informative post!

  2. Very relevant and significative strategies for both sides.
    The candidate stress also plays an important role during the examination time, and I see you have considered it, when you have shared strategies, they are also important in order to avoid stress for candidates.
    Lots of thanks for transmiting your interest and own experiences for the success of candidates.
    Congratulations Dimitris!!! As usual brilliant and significant information.
    Thanks for keep on being a meaningful blogger !!!

    1. Thank you, Patricia! Stress is a very important factor and it is worth devoting a post or more on how to deal with it and build students' confidence. You are more than welcome to upload a post on the topic on this blog!

  3. It will be a pleasure, Dimitris. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Gisele Knp- Brazil19 October 2014 at 09:29

    Very relevant! My students usually ask for ideas tor the first sentence and also linking words.