Advancing Learning: Guiding teens to better writing for success in exams

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Usually placed at the end of an exam paper, the writing task generates a number of problems for teachers and students. Firstly, it can be worth 50% of the marks yet teachers often concentrate on the reading elements of a paper, believing this is what students need most guidance on. Perhaps the main trip hazard is the chronology of the thing and the crowded nature of the syllabi: we spend so long teaching reading skills that there’s scarcely any time left for the teaching of writing. Similarly, students often don’t leave enough time for the writing task in the exam. And writing seems so vast: content and organisation, spelling, punctuation and grammar! Imaginative, creative, transactional, discursive... How do we start to teach it?

For students, knowing that in jobs and careers they will use a wide range of digital tools to help them, it’s difficult to see the relevance of writing under exam conditions. For many, creative or imaginative writing is certainly something they will never do again. Address this first: they need to know why they are being assessed for writing and what they are being assessed for within that writing. They need to know how to play this assessment game.

Exploring chunks of the mark-schemes won’t really help all that much. Students need clear guidance about what constitutes ‘good’ writing. Exam-speak won’t help them. They need to know in everyday English what is wrong with their writing and how to make it better. The good news is that elements of writing can be taught.

Content

This must be relevant to the task and interesting for the examiner to read. Planning really does help with this. Students often believe that their creative writing must be wholly imaginary and their non-fiction writing must be the truth and nothing but the truth.  Encourage them to use their own experiences to make creative writing more convincing and to invent realistic facts or statistics to support arguments in non-fiction writing.  The word ‘convincing’ is the key to good content. We all know that ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’ is an absolute no-go zone. Students need to work out settings, plots and characters which are realistic and possible. If they cannot think up a good plot in the time allowed (which is a very difficult thing to do actually), they should write the opening to a story which the examiner can see could be developed on. If their writing is discursive, they must put forward convincing ideas.

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Wider vocabulary

Tricky to teach if we don’t know what the task will be. However, there are words that can be used in so many contexts yet we rarely see students use them. Many are short and easy to spell too. For example:

grim, bleak, dank, winsome, joyful, merry, swift, sluggish, hefty, vast, irate, lavish, livid, vivid, canny, sublime, grisly, bold, brazen, drivel, pointless, arguable, outraged, enraged, considered, meek, mild

Imagery

The use of imagery is effective in both imaginative and discursive writing. Encourage students to create a small bank of their own similes or metaphors and point out that almost any piece of imaginative writing can mention the weather or include an interesting character. Sunshine, like warm honey, trickled through the trees. Pelting down like steely needles, the rain never seemed to stop. He was a thunderous drum of a man.   In discursive writing, everyday imagery is often overlooked because students are often not familiar with these phrases: I rest my case; food for thought; the calm before the storm; a rising tide of opinion; between a rock and a hard place etc. Encourage students to develop their own too.

Varied sentence structure

a) Ask students to notice how often their sentences start with the obvious phrasing ( I / He / She / They; It / There is/was etc). Teach alternatives:

  • Front-shift dependent clauses to the beginning of a sentence:

She managed to catch the child just before he fell.

Just before he fell, she managed to catch the child.

  • Begin the sentence with an adverb:

Swiftly, she managed to catch the child before he fell.

  • Begin the sentence with a discourse or time marker:

Moreover, she managed to catch the child before he fell.

A moment later, she managed to catch the child before he fell.

b) Include a very short sentence for impact now and again, especially if it follows a considerably longer, complex sentence. Don’t overdo this technique.

c) Include one very short or one sentence paragraph somewhere in the writing.

Varied punctuation

Firstly, eliminate the comma splice: apparently it is one of the most common errors in exam writing.  Move on to semicolons and dashes and exclamations. These are the dazzlers of the punctuation world. Rarely used by students, they can make a real difference to a piece of writing, although they should be occasional guests.

Semi-colon

All the semi-colon needs to do is to join two closely related or contrasting statements but these statements must be sentences (independent clauses) in their own right:

He hurtled down the street; he was horribly late.

He hurtled down the street; she sauntered along behind him.

Dash

The dash can be used in a similar way grammatically but is more dramatic, more suggestive of surprise, a longer pause or an afterthought:

He hurtled down the street - he was horribly late.

Exclamation

The exclamation should be used very sparingly. Students are not texting. A well-placed exclamation to indicate urgency, panic, astonishment, humour or volume is a winner; an exclamation mark – or worse still, two exclamation marks - chucked in casually is not.

Openings and endings

These could be called first and last impressions. They count for a lot. Use one of the following devices to open any piece of writing: repetition; rhetorical question; powerful image; sentence fragment. That way they have at least one language technique in the bag and it engages the reader so much better. It’s easy to convert a statement in this way and struggling students find this approach really helpful.

Statement: I had to hide from my attacker.

Alternatives:

  • Hide! I had to hide.
  • Where on earth could I hide?
  • There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to seek safety, nowhere that offered any kind of protection.
  • The moorland was like a vast sheet of blank paper; there was nowhere to hide.

To end, try bringing the writing full circle in some way or echo the beginning in some way – this works really well for discursive writing. Another technique is to end with a familiar saying of some sort:

Finally, the cat was out of the bag.

Perhaps fortune does favour the bold.

That day I realised there really is no place like home.

Try researching proverbs and adapting them in this way. Ending with a well-considered short final sentence is an easy technique for most students.

On a more generic note, all of the following will help students immensely with writing:

  • Learning to plan with care, using mind-maps, vocabulary clusters and checklists of techniques to include in the writing as they go along.
  • Reading widely (most students will not do this but you might as well suggest it and give them a great reading list which could hook them in).
  • Whole class writing with the teacher modelling the processes of proof-reading, editing, developing etc.
  • Trading good examples of language techniques with their peers.
  • Identifying words, phrases and language techniques they’d like to ‘steal’ from published authors and poets.

Good luck!

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About the Author

Jill Carter is a former Leader of English and Advanced Skills Teacher who now works freelance as an educational author, blogger and tutor. She has written a wide range of secondary English textbooks and digital resources. She has nearly thirty years’ experience in the teaching of English and also hosts and teaches foreign students.

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