Improving Exam Writing – Help Your Students Get Better Marks

Exam writing can be tough for students to master, especially if they find it difficult to write in their own language, which is increasingly common in the digital era. Combined with topics that can be a little dull, and that they would rarely speak about in their mother tongue, teaching students to produce exam standard writing can be very challenging.

If you want to know more about Cambridge exam writings, check out my previous blogs on the topic here –

Essay Writing For The Cambridge FCE

A Teacher’s Guide To The Cambridge PET Reading And Writing Exam

CAE Example Essay With Examiner Comments

Essay Writing For The Cambridge CAE

Writing Exam Preparation Tips

Today, I’m focusing on skills that students should practise in order to produce a decent writing assignment.

Vocabulary – Be Creative!

Nobody wants to read an essay or letter that uses basic language and lacks flair. Consider this;

  • English grammar is relatively easy, having a look at different levels of textbook will tell you that the grammar taught at each level is the same. The might build on things already taught before, adding things and making it a little more challenging. But the basic grammar is very similar across all levels. So what will examiners look at in a writing to determine the level of the candidate? Largely, they will look at the vocabulary they use, if it relates to the topic, if it’s used appropriately, and if students can effectively use synonyms and a variety of vocabulary to avoid repeating themselves and the words used in the question.

So here are some tips for improving vocabulary use –

  • Before they sit down to write anything, encourage to brainstorm vocabulary that relates to the topic they need to write about. Making sure that the words and phrases are appropriate for their level. They can start with nouns, then make different sections for verbs, adjectives, adverbs, expressions, etc. While they are writing, they should check back to this list and see what they can add from it.
  • After they have finished their writing, they should go back and read it again, twice if necessary, Presentation isn’t marked in the exam, so it’s no problem if they add things afterwards, as long as it’s readable! They may focus on things like adverbs, which are always easier to add after the sentence is already formed.
  • Students should, as far as possible, avoid repeating themselves and using the same words and phrases over and over again. Synonyms and originality are to be praised here. Also, get them to try and rephrase the words used in the question.

Answer The Question!

This may seem the most obvious thing in the world, but I often see students struggling with this! Between the introduction and the conclusion, they forget to look at the question as often as they should and end up deviating from the goal. I’m not saying they start talking about something completely different, but they sometimes forget to give a definitive response to the question originally asked.

  • Get them to constantly refer to the task while the are writing, each time they finish or start a new paragraph for example.
  • After they finish writing. Encourage them to put the question and their conclusion together, do they match? Does the conclusion leave the reader in doubt about the opinion of the writer? Does the writing in general provide a satisfactory answer to that question? Or does it deviate and end up answering something similar, but slightly different.

Let It Flow!

A student might use the most wonderful language, use perfect structures in all the right places, and answer the question perfectly, but be caught out if their writing doesn’t flow naturally. It’s not the be all and end all, but could net them some of those elusive points for organisation.

  • Stress the importance of producing a plan before they begin writing, and actually follow it.
  • They should make sure that their essay or letter or whatever, uses appropriate linking expressions and cohesive devices, so that it has a nice flow.
  •  An easy way of doing this is using a set uniform set of words to start new paragraphs. E.g. Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly, etc.

The Little Things Count

In the rush to finish the task and get it over with, little things are often, tragically, forgotten.


Please! Please encourage students to focus on their spelling, mistakes are usually easy to avoid. But they can lose a lot of points for errors.

  • When they finish, get them to go back and read their work again! It sounds obvious, but so many don’t! Check for spelling mistakes and other problems.
  • Throughout the course, be conscious of the mistakes that your class as a whole, and individual students, constantly make. They should make a list of these, perhaps 10 or 15 words, that they have problems with. Revise these periodically to make sure they get it right on exam day!

Appropriate Style

Every type of writing has different rules. Among the most important differences is the formal / informal style. These rules are easy to learn and remember. For formal writing;

  • No Contractions
  • No Phrasal Verbs (With a few marked exceptions)
  • No Idioms
  • No Abbreviations

These are easy things to avoid using when writing, for example, an essay. Candidates should also check back when they have finished, making sure that they haven’t used any.

This is just an example, make sure that they are familiar with all the rules associated with different forms of writing tasks.

Any more tips for improving writing? Let me know in the comments!

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