Exams & Preparation

Find useful exam information and teaching ideas for your students.

How to improve our students’ exam results in ESB writing.

How often have we been cornered by an irate parent wanting to know why his child failed the writing part of the exam even though they did very well during the year in the compositions they wrote? The student in question may have passed the exam overall, but the dreaded word ‘fail’ will be the focus of the parent’s concern. 
So, how do the examiners mark the compositions?  Are they being too strict? Or are we being too lenient?
If a B2 student has done the basics we have taught him, will they get, let’s say, 18 marks out of a maximum of 20? The answer is, unfortunately, no, they will get a 12 because they have satisfied all the passing criteria for a B2 student, but have not tried to take it up to the next level.  Is that always the case with our grading?

The system of the CEFR is designed to show us how a student moves through the different levels, from A1 to C2 as they move along the road of their language acquisition.  

• The C or ‘pass’ grade means that they satisfy the language features for that particular level.  
• The B or ‘merit’ grade means that they display some, but not all, of the characteristics of a student at a higher level of the CEFR.  In other words, they tried to impress, but were not completely successful. 
• The A or ‘distinction’ grade means that they could hypothetically achieve a pass in a higher level of the CEFR.
So, how does this translate into teaching practices in composition writing?  How do we motivate our students to write compositions that are ‘above’ their level and that will ‘impress’ the examiner, please their parents and get us more students?  After all, our best advertisement is ‘word of mouth’ – our success in exams, our happy students and parents. 

1.  Put them in control. 

You will find that your students will be more motivated when they have a sense of control over what is happening.   
 So, when it comes to compositions, if we tell them how we are going to mark their compositions, they will feel part of the whole process and will be more able to perform well.  We remove the mystique of what the teacher, or the examiner, is looking for, and we give them a window into the world of how to be successful in writing.
By giving students objectives, questions to ask themselves when they are reading through their composition, we are giving them a sense of purpose. They have stepped into the role of the teacher/examiner and they have the power to make sure they get a good grade.  

2.  Set up a scoring guide

This ‘scoring guide’ will be for the four criteria of composition marking, with each criterion contributing a maximum of 5 marks to the total of 20. 
At the very beginning, we must make it crystal clear to our students the reasoning behind the awarding of marks:
¬ a ‘passing’ grade in each criteria is 3 out of 5 – they have done everything they were supposed to do 
¬ a score of 4 means they have  tried to impress, but have not been completely successful
¬ a score of 5 means they have  succeeded in impressing the marker.

3.  Define the criteria

The criteria you choose as a teacher are up to you.  What I do suggest though, is that all the teachers in your FLS work within the same system.  This will make the students feel a sense of security and continuity.
Personally, in our school we have chosen to label our criteria: 
¬ Content  What has the student written?
¬ Communicative Achievement  How easy is it to follow?
¬ Organisation How well connected is the piece of writing?
¬ Language What level of language – grammar and vocabulary –is present?
For the first few compositions, we do not award marks as we have seen that students become too focussed on the numbers and do not even glance at the ‘why’.  So, we write comments under the headings of the criteria, based on the ‘Praise – Wish – Wish’ structure.  As I am sure you all know, we, as teachers, must always try to find something to praise in our student’s work, before we launch into our ‘constructive criticism’.  It has been proven time and time again that starting with a note of praise will serve as motivation, but fronting with criticism does little more than disappoint – the eye will take in the negatives and will skip over the positives.

4.  Keep everything in one place

Make your students write all the compositions in one notebook.  Pieces of paper can go missing and the students need to be able to see what they have written in their previous work so that they can repeat their successful use of language and avoid making the same careless mistakes.

5.  Give them the questions to ask themselves.  

For each of the criteria, we can give the students questions to ask themselves before they hand in their writing. 


} Have I answered all parts of the question?
} Does the reader know exactly what question I have answered?
} Have I written the right type of composition?

Communicative Achievement

} Is my answer in the correct style: informal, formal or neutral?
} Does my answer have the right effect on the reader:  inform, entertain, persuade, etc.?
} Does my answer engage the reader from the very beginning?
} Does my answer give the reader food for thought? 



} Is my answer written in clear well-connected paragraphs?
} Have I linked my ideas together well?
} Have I used a variety of punctuation correctly?


} Does my answer contain a lot of language errors which makes it difficult to understand?
} Does my answer use a variety of words and structures which would impress the reader?

6. Highlight 

To draw the student’s eye to what he has done, I use these colour highlighters when marking:
Pink for impressive language use
Yellow for mistakes in grammar, spelling or word usage
Blue for language which does not impress and needs to be improved – such as the overuse of certain words or words lifted from the question or simplistic words like ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘thing’ .
By using colour, we are making it easier for the student to focus on what they would be rewarded for in the exam and what would not impress.  By keeping all the compositions in one book, the students can see the progress they make and you will be surprised at how much the students will crave that pink highlighter as they so desperately want to impress.  
Good luck!
J. C.
ESB Consultant