Normally when a teacher tells their teenagers to plan their writing, they either ignore them, nod quietly and laugh inside, or let out a groan. This is because of their attitude to writing as a waste of their time – writing a plan means the whole laborious writing task takes up more of it.
And let’s be fair, teenagers have very little free time. Students here in Spain spend on average 6-7 hours a week on homework, although by the time most students get to B2 or C1 level this will be much higher. Then there’s the time spent studying for the almost weekly exams in every subject. Their time is precious, and they don’t want to waste any of it doing unnecessary things.
So is planning an exam answer a waste of time? Unfortunately for our students it isn’t. Remember that in Cambridge tests, candidates receive up to five points for four different assessment criteria. This handy graphic from Cambridge for B1 level explains these in basic detail.
Planning helps students fulfil all of these points: making sure that they include the necessary information (content), that they are writing in the correct genre (communicative achievement), that their ideas are logically ordered and coherent (organisation), and that they have a variety of language appropriate for the level (language). Planning, then, is the first step to achieving success in ‘the writing’.
1: Read the question. Too often this is something we fail to do, especially if we have been preparing for the exam for a long time. Remember that including the necessary information is key to getting a high content mark (and ignoring it can mean students fail the task entirely). Students need to carefully read the question and be able to identify the main points they need to include. Whenever you set a writing task, make sure you give yourself time to review the question with your class. The traditional way of doing this is just to underline the important points. To mix it up, why not write the content points on the board and have the students try to reconstruct the question in the correct format. Or, give them an example answer and a question with gaps for them to fill in from the text what they think the content points are.
2: Find the target reader. Every writing task in the exam will have an audience, which is always identified in the question. It might be the students’ English teacher (the classic B1 story question), a college principal, readers of a magazine, or a prospective employer (among others). Identifying the target reader helps us improve our communicative achievement mark. If our B2 students are writing a review we can say that the target reader is an unknown teenager or adult who is interested in the subject, that the register (the style of writing) will be neutral or informal, and that the target reader expects to get and evaluation and some kind of recommendation about the thing being reviewed.
3: Create your ideas. Once they’ve identified the content points and the target reader, the student needs to use the question to generate their ideas. Remember that for an English Language exam there are no correct or incorrect ideas: as long as students express them appropriately for the type of task, and they are relevant to the question, they will get the point. This stage is especially important for B2 level essays, where students have to think of their own idea to add to the question, and for all part 2 tasks at B2 level and above.
4: Choose your language. The final step in the plan is to pick out some grammar and vocabulary which your students can use to show off their level. The Writing Recipes are perfect for this, as they help students identify the different structures which are best suited to each type of task. Remember that we need to be pushing our students to be ambitious with their choice of grammar and vocabulary.