Exam techniques: Letter Writing
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Exam techniques: Letter Writing
City&Guilds / City&Guilds
International English Qualifications by the UK's largest awarding bodyhttp://cityandguilds.hu
- March 04 2014
In an average classroom, students tend to write letters and compositions from time to time. The task is either printed in the textbook, such as 'Write a letter to the railway company and complain about their poor service' or is set by the teacher orally, for instance, 'As homework, write a letter to your penfriend and tell her about your summer plans'. In our experience, students' attitude to writing is typically rather negative: it is thought to be too time-consuming and often too difficult to produce written pieces. Letters are perhaps the least popular, as students consider them to be quite boring. Some teachers also tend to dislike writing tasks as it is rather time-consuming and difficult to read and evaluate someone's writing. Therefore, the fact that the majority of candidates do not do as well in writing tasks as in other parts of the test should not come as a surprise.
The main problem lies with the teaching of writing skills: there is a crying need to humanise the writing class. How can we expect our students to write anything without a good reason to write? How is it possible to act as good writers without readers? How can we preach communicative language teaching when compositions and letters are without context and communicative purpose? How can teachers neglect the process of writing so much and focus on the product of writing only? How can we expect that students will improve if all we do is correcting their 'errors' in the script? How can we expect our teenage students to write formal letters when they have hardly ever considered writing such letters even in their native tongue? These are the issues that need to be addressed before making our students write anything.
Many candidates tend to make mistakes in their exam task that reflect the shortcomings of their writing skills development. Perhaps the most typical mistake is the students' inability to write coherent texts which form connected, contextualized and appropriate pieces of communication. In other words, they do not think much about what they want to say and who they are writing for. Without a sense of purpose, a sense of audience and a sense of direction, they will lose marks in the assessment criteria 'Organisation' and 'Communication', even if they get the grammar right and have a range of vocabulary. No matter how bad the writing task above is, if you write a letter of complaint to the railway company, you must state exactly when and where you travelled, describe exactly what happened and explain what exactly you want. Without these three elements, your letter cannot possibly achieve its goal. Taking the other example, when you write an informal letter about your summer plans, the addressee must be central in your mind. You must keep 'talking' to her constantly, not only in a concluding sentence such as 'And what about your plans?', but throughout the letter, with expressions such as 'Imagine,…' ; 'And fancy that …'; 'You won't believe what …'; 'I guess you will agree that …'; or 'I haven't mentioned that …, have I?'.
Another typical problem is that candidates very rarely take the time and effort to read through their pieces:
As soon as they put a full stop at the end of their letter or composition, they do not even think of going back to make some revisions. The process of improving your writing should be a central issue, as it is the conscious processes of planning, organising, composing, and editing that lead to successful pieces of written work. 'Process writing', the innovative approach to developing writing skills, is based on these dynamic processes of improving one's writing, as its name suggests.
Successful letter writing is very much dependent on students' motivation. Teachers should consciously build a 'written culture' in the classroom where learners are motivated to communicate and discover the possibilities of self-expression in writing. Presenting artificial models of letters is rarely enough as motivation. The following ideas may be used for arousing students' motivation:
- Bring a pile of post, preferably unopened envelopes, into class and discuss their contents as well as the proper course of action.
- Share some of your letters with the students, even if they are not in English. Students should feel the importance of letters in the 'real world'. Students have to learn the special features of a letter of complaint, a letter of application or a letter of enquiry.
- Write letters to English speaking organisations together in class (e.g. libraries, associations, clubs, etc.) as long as there is a real (or partly simulated) communicative purpose.
- Writing letters to one another should be a usual way of communication: other classes should also be involved.
- Help your students find pen-friends and encourage them to take this very seriously.
- Do not let writing become a 'passive' skill: use collaborative writing activities which generate discussions as well.
- Respond positively to the strengths in a student's writing: you cannot build up confidence if you focus on error-correction. Ticks in the margin are very easy to use.
- Do not always relegate writing to a homework activity. Writing should be fun when it is a collaborative effort.
- Encourage your students to write as much and as often as they can, regardless of the genre.
If you are not in the position of giving long training in letter writing to your students, all you can do is emphasise the five most important things that may lead to success in any letter writing task of a City & Guilds Pitman Qualifications International ESOL test:
- Read the input text or instruction very carefully before starting to write.
- Do not start writing unless you have a clear sense of your audience: who are you writing to, and for what purpose?
- Do some planning and organise your content in paragraphs before starting to write.
- Use your monolingual dictionary not only for checking spelling and word meaning but also as a springboard for ideas.
- Revise what you have written very carefully