Learn some handy strategies to help you with your writing exam, including ways to remember vocabulary, use lots of tenses and know how to tackle the question in front of you.
Learn some handy strategies to help you with your writing exam, including ways to remember vocabulary, use lots of tenses and know how to tackle the question in front of you.
Note to parents* - If you start reading this and get lost… hand it over to your child and politely ask/order them to read it, I promise they will find something useful in here.
Ah, September. A month that sees the leaves turn gold, the warm nights become cosy ,and the sunsets appear more vibrant, and the evil teachers make you back to school!
September is the month of second chances; getting organised, setting a positive mind set, and thinking clearly about the goals you want to achieve for the year ahead.Everything is going great, and you’ve started strong with a newly topped up pencil case and equipment, no borrowing a pen for you today! You’re a few weeks into the term, not hating your new teachers and loving your subjects (hopefully?!) The new topics are fresh and not as dull as you remember from last year and you almost find yourself thinking “I can do this. Bring it on. GCSE who?”.
Until you hear those dreaded words. Writing. Assessment. Suddenly, the productive wave you’ve been riding feels like it’s about to crash into a horrendous90-word car wreck of jumbled tenses and nonsense sentences that you feel like you need to pluck out of thin air.
Fear not mon ami (my friend – French), I am here to help!
Over the years I’ve seen the tears and witnessed the frustrations from past students who struggle to even know where to start approaching the writing exam. The truth is writing is all about practice and making sure that you are revising smart. There are a total of 12 potential topics that could come up in an exam paper and no-one can remember structures and phrases that are only topic specific, no matter how good your memory is!
However, everyone can remember a few structures that will serve them well in any topic. To show you what I mean, here are my top 10 tricks and tips to help you with the writing exam or any assessment. These strategies have been tried and tested by hundreds of my ex-students and some of these ideas are theirs which they have kindly shared them with me. This knowledge, I now pass onto you. Well, ¡vamanos pues! (let’s go, then – Spanish).
I cannot stress enough how important it is to seize the opportunity in September and set good habits from the get-go. Make sure you know the topics you have studied previously and complete some short answers to the summary questions. Your teacher has probably given you summary topic questions or you may have completed them in class, but if not, I have complied an overview list of questions that will help you summarise each topic. These are roughly 5- 6 questions per unit but you will always be able to rely on them in the writing exam.
I’ll show you some ways to improve them in the next tips but if, for example, you have covered the topics of family and technology in year 9, then make sure your summary answered are written and you look through them at least 3 times per week. We are told to eat at least 5 fruits or veggies every day and I believe even more in 5 minutes a day practicing your language skills. Learning a language is all about repetition, so recap your answers and then recap them again.
It doesn’t matter if you are on topic 7 in year 11, even more reason to make sure you know the previous ones well before you move on. 5 minutes is a powerful daily habit that will see incredible results over the course of 6, 12 and 24 weeks.
You should vary the revision you do in your 5 minutes of daily practice, but across the week make sure you spend some time reading through your prepared answers. You will be amazed at how much more you can remember doing this calmly and habitually, compared to cramming it all in under pressure because your exam is tomorrow. Trust me, it never works.
You can guarantee that you will have to express your opinion in some way shape or form, and I would advise that you do this with both positive and negative opinion phrases.
Remember that time when your teacher was mentioning something about advantages and disadvantages?
Well, that was an important one because it WILL come up. The tricky part is knowing what you are going to have to express your opinion on. As we saw in the first tip, there are 12 potential topics that could come up, so we need to think strategically about how we form our opinion phrases to make revision more manageable.
The second point to remember is that opinion phrases are a useful way to demonstrate high quality language, so don’t waste the word count on playing it safe! Look at the following example to see what I mean.
J’aime sortir avec mes amis parce que c’est divertissant / Me gusta salir con mis amigos porque es divertido.
Je n’aime pas lire des livres parce que c’est ennuyeux / No me gusta leer libros porque es aburrido
There is nothing wrong with these sentences per se; they have a justification, grammatically speaking they are correct with the infinitive verb used appropriately, but neither of them sets the world on fire and more importantly, neither are probably going to catch the attention of the person marking your paper.
However, look at how these opinions are improved with some additional structures that you can easily remember.
French: Ce que j’adore c’est sortir avec mes amis parce que c’est (très) divertissant et j’adore prendre un verre
Spanish: Lo que más me gusta es salir con mis amigos porque es (muy) divertido y me encanta tomar una copa.
French: Ce que je n’aime pas c’est lire des livres parce que c’est ennuyeux et ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé
Spanish: Lo que me parece horrible es leer libros porque es aburrido y me vuelve loco
All I have done here is add an idiom that could be used in any topic. In fact, to achieve a grade 7 or above you must use an idiom, so make sure you learn some that could be used in all 12 topics.
Me vuele loco (it drives me crazy) is a perfect replacement for no me gusta.
Equally, ce n’est pas ma tasse de thé (it’s not my cup of tea) would work in all topics as well.
The complexity of the opinions have been improved with very little additional words to remember and it is worth the effort to learn them. You want to make sure that what you are spending time revising can serve you in any answer and all you need to do is change the verb or activity if necessary to make the opinions apply to a different question.
Ce que j’adore c’est jouer au foot/ voyager/ passer du temps avec ma famille, manger la nourriture saine
Lo que más me gusta es jugar al fútbol/ viajar/ pasar tiempo con mi familia, comer la comida sana
These structures can be used in any topic and for any bullet point that asks for your opinion.
Okay, so your opinions are epic, and you’ve remembered some high-quality structures, but how do you know what the question actually means? Let’s first remind ourselves of the paper; foundation level is describing a photo, a 40 word and the choice between two 90-word questions (answer 1!).
For the higher tier you have a choice between two 90 word and two 150-word questions (again, answer 1 each!!).
The 40 word is your chance to play it safe as there is no expectation to answer in additional tenses here. Also, you have around 10 words per bullet point, not a lot of words to fill! Use your opinion phrases as discussed above along with the vocabulary given to you in the bullet points and you will soar in this section of the exam.
So, the longer questions. Where do we start? Make sure you study the bullet points for a few minutes before you start, so you are clear on the vocabulary and the tenses you need to show. Remember that you need to mention all 4 bullet points to achieve full marks on the content, so make sure you are clear on what you need to answer.
You will ALWAYS have to answer a question in the past and the future. Some key vocabulary pointers to look out for are:
récent(e) / récemment, l’année dernière/ le weekend dernier
la última vez el año pasado/ el verano pasado/ el fin de semana
These are frames to recognise the past tense. Make sure you have some past tense verbs in your mind when you see these. As a minimum, think of these;
je suis allé(e), j’ai visité, j’ai fait, j’ai vu
fui, visité, hice, ví
Equally, when you see these you know you will have to structure an answer in the future:
À l’avenir/ au futur/ l’année prochaine
En el futuro, el año próximo, when you see vas a + infinitive (are you going to do)
Just like the past, these verbs are essential to answering future time frames. Make sure you know these off by heart at least:
J’irai, je visiterai, je ferai, je verrai, je pourrai +infinitive
Iré, visitaré, haré, verré, podré + infinitive
Finally, once you have identified the time frame, look for the grammatical clues they give you as there will always be “free” language in the question. L’année dernière will often go with “tu es allé(e)” or “tu as fait”. Simply change the verb given to you to the first person to talk about yourself:
tu es allé(e)= je suis allé
hiciste= hice and eh voilà! You’ve just used the bullet points to your advantage!
This is the point where you need to grab yourself some A3 paper and have your summary questions with you. This can be done with a mixture of English and the target language; the point of this technique is to get your thoughts down on paper.
You may have heard of mind maps or used them at school, but if not, they are an excellent tool to let your brain organise itself and help your ideas flow. Mind maps are extremely useful for languages as you can start to see similarities between the topics, and you will notice that language is recycled in different areas of the course.
Let’s take the topic of family and relationships and compare it with keeping fit and sports. You can expect if the first topic were to come up that you will have to talk about your relationships with your family and friends, use both positive and negative expressions and justify these. You will most likely talk about something you did recently with your friends or a recent visit you went on with your family.
And finally, you can expect to encounter a question asking you about the advantages and disadvantages of getting married and if you will get married in the future.
Now, let’s look at sport and healthy lifestyle and think about how similar they are; your opinion on sport or what you normally do, what are the advantages and disadvantages of extreme sports, how did you keep fit last week and how will you change your lifestyle in the future to keep fit.
Granted these are two entirely different topics but once you organise your ideas on paper you will start to see the same structures, verbs, time expressions and opinion phrases coming up again and again. This is a positive process as it means that you are transferring language and using it in a variety of contexts, but it also makes revising for the exam a lot less overwhelming.
We’ve discussed that tenses are pivotal in achieving top marks in the writing.
As part of your 5 minutes daily practice, spend 30 seconds looking at your 3 most important time frames and tenses. And I mean every day. These should be verbs and time expressions that you are the master of.
You need to be the ‘phone a friend’ in Who Want To Be A Millionaire.
The ‘if there were a gun to your head scenario’ you would still get them all right.
You. Must. Know. Them.
See below for a sheet that gives you a variety of time expressions in the past, present and future. You can use them or any that you are already familiar with, just make sure you have chosen 3 from each column to show a variety.
Now, pick you 3 most important verbs in each tense. These are your 3 of a kind and will help you in any writing exam. Below is an example but it could work with any time expressions and go with the verbs you use the most. Which come up the most on your mind maps?
In French they say faire d'une pierre deux coups, which means ‘to strike twice with one stone’ Which is much nicer if you ask me.
However, lets talk about idioms and why it’s important to have a few in your memory bank.
Not only will idioms get you recognition, but they allow you to be more creative with your language and have fun with it.
Why settle for je n’aime pas when you can say ça me prend la tête?
Or no me gusta when me vuele loco is much more interesting?
Examiners are going to see the same structures and language repeatedly, so make sure that your answers stand out from the crowd. But just as tip 2 stresses the important of learning transferable opinion phrases for all topics, the same goes with your idioms. If you have a lovely idiom but it only really works when talking about charity, that’s a big gamble to take that that question will be in the exam.
However, it drives me crazy, it costs an arm and a leg, I’ve had enough, it’s raining cats and dogs and time will tell, all of these are idiomatic phrases that you can use in any answer to impress.
I would advise having 3 transferable idioms memorised and at your disposal. Here are a few to help:
The next tips are all about helping you remember the answers you have formed, hopefully using the strategies discussed above to improve your complexity! (We’ve discussed accurate verb tenses and time frames, idioms, and complex opinion phrases with justifications).
Now we need some strategies to embed this wonderful cocktail of language into your long-term memory!
Once you have prepared your answers, using the summary questions in this blog or any questions your teacher has given you, type your answers up or write them out again. It can’t hurt you to write them again, in fact that’s only aiding the long-term memory process, so get scribbling! But make sure to have your questions to the answer, for example,
“Qu’est-ce que tu as fait le weekend dernier?
¿Qué hiciste el fin de semana pasado?
Once you have typed up all your answers (this works well with a selection of questions and answers) print them out, cut them up and then shuffle them around and see if you can correctly match the question and the answer.
You can also do this with a 90-word answer preparation. Cut out each individual sentence and see if you can arrange it back in the perfect order. Check your original for reference and highlight any that you need to work on further.
A lot of the strategies we’ve spoken about involve writing or reading, but what if those are skills that you particularly struggle with? Don’t worry, you are not doomed to fail in the writing, you just need to use your other senses to help you.
Listening can be a useful tool in absorbing information, especially when done consistently. Using your prepared answers that you’ve had some feedback on, read them aloud and record yourself saying these. Save these on your phone or any device and you have access to revision whenever you need. If you need to work a little more on your phonics, you can ask your teacher to record your prepared answers, or if you are a Lessons for Languages student, I can also help with this if the support is not available at school.
Once recorded, get comfortable, close your eyes and play your answers, listening intently to each sentence. Can you see which words go with the sounds? Are you able to experiment with reading the answers in your head as you listen?
This takes some practice but is a valuable tool when used regularly.
Imagine you’ve submitted your 90-word writing task for this half term. Your teacher has given feedback, you’ve improved on those corrections, and now what?
Well, let’s avoid that piece of paper being hidden in the back of your Spanish folder for the next 18 months.
Remember tip 1? Recap, recap, recap!
When you are revising, think about how you can divide the answer into chunks that are easier to understand. You could divide by bullet point or by tense, it’s trial and error to see what you prefer. Once you have divided your answers, it’s time to cover them up.
You could cover the target language answer first, and then the English if you’ve also translated them. Cover the answer, read it out and then look back and highlight any sentences that you struggle to remember. I promise there will be more than you can remember than what you can’t!
I’m a big fan of colour and this is a great opportunity to get colourful with your writing. When thinking about chunking, if you’ve prepared a 90-word answer on the topic of the environment you could colour divide the answer into time frames as an alternative method:
Do you recycle? Present and perhaps the past to compare previous habits. Blue and pink
What are the effects of global warming? Present and perhaps future. Blue and green.
How did you help the planet last week? Past. Pink
What should we do to help the environment in the future? Future. Green.
I’ve had many a conversation with one of my students who says that they can’t remember everything they need for the writing. We discuss the same strategies as here, and they say yes when I ask if they have covered up the answers and read them back. But there’s a stumbling block. They are saying them in their head and not aloud.
But you are a linguist my dear and your power must be heard! So please read them out loud! Studies show that when we read words out loud, we can remember them far more than if we read them silently in our heads.
The best orators the world has seen have sworn by this technique. They read their speeches out loud when practicing, walking around the room as they say the words. They emphasise the points of the speech that they need to, so think of your idioms and narration here. If this technique works for Barack Obama, then it will serve you well in your writing exam!
So, if you read silently, ditch that habit today and say your answers out loud and proud. See how much more you can remember with a little volume!
So, there you have it. 10 tried and tested techniques to help with your writing practice.
We’ve discussed tips for general revision, improving your accuracy and how to understand the question in front of you.
Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day so don’t feel that you must use all 10 right away to see results. Try a few and then experiment with what works best for your style. We all learn differently and that is to be celebrated but when it comes to writing, remember the basics:
Revise structures that you can transfer
Do small and regular bursts of learning and never cram.
With some time, patience and practice, the writing section of the exam could soon become your favourite. It’s your chance to be whoever you want to be, so seize the day and put the pen to paper and see where you knowledge and imagination can take you.
Bonne chance et ¡buena suerte!