Tag Archives: writing

IH Journal: Examinator Column

30 Mar

It is with very great pride that I’d like to share my new column in the IH Journal!

I love teaching exam classes.  I find them to be among the more motivated and interested students and while this isn’t always the case with every student, very often having that fixed goal of the exam helps the students to think about what they can do, what they can’t do and what they need to know to get where they want to go.  So the fact that I now get to write about teaching exam classes is just the cherry on top of the cake!


In this first column, I look at teaching writing to exam classes, which I find is often an area of weakness as students don’t always get asked to work with the text types or text structures that an exam demands, until they get to the exam itself.  It’s not that writing is neglected necessarily at lower levels, but that exam writing asks for a different approach to writing than is often presented in more general English course books.

So in this article, apart from introducing the column, you’ll find three key ideas to help your learners with their exam writing.  Find out more here:

Examinator Column:  Helping Learners with Exam Writing

And while you’re there, why not take a look at some of the other great articles on offer?  This issue sees a bit of a revamp of the IH Journal format, under the new editorship of Chris Ozóg, and includes new columns on teacher training and development, academic management, as well as familiar favourites on technology and Young learner teaching.  This particular issue also has a special focus on materials writing, how to get into it, how to do it and what it’s really like.

If you have any comments on my piece, but can’t submit them via the IH Journal site, feel free to comment here.  Particularly if there’s an exam related topic you’d like me to address in future issues.


Processes and Passives

18 Jan

This is a lesson I did with my advanced class the other day as part of a review of passive structures.  I’ve typed it all up into a full plan and procedure which you can download in pdf through this link:  teflgeek – A lesson on processes and passives

It is based around a short advert that I found on Larry Ferlazzo’s site from the company Target:

In the lesson, the learners listen to the video without watching it, and predict what they think is happening.

They then watch it and extract as much language out of it as they can, before using the vocabulary they collected to write up a description of the process.  As it is a process, there is a nice mixture of active and passive structures that can be used and the lesson also contains some input on using the passive.

They can then use these skills to describe other contraptions and processes for homework, such as the image below.

I used this mostly as a vehicle for working with the passive, but it should also work quite well as a lesson for teaching IELTS part one writing.



IELTS Writing Part 1 – The Happiness Graph!

19 Nov

How happy have you been over the last week?  Has it been a good or a bad week?  This is (broadly speaking) what my week looked like:
Happiness Graph


The Happiness Graph is a warmer that you can use with any class and which can, with the tiniest bit of adaptation, be used as a student generated IELTS task.


As a warmer, you draw the X and Y axes on the board as shown in the image above.  As you draw the line graph, talk the learners through your week and your reasons why.  For example:  “Monday is the start of the working week and is never a good day for me, but work went well on Tuesday and Wednesday and I was feeling pretty good.  When I woke up on Thursday morning I wasn’t feeling very well and this, as well as a lot of work to do on Friday, left me feeling a bit tired and stressed.  But I recovered well on Saturday, and on Sunday my family and I all went to the beach and had a really nice time, before going back to work on Monday!”

The learners then draw their own version of the happiness graph.  When they’re done, they share and compare their graphs with each other, explaining the peaks and troughs and hopefully asking follow up questions of each other.


In the IELTS writing part one, learners are asked to write about a chart, diagram or graph, so I adapted the happiness graph for this purpose.  This lesson requires no real preparation as the materials come from the learners, though you might want to supplement the language input slightly with additional verbs that describe trends.

Begin in the same way as the warmer, by drawing your version of the graph on the board and describing what happened to you during the previous seven days.

Ask learners to draw their own versions of the graph, but not to show it to anyone.

Refer learners back to the board and your happiness graph.  Ask learners for expressions they can use to describe the level of happiness over the week.  Write up their suggestions on the board and input additional verbs that describe trends (e.g. rise, fall, drop, increase etc) and adverbials of degree (e.g. slightly, massively, a lot, a little etc) as necessary.  In pairs, ask the students to write a brief description of your happiness graph.  Monitor and provide feedback as necessary.  At this stage, depending on your class, you could do some additional input work.  There is a nice task at the back of Scott Thornbury’s “Uncovering Grammar” (page 106), but many IELTS and Business English course books have sections on this area that you could use.

Ask learners to work with a new partner, preferably someone who is seated on the opposite side of the room.  Learners then do a dictadraw activity, where learner A describes their happiness graph and learner B listens and draws a version of it.  Learners then come together to share their drawing, compare what they drew, and explain why the level of happiness moved up and down as it did.  Learners then draw their partner’s happiness level onto the same graph as they drew their original happiness graph, so that there are now TWO different (and accurate) happiness lines on their graph.

Finally, learners write a short (!) 150 word description that compares and contrasts the two lines on their graph.  As a final analysis learners can compare what they wrote and look at why any differences occurred – and can correct any errors spotted!

I would set an authentic IELTS part one writing task as homework from this.



Acknowledgement:  The happiness graph as a warmer was shown to me at International House Katowice by David Magalhaes in 2005 (or so).  I think.  Apologies if I’ve got that wrong, do let me know!

The Colour Coded Essay – #IHTOC7

13 May

With the introduction of a compulsory essay task in the Cambridge English: First & Advanced exams, it’s become quite important for learners to understand essay structure and organisation.

Here’s a ten minute talk I did for the International House Teacher’s Online conference:


And here are the slides for the presentation:




Check out all the other great talks in the IHTOC7 conference here:



Free Teachers’ Online Conference – Friday 8th May #IHTOC7

5 May

The annual International House Teachers Online conference is taking place over this weekend and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to drop in and take part in this free event.

On Friday 8th, 10.30 – 16.30 (GMT) there will be a series of ten minute sessions from teachers in the IH network – twenty three different sessions in all, grouped loosely together under the headings; The Big Picture, Fabulous Feedback, Rampant Resources and Culture & Nurture.

I will be giving a quick ten minute talk on essay structure for the Cambridge exams – and showing how using a colour-coded essay template can help learners to make textual connections and strengthen the organisation and structure of an exam focused essay.

Saturday 9th, 10.30 – 15.15 (GMT) focuses on teaching modern languages, with IH teachers of Russian, German, Spanish and French sharing their ideas in a series of one hour sessions.

Click here for the timetable, with information about when everything is happening.  Links to the online conference rooms will also appear here on the day.

Click here for the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies of the speakers and their sessions.

Make sure you get the timings right!  All conference times are in GMT.

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Reproduced underAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) Licence.

Cambridge Advanced writing – learning to answer the question

28 May

Keeping writing relevant to the question is something that learners often have difficulty with.  Sometimes this is because they mis-identify the key content points, sometimes it’s because they write their answer for the wrong purpose.

This is the outline of a lesson I did with my CAE class the other day – I used tasks from the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English 1 practice test book – but this would be adaptable to other levels and your own materials.

The aims are:

  • to familiarize learners with the language and style of exam writing questions
  • to provide learners with a strategy to access key question content


Lead in:

A quick discussion among the learners – which writing tasks they like, which ones they don’t and why.


Give the learners a sample Writing Part 2 question (either question 2, 3 or 4) and ask them to work in pairs to identify (a) what they have to write about; (b) why they are writing.

Feedback & input:  draw a line down the middle of the board and either nominate people to come up and write their ideas in the right side of the board, or ask them to tell you and write their ideas up yourself.

On the left side of the board, write the acronym:

  • T
  • I
  • P

Ask the learners what the acronym stands for:  tell them it represents:

  • Theme (or Topic)
  • Idea(s)
  • Purpose

The TIP is a tool to help them analyse the question and make sure they are including the relevant information in their answers.

Using the sample question you gave them earlier, lead them through an analysis.  As an example, see the question below, which is reproduced here without official permission from Cambridge ESOL and which comes from the 2008 version of the handbook:

CAE writing sample task

Here I would suggest that the Topic  is “a famous scientist”, the Ideas are “their achievements” and the Purpose is “to convince someone to make a TV programme about them”.

The TIP tool also functions as a way of determining the organisation of the text, in the above case, the introduction of the competition entry relates to the topic, while the main body would contain a description of the ideas and the conclusion would be the essential justification to include the chosen scientist, in other words, fulfilling purpose.


Ask the learners to form three groups (group A, group B, group C) and give them additional part two questions to work with.  Ask them to identify the TIP for each question.

Regroup the learners so that they are working in groups of three, with each group comprising one student from the former groups A, B & C.  The learners can then share and compare their analyses and you as the teacher can monitor and clarify any concerns.

Further Practice & Production:

In their groups of three from the previous stage, ask the learners to write their own “CAE Writing Part 2 question”.  Monitor this stage and if necessary feedback on whether the questions are too broad (e.g. write a proposal for world peace), too specific or requiring specialist knowledge (e.g. what are the advantages and disadvantages of Samsung as compared to Apple) or too personal (e.g. write a letter introducing your partner to your parents) – none of which candidates need to write about in a Cambridge exam!

When they’ve drafted suitable questions, they swap their questions with a different group, who must (a) identify the TIP for the question they’ve just been given; (b) draft a suitable plan for an answer and (c) write a strong introduction for their answer.  (this last one can be dropped if time is an issue).

These can then go back to the group that wrote the question for feedback, or the groups can come together to compare outcomes.

The End.

Except of course, for homework, you may want to ask them to complete a Part 2 writing task….

This lesson (post)  is also available as a downloadable pdf here: teflgeek – Accessing Exam Writing Questions


Write and Improve: An Online writing helper

22 Apr

Writing is probably the most difficult area for learners to improve on by themselves.  Writing demands an audience and if you have no-one to tell you how successful your efforts are – or not – then you are doomed to repeat your failures into eternity.

Cambridge English have, however, just released a beta version of an online, browser based writing helper.  Currently free to use and requiring only a facebook login (or email registration), the service allows learners to input their answers to one of the five questions provided (or submit a piece of writing of their own choice) and to get feedback on their efforts.

write and improve 01

In the screenshot above, the highlighted text at the bottom of the image is the submitted text.  The colour coding represents the program’s opinion of the learner level the different sections of the text represent.  The deeper the green, the closer to B2 level (or above) the text is – the more furious the reds, the closer to B1 level (or below).

You’ll also notice the “tabs” under the heading Detailed Feedback  these are meant to provide a closer look at what errors the writer has made and give suggestions for improving them:

write and improve 02

It’s worth remembering that this is still in the stages of testing and ironing out initial problems – and there are quite a few things that I think need improving!

As it stands, the feedback it gives is primarily linguistic and syntactical.  In other words it looks at the grammar of the sentences and makes suggestions.  And it doesn’t currently catch everything – as in the third sentence above; “I the town you can…” or the fourth sentence “You can go to the shopping”.

The text itself was an answer to a question from a Cambridge English Preliminary paper from a student studying at Intermediate level.  There is a lot of repetition in the text and very limited grammatical range.  The student has also some word choice issues – again there is a lot of repetition (a lot of which is repeated from the input) and some vocabulary inappropriacy.  The task was also a letter (replying to a penfriend) and there are a couple of genre features missing, though in fairness to the system – it didn’t know that as this was submitted to the free writing section.  Overall though, this is a piece of writing which I think is close to B1 level, but which is nowhere nearly sophisticated enough to achieve B2 level, as the system suggests.

I had some fun writing an error strewn letter of application for a summer camp job, just to test whether it does pick up on these things.  It doesn’t.

So who should use this tool?  It’s unfair to judge it too harshly at this stage of development but I don’t think the target audience of B1- B2 are actually the people who should be using it.  Students hoping to achieve a B2 certificate need to consider a much wider range of things to improve on and if this tool is to be useful for them, then it needs to more accurately reflect the things they’re being assessed on.  However, I think students who are at B1 level or below may well find it useful, as they will get to see the improvements they make to their texts improve their scores – as long as they don’t mind seeing their work highlighted in quite a lot of red to start with!

I have yet to try it with a class and I’m curious to see how useful students think it is, so that’s the next obvious test!  But in the meantime, why not check it out and see what you think:

write and improve04



IELTS & Daily Charts from The Economist

17 Apr

IELTS teachers will be glad to know that The Economist has a “Daily Chart” section on their blog pages called Graphic Detail.

Featuring “charts, maps and infographics”, not all the content is useful for those IELTS Academic writing part one tasks – the recent retrospective of Margaret Thatcher’s career in Economist covers being an example – but a lot of it is indeed very useful:  see yesterday’s exploration of changes to the minimum wage (pictured) as an example.

The sheer wealth of information that The Economist publishes in this way means that there should be something for every IELTS lesson, or at least that you can build up quite a nice collection of graphics for use with your classes.

Ways that I’ve been using these graphics with my current IELTS group include:

Lesson warmers:

A mingle activity where learners each have a different graphic, they mingle and describe their graphic to each other, thus getting a bit of additional practice in using data analysis language.  A variation:  learners swap their graphics each time, so that they get practice with lots of different graphics and information.

A dictadraw activity using two different charts where learners sit back to back and describe their graphics to each other, draw a representation of their partner’s graphic (based on that description) and when both are done, compare their efforts with the original.

Practice Tasks:

It is, of course, easy enough to design a quick IELTS academic writing part one task based on these graphics.

Task Models:

Each chart is usually accompanied by a short paragraph that describes the chart and the background to it.  It’s worth pointing out to learners that the Economist model is a journalistic one – the purpose, tone and content will be slightly different to that required by IELTS.  Nonetheless, if you have a large collection of graphics and paragraphs, learners can do a matching exercise or a reading race (where you give learners the graphic and they have to run and find the correct matching paragraph from a selection stuck to the board).

The paragraphs are also useful sources of language and, despite the caveats noted earlier, it is a useful process for learners to mine the text for any and all expressions they think they can pull out and use in their own writing.

The Economist blog can be found here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail and is also available for subscriptions via RSS or via their Twitter feed: @ECONdailycharts.

Keep Calm and Write On – #IHTOC3

5 Nov

For those that may have missed it, here are the slides (as pdf) from the webinar I gave at the IH Teachers’ Online Conference on 3rd November.

The session was a look at common problems learners have with writing for exam classes, particularly Cambridge exams (FCE etc), but also, I think, applicable to other exams and writing in general.  It then goes on to suggest a range of activities you can do with those learners to help them with these problem areas.  There’s about 36 different activities suggested – so there should be something in there for everyone!

The webinar was recorded, and if you have the time and the patience to sit through the 60 minute session, you can do so here:

Adobe Connect – Keep Calm & Write On

That should open up in a new window.  I don’t know how long that’s going to be up for, so apologies if you can’t access it.  I found the Adobe Connect software worked better in Firefox than Chrome, though that might just be me!

It’s worth taking a look at the video if you can, not just because you get an explanation of the activities, but also because there were loads of great ideas coming up in the chatbox – additions, extensions and adaptations to alternative contexts – so thanks to everyone who took part for the contributions!

Any problems, questions or queries – let me know!

Getting learners writing: FoldBooks!

19 Apr

It can be difficult to get learners writing, especially young learners who often see writing as an imposition on classroom fun and games – so fun ways to encourage learner writing are always welcome.

At the FoldPlay website, they’ve come up with FoldBooks.  As the name suggests, these are mini-booklets made out of A4 paper, which have been pre-printed with images and text.

If you go to the FoldBooks page you’ll find input boxes there to work with, once you’ve filled everything in, click the “make your book” button, then print and follow the folding and cutting instructions precisely.

There are eight boxes that need text adding to them, and consequently eight pictures that need to be included.  In order to maximise the amount of text that can be put on the page, it’s best to reduce the font size to about 12 and the text margin to about 18, which is roughly the same as the image margins.  Pictures though, can only be uploaded from the computer, so if learners want to use pictures from the internet, they’ll need to download those to the computer, before uploading them again, which is a bit of a hassle, but there you go.

I think with learners, particularly younger learners, I’d ask them to write a first draft in the classroom before adding the excitement of the computers.  All that’s needed is eight smallish – say two or three sentence – paragraphs.  It might fit nicely with some of the circle writing tasks along the lines of “describe a man  / describe a woman  /  the place they met  /  what did they say to each other / what were their dreams  /  what was the problem  /  what did they do  /  how did it end”  (for example).

Once learners have got a set of  accurate texts they’re happy with, they can think about pictures they want to illustrate their books.

That, I think, is the point to take them into the computer room and let them have a go at making their  FoldBooks.