FCE Writing – top tips and common mistakes to avoid

Students taking the First Certificate exam often feel especially anxious about the writing section because this is typically one of the least practiced skills within many EFL classrooms. Many students have completed plenty of gap fill exercises in which they are required to choose the correct term depending on the context, but won’t have had so much opportunity to write lengthy essays and/or articles, reviews etc, which are required of them in this section. The reason for this is that it’s much easier for teachers with large classes to distribute and mark the former exercise rather than the latter.

Therefore, a large number of students have a significantly higher level in the other three areas (speaking, listening and reading) because these are the skills that are more immediate for them to function and communicate with others on a day-to-day basis. A typical error made at this level is the tone and register; candidates tend to write in the way they have learnt to speak, using common phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions, which is not appropriate for this section, and is something for which examiners will deduct marks. The vocabulary, tone and register required for the two writing tasks, especially Task 1, need to be consistent with the expectation of the reader.

As always with exam preparation, the best way to ensure students are most likely to pass is for them to become familiar with the questions they will face on the day. Thankfully, the structure of this exam is very formulaic so teachers can ensure candidates become easily acquainted with the specific tasks they will be required to complete. This structure is as follows:

Task 1 will always consist of an essay in which candidates need to present a balanced argument regarding a specific topic that people from any nationality can relate to, such as the effects of modern technology on the environment, or the advantages that public transport has over the private motorcar etc. This task always provides candidates with two ideas to include in their essay, and requires them to include one additional idea of their own. Preparing students with a selection of common discourse markers and conjunctions they can insert in their essay in order to compare the positive and negative effects of any argument is essential for developing the building blocks for a well structured essay at this level.

Task 2 will consist of three or four options ranging from a short article, a review, an email/letter or a report. Candidates have a choice as to which of these they wish to write about, so advance practice of all of these writing styles is highly advisable.

Further ways for students to prepare are to become accustomed to completing the two tasks within 1 hour and 20 minutes – both tasks are worth the same amount of points so time should be divided equally. It’s also important to keep in mind all of the assessment criteria, and use the time appropriately in order to write about the points mentioned – other details will not contribute to a higher mark, no matter how well written they are!

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at martinwilson@mwlc.co.uk.

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