Essay questions seemed to have almost completely disappeared from Cambridge FCE until January 2015, when they suddenly became the only possibility in Writing Part One and therefore half of the writing exam and its marks. This is presumably to make FCE more of an academic exam and standardise it with the other Cambridge tests such as Cambridge Advanced, but it is likely to be a problem for both students and teachers.
One potential issues with having to write an essay in FCE Writing Part One is that it replaces the increasingly common skill of emailing. Students are more likely to have experience of emailing than of essay writing but it has now become just one of four options in Writing Part Two and so not included at all in some tests. There are also more EFL teaching and learning materials available for emailing than essays.
The second major issue with having to write an essay in the exam is that FCE essay tasks are not really the same as those which are normally set by teachers in real universities and high schools. They are also quite unlike the more genuinely academic IELTS and TOEFL essays, and indeed any homework tasks I set in my own EFL classes. This means that the tasks, tactics, language and activities used in class and for homework must be quite specific to Cambridge First.
What students have to do with FCE Writing Part One essay tasks
All the six official tests released so far for the updated 2015 FCE include these parts:
“In your English class you have been talking about… Now, your English teacher has asked you to write an essay.
Write an essay using all of the notes and give reasons for your point of view.
(statement) Do you agree?” or “(question asking to choose between two options)?” or “(yes/ no opinion question)?”
3. (your own idea)
Write your essay. You must use grammatically correct sentences with accurate spelling and punctuation in a style appropriate to the situation.”
Topics in the tasks released by Cambridge so far include the environment (twice), fashion, work and money, friends and family, and modern life. Question stems include “Which is more important – … or …?”, “Is it better to… or…?”, “We should… Do you agree?”, “Some people say that… has a bad effect on people’s lives. Do you agree?”, and “… Do you think these problems can be solved?”
The subtopics which students must include in their answers include “the kind/ type of… which is/ are…”, “the reasons for…”, “how much time is spent…”, “who you can… with”, “who will… you when you…”, “whether… is important”, and “the price of…” Many of these are not subtopics that I would choose if I had more freedom to write on the topic and a few are frankly even a little bizarre, so I think it is necessary to think of this part of the task as a problem that needs tackling rather than something that is likely to help students plan as perhaps was intended. Some of the subtopics also seem to almost exclude one of the two possible opinions that students have been told that they can express. For example, it is difficult to have a paragraph on “the kinds of animals which are in danger” if you disagree with the statement “We should do everything we can to save animals which are in danger of disappearing from our planet”.
Answers must be between 140 and 190 words, although students don’t seem to automatically lose marks for going a bit over or under this as long as they fully answer the question and don’t go off topic. Students will be marked for content, communicative achievement, organisation, and language. Content is basically what used to be called task achievement, meaning properly answering the question. Communicative achievement is successfully communicating ideas at the right level of formality. Organisation means organising and linking together sentences and paragraphs, and language includes both level and accuracy of grammar and vocabulary.
To at least pass this part of the exam students must:
- Think of one more subtopic to include in their answer before they start writing (in addition to the two which are given)
- Decide before they start writing whether they are going to give their opinion in the introduction and then support it, or if they are only going to give their opinion at the end
- Organise their essay into at least two main paragraphs plus an introduction and summary/ conclusion
- Include all three subtopics (the two given plus the one they thought of) in their answer
- Support all their arguments
- Use a neutral or formal level of language
- Leave at least a couple of minutes for final editing of spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, etc
- Finish in about 40 minutes, and no more than 45 minutes max, to leave enough time for Writing Part Two (which is an equal length and has equal marks)
- Underline important words in the question and its instructions, to make sure that they answer the question properly
- Use different kinds of support (reasons, examples, personal experience, other people’s experiences, things read or heard, logical arguments, generalisations, facts, etc) for each of their arguments
- Make sure that the things that they add to each opinion do actually support their arguments (meaning they aren’t just vaguely on the same topic, don’t actually support the opposite side of the argument, and aren’t just phrases they’ve learnt which don’t really link to what they are trying to prove)
- Avoid repeating words, instead rephrasing or using referencing expressions (including in the final summary/ conclusion)
- Make sure that the essay is neat enough to be understood without needing to be read again (but see below for limits to how much they need to worry about this)
- Start writing as soon as they can think of one reasonably suitable third subtopic (rather than wasting time brainstorming better options)
- Be ambitious with the language that they use, showing the examiner that they have a high language level and making up for their inevitable weaknesses in other areas such as accuracy
- Also add more ambitious language at the editing stage
Students should probably:
- Choose to express and support whatever opinion seems easier to write about, e.g. because it easily matches the subtopics given, rather than automatically deciding to write their real opinion
- Use as high a level of formality as they can, including things like avoiding contractions (“I am” rather than “I’m” etc), because more formal language will also be higher level language/ more ambitious language
- Show the strength or weakness of their opinions
- Use longer versions of basic phrases, e.g. using “I strongly believe” rather than “I believe”
- Give some background to the question by describing how it is important, interesting and/ or topical in the introduction (making sure that what they say is believable, not just a recycled phrase from a model answer)
- Use rhetorical questions (unlike in some genuine academic writing)
- Make up their own personal experiences etc to support their arguments (as long as they are believable)
- Write their opposite of their real opinion (if that is easier to support)
- Do Writing Part Two first if they have a mental block with the Writing Part One essay, coming back to the first task later
- Use some slightly more informal but high level language such as phrasal verbs
- Use Latin abbreviations such as “e.g.” and “etc”
- Cross things off and use little arrows to insert missing words (rather than overusing their eraser, if they have an erasable pen)
- Add whole missing sentences to the middle of the text, by putting the sentence in a box at the top or bottom of the page and drawing a long arrow to show where it should go
- Skip Part One and do two tasks from Part Two instead (they will only be credited for Part Two and so be limited to a failing 50% mark at best)
- Use very informal language such as textspeak or Twitter abbreviations (“gr8” for “great”, “lol”, etc), exclamation marks, “…”, words all in capitals, underlined words, or slang
- Try to look at both sides of each of the three subtopics (as there is neither the time nor space within the word limit)
- Waste time brainstorming lots of ideas for the best third sub-topic
- Waste time brainstorming lots of support for their arguments before they start writing (unless perhaps they really can’t decide whether to look at both sides or just one side in their essay)
- Use academic conventions which aren’t suitable for a school setting such as avoiding personal pronouns, using “The author”, and giving academic references
- Make up things to support their arguments that are outside their own experience such as imaginary statistics, quotations or page numbers of books
- Use multipurpose phrases like “This is a controversial topic nowadays” in all the essays that they write (as they will often not match the situation in the question and so will negative proof of their real language level)
- Start paragraphs with multipurpose phrases like “Secondly” and “On the other hand” (rather than “The second argument for… is…” and “Turning to the arguments against…”)
- Leave editing Part One until they have written Part Two too (as they will almost certainly run out of time first)
- Assume knowledge that the examiner might not have (such as detailed knowledge of their hometown)
- Waste time counting every word
- Include other arguments in their summary/ conclusion which they didn’t mention in the body of their essay
- Stick to basic language in an attempt to make sure that they don’t make mistakes (ambitious language being at least as important)
- Waste time editing the essay down if they go over 190 words
- Use exactly the same words in their summary/ conclusion as in the body of the essay
- Use paragraph headings (as these will be used in Writing Part Two reports and Cambridge like students to show a distinction between the two writing genres, even if that doesn’t really match real life)
Students don’t need to:
- Produce incredibly neat work (because Cambridge and the examiners know how unrealistic a handwritten essay is nowadays)
- Think of an interesting title (or indeed any title)
- Worry about how clever their ideas are (as it doesn’t affect their marks one way or the other)
- Worry too much about British and American English (just not spelling the same word two different ways is probably enough at FCE)
- Deal with the subtopics in the same order as they are given on the question sheet
- Necessarily look at both sides of the argument (if they have a strong opinion on one side or the other)
The students have free choice whether they want to give their opinion in the introduction and then support that argument related to the three sub-topics or give both sides of the argument and then give their own opinion in the conclusion. If students don’t think they can support their position related to all three topics and so want to take the latter approach, they could give reasons for their conclusion related to two topics and give the other side related to the other one. Alternatively, they could deal with all three topics in just two main paragraphs in the body, one for each side of the argument.
I would recommend that in the introduction students rephrase the question, give background to the topic etc, but most of the student answers provided by Cambridge just start by answering the question, so that seems to be acceptable. I also strongly recommend against one-sentence paragraphs, including in the final summary, but again this doesn’t seem to be a big issue with Cambridge so students could stop and move onto the Part Two question if they have reached the word limit and are already over 40 minutes into the exam. If they do want another sentence it is fairly easy to add consequences of their conclusion such as “Because of this, governments/ families/ companies/ bosses should…”
Language that the students are likely to need in FCE essays includes phrases for different ways of supporting their opinions, giving weak and strong opinions, weak and strong agreeing and disagreeing, summarising, concluding, giving reasons, and looking at both sides (advantages and disadvantages, etc). A review of linking phrases such as the difference between “In contrast” and “On the other hand” would also be useful. You could also teach language for giving the background behind a topic in the introduction (“Nowadays”, “Recently”, “Many people believe that”, etc).
Lesson ideas for FCE Writing Part One essays
First lessons including FCE Writing Part One essay questions
Given the importance of this part of the exam and how it can be very useful to get some idea of students’ strengths and weaknesses in writing right at the beginning, I highly recommend bringing this topic into the very first lesson of the course and giving an essay task for the first homework. Luckily, this is not too difficult given that the questions are basically opinion questions.
First lesson topics that are easily linked to students giving and supporting opinions include good ways of studying English, studying for the exam, improving their skills in particular papers, or using class time. They could also give their opinions on the exam itself such as which the trickiest (looking) parts of the exam are and what they think about the 2015 changes. Opinions on language learning can be made amusing by giving them a mix of sensible and crazier ways of improving their English, including things like “I think it’s a great idea to listen to English radio while you are asleep” and “In my opinion, you should describe everything that you are doing around the house in English as you are doing it”. This is even more fun if students have to choose the ideas at random and then support whatever opinion they are given. If you give students statements starting with opinions language like “I really think the story task was the easiest”, after the speaking activity students can try to remember those phrases, then brainstorm similar ones for agreeing and disagreeing, supporting arguments, etc.
All the topics just mentioned follow on quite naturally from a needs analysis stage where students interview each other about their reasons for taking the test, their previous FCE studies, their previous English studies, their strengths and weaknesses etc. Other Writing Part One-style topics that can lead on from a needs analysis stage include education and work in their country, and the position of English in modern life.
Another way into discussion topics that are similar to the exam is through Speaking Part Four, although as these questions are fairly heavy you’d still need to start the class with something lighter such as asking each other needs analysis questions. Another possibility is to start with some kind of Speaking Part One (asking personal questions) game or activity, moving onto Writing Part One questions on the same topics like family and hometowns to discuss, plan one or more of, and write one of for homework. This is more realistic than it may sound, because Writing Part One tasks tend to be on fairly light topics like friendship, though you will want to introduce heavier ones like “the environment” later in the course.
Combining essay writing with Use of English
The easiest way to combine other parts of the FCE exam with Writing Part One is for students to do Use of English exercises that have been designed to test and expand their knowledge of useful language for the essay task. For example, you can have multiple choice cloze tasks like “I _______________ think that is a good idea” with the options “strongly”, “surely”, “really” and “very”, open cloze tasks like “To ____________ another example”, word formation tasks like “_____________, that argument has no merit at all” with the key word “frank”, or key word sentence transformation tasks like “In my personal experience, this rarely works” with key word and gapped sentence “_________________ it rarely works. FIND”.
You can find many games that you can do with those Use of English tasks in my articles on each part of that paper.
Other classroom activities for FCE Writing Part One essays
There is virtually no limit to the number of possible classroom activities that could help with this task, but most of them fit into one of these categories:
- Error correction
- Discussing/ analysing model answers
- Looking at other students’ answers
- Planning answers
- Brainstorming suitable language
- Other tasks with suitable language such as matching up cards to make nice long Writing Part One phrases
- Giving and discussing tips on what they should and shouldn’t do before and during the exam
- Writing FCE Writing Part One essay questions for other groups to discuss and maybe write answers to, probably with typical question stems and/ or topics to help them come up with ideas
- Competing to make suitable sentences more and more formal or longer and longer
- Students analysing different exam questions, for example to find the similarities and differences between them
- Discussing their opinions on the questions given (“…. Do you agree?” etc), probably before they write about the same topic for homework
- Giving students tricky positions to support and/ or subtopics and asking them to come up with opinions that their partners can accept
These can also be combined in one lesson. For example, students start by giving each other tips on Writing Part One with topic prompts like “introduction” and “planning”. They then identify the bad tips in a list that they are given, before brainstorming suitable language to do the good things, such as “I totally agree with this idea” for the tip “Show the strength or weakness of your opinions”. Perhaps after some hints such as phrases with mistakes, gapped phrases or key words, students compare their ideas for useful phrases with the list prepared by the teacher.
Correction tasks for FCE Writing Part One
FCE used to have an error correction task in the Use of English paper, but perhaps because of an emphasis on communication they have both done away with that and put less and less emphasis on grammatical accuracy in the writing test. Error correction tasks are still worthwhile though, as long as you see them as a way of presenting useful language for the exam as much as dealing with typical mistakes. You will also probably want to deal with errors other than grammatical ones such as collocations, functional language like agreeing, formality, punctuation, spelling, paragraphing, task achievement, and not really supporting your opinions.
Possible classroom tasks with such typical errors are the same as with non-exam classes, including:
- Students racing to find mistakes in sentences, paragraphs, or complete texts
- Students working in pairs to find out which version is correct when their two texts vary, without showing them to each other
- Students working out if phrases are wrong are wrong or just too informal, and then making the necessary changes
Making FCE Writing Part One exam practice realistic and useful
There are probably at least as many possible lesson ideas for each of the categories of lesson activity above as there are for error correction, so I won’t attempt to make a complete list. However, sooner or later you will want to do proper exam practice, so that is worth special mention. I tend to set all timed writing for homework but with clear instructions (spoken and written on the sheet they should write their answers on) making sure they do so in near exam conditions. Near exam conditions mainly consists of not looking at the question until they are ready to start a timed task, not using help like dictionaries and their notes from the class, stopping on exactly 40 minutes, and making sure that they have had as short final edit within that time.
I then allow them to do extra work with their help of their textbooks, model answers etc. However, I tell them to change colour pen, not use an eraser, write down what kinds of changes they made, and tell me how much extra time they spent on it. These two stages help them actually expand their language knowledge at the same time as getting useful exam practice, as well as giving me loads of useful information about their present strengths and weaknesses.