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TESOL Strategies for Teaching Writing Skills in Exam-focused ESL Classes

Exam-focused, academic writing courses usually focus on writing paragraphs, letters, reports and essays. Students are graded on mechanical errors, language used, staying on topic, organization, cohesion, unity, and other stylistic concerns.

I always tell my IELTS students that learning how to improve their writing skills for exams is just as they would train for any competition. Exam preparation teachers need to help students develop tools and techniques for them to write effectively and efficiently when under pressure. This OnTESOL Graduate blog will show you some TESOL strategies for teaching writing skills in IELTS courses, which can also be used in other exam-focused academic writing courses at different levels.

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Step One: Attack the question

Dissect the instructions! To do this at lower levels, they can highlight keywords and blank out unimportant words.

Lower levels should work on the wh-questions (What? Why? Who? How long? What tenses?) so they can respond automatically when it is time to write the exam.  At more advanced levels, they need to know what they are writing, for whom, and how long it needs to be.

At some point in the test, students should know what tenses they should use and other mechanical and style considerations they had covered in the course for this particular piece of writing; however, this can be done after the brainstorming stage.

Step Two: Brainstorming

Students need to do this quickly. They need to generate vocabulary and ideas that are going to target the purpose of the writing piece. In class, they should practice different types of brainstorming so this step takes only a few minutes.

The reason they should do brainstorming is to get ideas and to overcome stage fright and get sentences flowing. Brainstorming is an important part of the writing process that native speakers do subconsciously before composing anything. A native speaker would likely go straight to the outline of an essay, but would still have subconsciously brainstormed ideas and activated schema.

Different Brainstorming Strategies and Techniques for Teaching Writing Skills in Exam Preparation Courses

Learning how to improve writing skills means practicing listing, mind maps, word webs, storyboards, freewriting, and numerous types of graphic organizers. These should be worked on in class so that students have a repertoire of tools to use during the writing skills exam. Here are some brainstorming strategies:

  • Students generate vocabulary and ideas on the theme of the lesson. This is not only a writing skills strategy; it is what is called building schema: mental pictures of concepts -the terms we need to be able to think, talk about and write on a subject. In our native language, we consciously and subconsciously accumulate a huge storage bank of topics which have gone into long-term memory and bring them to use subconsciously when we communicate. When we try to function in a second language, we also need these ‘banks’ of concepts to be able to produce our second language with any degree of fluency.
  • The teacher shows or models different techniques. On the board, ESL teachers can elicit ideas from students and draw mind-maps, word- webs, lists or other types of graphic organizers according to their level and what we want them to produce.
  • “Freewriting” for intermediate levels is another excellent technique for building fluency and confidence in writing. ESL teachers set a time limit, give students  meaningful question prompts and tell them to just write on the topic, focus on the questions, but write anything that comes to mind. There are no wrong answers, they do not need to look up words and should just write without stopping. Model this on the board, show them it will be messy, they will make mistakes, but it doesn’t matter. They have to think about the topic, get ideas, generate vocabulary and find a focus for the next stage of writing. Get them to give you a topic and model the process.

Learn more about teaching IELTS on our blog. Find communicative activities for IELTS preparation courses, written by our online TESOL graduate in Vietnam.  Looking for teaching jobs? Sign up to the OnTESOL Job Board (It’s free and doesn’t require enrollment in a TESOL course with OnTESOL)

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