Here is a quick and effective technique to share with your students who are getting ready for the writing part of their exams. I have been using it with my Cambridge Advanced students who struggle with using in practice all the grammar they have crammed. Used regularly, this technique substantially boosts the students’ confidence and speeds up the planning process before they begin to write.
It is important to tell your students that they are to follow these steps each time they sit down to write an essay, report, or any other exam task. They need to get used to the feel of thinking under the pressure of time and combining the brainstorming of ideas with brainstorming correct grammar use.
Get familiar with the task instructions. Write down the plan for your text. Write down arguments you are going to use.
Make a list of grammar structures you have mastered and are confident about using.
In the case of one of my students, the list looks as follows:
- passive voice
- passive voice + a modal verb
- inversion (not only…but…; rarely; seldom)
- participle clauses
- second conditional
- complex sentences
Write down two sentences that are relevant to the task instructions per point.
It is extremely important here for the students to stay on topic and try to integrate the grammar with relevant and sensible ideas (see Step 1)
For my student, who was supposed to write an essay about how adults can influence young people’s behaviour, the notes looked like this:
Not only do teenagers dislike being told what to do, but very often they also don’t respect their parents.
Seldom do teens want to follow their parents’ advice.
- Passive voice / Passive + modal
Sadly, young people are not so easily influenced.
Setting an example by parents should be done as soon as possible because it helps to instill positive values in children.
If children were more influenced by their parents when they are still young, it would be easier for them to make accurate decisions as they grow up.
- Participle clause (regular / ‘misrelated’)
Being a teenager, it is normal to disregard your parents’ advice.
- Complex sentence
Although adults have a huge experience, young people don’t want to learn from them.
Although children seem to not care about their parents’ opinions, they observe them closely all the time.
How to use it
It might seem overwhelming and time-consuming to create such lists at first, but as it becomes a habit, students will find a natural and necessary step to complete before they get down to writing their text. I have found this to be a great remedy for the common problem: cramming a lot of grammar and doing well in exercises, still being unable to ever use it in writing or speaking.
The first step in introducing our students to this technique would be for them to go through a couple of exam-style tasks and producing such lists (2-3 sentences relevant to the tas per grammar point). Once they get used to activating their grammar this way, they will be ready to attempt a longer, coherent task.
I often get asked: What if I use all my super-grammar sentences in my text but then it doesn’t make sense as a whole?
To this, I usually reply: You don’t have to copy the sentences into your actual work if you realise they don’t make sense. This step is there for you to activate your grammar knowledge and remind yourself of what you know. If you can insert these sentences into your work, great! If not, you might find another use for the structures you revise in this way. Still, it will be easier for you to make sure you used a wide range of grammar while you are proofreading your work when you work with a checklist.
As for the students’ fear of using more advanced structures and failing, it worth keeping in that attempting more complex grammar in the exam pays off more than playing it safe and using Present Simple all the time.