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How will I pass my English exam?

Marcos Alonso from Paraguay asks:

I wrote to you last year asking you how to improve my accent and your answer helped me a lot. Currently I am preparing myself for the CAE Exam (Certificate in Advanced English) in June in Bern, Switzerland.

I would like to ask you for some suggestions on how to improve my writing at this level. I know that this exam in much more difficult than the FCE and I am having some difficulties with this part.


Roger replies:

I hope this is good advice for any writing that any of you may do. Careful planning and making sure that you address the issues that need to be addressed is always important. And once you know what you want to say, the best presentation you can manage with clear paragraphing and perhaps bullet-pointing, if there are important issues to be listed, can only have a positive effect on the reader.

In the CAE writing paper, there are two questions to be answered, one from Part One and one from Part Two, and each answer needs to be about 250 words long. It is important to aim for this length of reply - fewer words are likely to mean that the task is incomplete, whilst an overlong response may lead you to include irrelevant material which may have a negative effect on the reader.

CAE part one

To answer the first compulsory question in Part One, you will need to process a maximum of 400 words of textual material first of all. This will not be too difficult to understand at this level and may consist of continuous text and notes, which may sometimes be supported by illustrations and diagrams. You will need to compare items of information in the text and carry forward relevant material to your answer. Make sure you have a thorough understanding of what is required and plan your response carefully.

Using your own words as far as possible in your answer, you will be required to write newspaper or magazine articles, contributions to leaflets or brochures, notices, announcements, personal notes or messages, formal or informal letters, reports, reviews, introductions, directions, competition entries, information sheets or memos or a combination of one or two of these.

During your preparation stage in this period leading up to the writing exam, you should be practising your intensive reading skills and also writing in a variety of styles and registers. You will then be able to respond appropriately to this question and choose tasks in Part Two best suited to your interests and experience.

CAE Part two

In Part Two, you must choose one of four questions to answer. If one of the questions covers a vocabulary area that is very familiar to you and if the topic is of particular interest, this will probably be the one to choose. Part Two covers a similar range of task types, writing articles, reports, leaflets or letters and includes a work-oriented task for candidates with business interests.

It is always vitally important to answer all parts of the question as directed, so identify the task and its component parts carefully.

If the question asks you to write an informal leaflet for visitors to a theme park, giving a brief history of the park, a description of its features and outlining briefly the plans it has for the immediate future, it is important to include all three aspects in your reply in order to gain a pass mark. If you write only about its history and current features, your performance will not be deemed satisfactory, however good your writing may be.

Presentation of content is also important. Examiners are looking for appropriate selection and expansion of key features. Paragraphs should be well organised and appropriately linked. It is important that your piece of writing has a positive effect on the target reader.

Selection of the appropriate register and range of expression are important too. The above example would require language of description and giving information, supported by a range of tenses. The register should be consistent, fairly informal and have an enthusiastic tone.

If you can do all of this to a reasonable degree of proficiency, you will pass the written paper! If you think you are at this level, try answering the theme park question above, or substitute a local attraction that you would like to write about. Try to answer the question in about 250 words within one hour. Follow the advice above and try to think of a title for the leaflet that will attract interest.

During the exam proper, always leave time to read through your work so that you can edit out any major inconsistencies, but do not worry too much about making syntactic or lexical errors. Accuracy is important, but you will be marked down for language only if it obscures communication or if you use language which is too elementary for this level.

And if you, Marcos, can sustain the standard you have set in your letter above over 250 words in both the Part One and Part Two pieces of writing, you will achieve a good pass.

Incidentally, the Handbooks for just about all the UCLES English Language Exams, which contain sample questions and answers, mark schemes and preparation advice, can be downloaded free of charge from the website www.cambridge-efl.org.uk