The English-Learning and Languages Review Ζ Homepage
Advice on Language Examinations
This page is an edited extract from The Art and Science of Learning Languages, by Amorey Gethin and Erik V. Gunnemark, published by Intellect (http://www.intellectbooks.com For details click here This publisher is particularly interested in computer-assisted language-learning.)
"This book is very interesting...could be a great help to students of foreign languages, but also to tutors. ...The best section of all, however, in my opinion, is the chapter on how to pass language examinations, which includes all those techniques which are likely to help the student..." From the review in The Lecturer July 1996.
The tyranny of examinations and the need for realism
Exams are hateful things. No truly civilized community would ever subject anybody to such ordeals. There are not only the emotional effects of fear of failure, and of failure itself - a collapse of self-confidence and a miserable anxiety about one's ability to cope with the future. Countless millions of people's whole lives are decisively affected by how they do in exams. Because exams play such a big part in modern society I want to suggest some ways in which people could do better in exams in foreign languages.
I have had exceptional success with the methods I recommend here in coaching candidates for examinations in English as a foreign language. Several private students who, after repeated failures, had been given up as hopeless cases by private teachers and institutions alike have been able to pass their exams by using these methods. The same methods have also worked extremely well with whole classes. Of those who used them a very much higher proportion than the average (sometimes as high as 95%) passed their examinations.
What has particularly gladdened me is that in my classes my advice has helped many candidates who have been on the 'borderline' between passing and failing. It is such students who need help most.
The key to success is to be realistic. One of the most common reasons for people failing their language exams is that they aim too high. They aim for perfection, and instead just make a terrible mess of everything. Unfortunately it is often teachers who are responsible for this situation. They try to get their students to achieve perfect or near-perfect answers, and as often as not undermine the students' morale as well as failing to show them the essential thing: a practical way of dealing with the problems.
This in a way contradicts what I believe should be a basic principle for most people when they learn a foreign language: one should aim for perfection. But exam candidates face an immediate practical problem, and preparing for an exam and finding good enough answers to the questions one finds in the exam papers themselves is in many important ways not the same as learning a language.
There are many thousands of candidates with a good enough knowledge of the foreign language to pass who have failed because they have not prepared in the right way and because they have used the wrong technique, or no technique at all, in the examination itself. But there are also many students with less knowledge of the language who have passed, through good preparation and good examination technique.
You may feel that what I am saying is that the best way to pass is by using tricks. But that is not really so. What I am saying is that you can do best by being systematic and self-disciplined. Below I first offer some general advice. I then discuss in detail how to deal with various types of test. The examples of exam questions that I use are for examinations in English as a foreign language, but I believe most of my suggestions are equally valid for exams in other foreign languages.
This part of the web page has not been written for those who, without much difficulty, will get a top grade in their language examinations. They have little or no need of the advice in it. All that such lucky people need do is make sure they know exactly what sort of tests they are going to meet in the exam papers and what the examiners expect of them.
Most candidates are in a very different situation. They know they will not get the highest marks. The important question for them is simply, 'Can I pass?' If you are such a candidate, there are a number of simple practical things you can do to get many more marks than you might otherwise get.
Above everything else, though, there is a principle about language examinations you should never forget:
You must show the examiner only what you know, never what you do not know.
For instance, in examinations where there is some sort of composition work it is foolish for most candidates to try to write something that meets perfectly all the demands the examiners make, especially in more advanced level examinations. They will probably meet with catastrophe if they do. It is much better for you if you can be realistic and use practical methods to write good language, even if that language is not up to the ideal standard the examiners are asking for from candidates they would give the top grade.
To pass the examination you need:
1 the right preparation before the examination
2 the right technique during the examination itself
Before anything else you must obviously know in outline what is going to be in the papers set for the examination. This is only the beginning. It is essential to know too, in detail, exactly what type of language the examiners will ask you to show you understand, what sort of subjects they will probably ask you to write about, and what sort of grammatical or vocabulary points they are likely to test you on.
Clearly you must be prepared for the sort of questions you will get and clearly you must practise answering some of the same sort of questions.
Some teachers may have fine intellectual or practical ambitions on behalf of their students and may resent the distractions of examinations. They should always remember what a terrifying responsibility they have. If you have teachers, you must insist that they do not give you things to do that you do not have to do in the exam; that's a luxury you cannot afford, and can be dangerous for candidates' confidence. Teachers and candidates have to be thoroughly systematic, and make sure they are really ready for all the problems they are liable to get.
But do not make the mistake that, unfortunately, so many students make. Do not believe that doing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of test questions, and discovering the answers, is the right way to prepare. Do not believe that if you do 600 questions and answers you will be twice as well prepared, will have learned twice as much, as if you do only 300. Very often this sort of preparation just means going through automatic, mechanical motions without thought; don't just say to yourself 'Ah! So that's the answer, is it! Next question please!'
Ten thousand test questions will be useless to you unless you study the method needed to answer, and the method needed to prepare. If you doubt this, remind yourself of the fact that you will almost certainly never get exactly the same question again. You should spend the time studying how to be ready for questions you have never seen before. It is much better to spend an hour thinking carefully about how to do five questions, than to spend an hour doing fifty questions and answers without thinking about them. The question a candidate should constantly ask is 'How?' In this way you can build up confidence that you can deal with almost any problem. If you decide to use the services of teachers to help you prepare for your exam, make sure that they too concentrate on answering the question 'How?'
This point about dealing with problems leads on to what is probably the most important piece of advice I have to offer.
You must learn about yourself. You must discover what your own special needs are in the language concerned. There is no need to 'learn' the whole of the foreign language 'equally', so to speak - spending equal time and effort on each part. This is a waste. You should pick out what makes the language different from your own and concentrate on those parts. And then, above all, you should discover your own personal weak points in the language, become aware of your own special problems, find out what mistakes you most often make. Make a list of them.
You should practise doing the various sorts of work you will be asked to do in the examination; in particular you should practise writing compositions, if they form part of the exam. You should then make a careful note of any mistakes you make more than once. Count up how many times you make each mistake, and the mistake you make most often should be at the top of your list, the next most common one in second place, and so on. For instance, if you are studying English as a foreign language, and your own language is Japanese or Persian, you may find that the problem of articles (a, the) comes at the top of your list. If you speak German, you may find if is your biggest problem. If your mother tongue is French you may find you are always having trouble with since. And if Spanish or Italian is your language, you may constantly forget to use it when you should.
But these are only examples of mistakes typical of speakers of certain languages. They may or may not be your particular personal mistakes. Those personal ones are the ones you must discover. It is surprising that so few students organize their studies and exam preparations in this way, for the logic of the method is so clear and simple:
Find out your problems and deal with them.
This principle is connected with another important truth that can be expressed in the slogan:
The problem is not remembering the answer; the problem is remembering the problem.
An example of what I mean is given by the many thousands, perhaps millions, of German-speaking students of English who repeatedly make the mistake of using would with if: "If I would do that, I would miss my flight" etc. Most of them, if you asked them how one uses if in English, would probably give a correct answer. They know how if should be used. But they constantly forget the problem when unreminded by someone else, and so, unthinking, fall into the same trap again and again.
Most people will find that if they constantly keep their particular problems in mind, they will very soon and very easily and naturally learn the 'answer', learn the correct mode of expression, simply because they are so often thinking about the point. It is a much more pleasant as well as much more effective way of fixing the necessary knowledge in your mind than learning rules by heart.
Just as reading is probably the most effective way for most people to increase their knowledge of a language, so it is also one of the most important things to do in preparation for an examination. The two different ways of reading have been discussed in earlier chapters of the book.
Look at as many old exam papers as you can get hold of, and find out what sort of writing you are likely to meet in them, and then read the same sort of material. But if you get the impression that you need a fairly wide range of material, one of the best sources, apart from good quality daily newspapers, is women's magazines. This may seem a surprising, shocking and stupid suggestion to some men; nevertheless, it is certainly true of at least British women's magazines, and I suspect of those in many other countries as well, that they contain some of the most varied material you will find anywhere. Nearly all other magazines are 'specialist', are in some way limited in their subject matter, and so, of course, limited in the language they use.
But a women's magazine does not contain matters of interest only to women. Certainly you may find cooking and knitting, and babies' nappies; but, even more, you will find discussions of social questions, information about famous women and men, sport, pop groups, travel, history, practical do-it-yourself hints, and hobbies of many kinds, mostly probably written in a popular style and vocabulary. Of course there may be romantic novelettes and short stories. Don't look down on them. They may be 'bad literature' if you judge by the standard of Tolstoy. They are often made up of clichιs - conventional expressions, conventional thoughts, conventional feelings. But when you are learning a foreign language, this is just what you need. First learn the way most people talk and write conventionally, and when you have this foundation then you can, if you want, start trying to be 'original'. You can only be original if you know the conventions.
On the whole, reading literature is not the best preparation for a language examination, unless the exam is particularly slanted towards literature. If you are interested in literature, of course you should read it. But you must understand that it is unlikely to prepare you so well for the tasks you will meet in the exam. Newspapers and magazines will provide you with the kind of 'active' vocabulary that in the examination you will probably need far more than you will need the vocabulary of literature.
However, it is probably not a good idea to try in your own writing to imitate in every way the language you find in high quality newspapers. Remember the big gap there is between 'passive' and 'active' knowledge of a language. Notice the grammar, the vocabulary, what words go with other words, but be very careful about copying the style; you could get into a fearful mess if you tried. Consider, after all, that even in your own language there are not very many people who can write successfully in the style of your good newspapers.
Grammar book indexes
I shall not discuss here all the features of a good grammar book. But I must emphasize that it is essential to have a book with a really complete index. As you prepare for the examination you will need to look up points of grammar and usage continually. A grammar book without an index is useless for this purpose. The only exception might be a grammar in which the topics are organized alphabetically with numerous cross references.
Examination technique - Timing
In some parts of the world, and particularly in
The first rule to remember is that you must try to finish the paper. You cannot get marks for parts that you do not do. If, for example, you miss the last 25% of a paper, you cannot get more than 75% even if you get full marks, the maximum, for everything you have written. It is like starting a race with only one leg. You have lost marks even before the examiner begins to look at your paper.
So you will find it much easier to finish if you follow a timetable. Some people say that it isn't practical to keep looking at their watches, or that it makes them nervous. But it is much better to have a lot of little panics, when you can still do something about the situation, than to have one very big panic when it is too late to do anything at all about it.
If you have a problem with time, but just go on writing without looking at the clock, you will get further and further behind, and very possibly end up managing to do only half the paper, or even less. Instead, you must have strength of mind, and stop immediately you get to the end of the time you have decided on for each section. You must stop whether you have finished that section or not. It is useless having a timetable unless you keep to it. Once you start falling behind you will never catch up again.
This method has two advantages. First, you will make sure that you do at least part of every section of the paper. And second, if you are behind, you will realize this at a very early stage, and realize that you will have to go faster.
But particularly wherever the paper demands 'free' writing (the most obvious example is compositions) or any writing where you have some degree of choice in producing whole sentences, the timetable you set for yourself should provide for quite a long period at the end after you have finished writing. This time at the end should first be used to finish the paper, if you haven't already. Keeping a strict timetable acts as a kind of safety net. As we saw above, it will make sure you keep up a good speed. But then at the end you have that extra time which you can use to prevent any catastrophes. However, if you have to use that end period for finishing, you should finish as quickly as possible, because there is something else just as important you must do, and that is checking.
As your timing is so important for both finishing and checking you ought to find an opportunity to practise with a few old examination papers (at least one of each sort) in order to make sure your timetable is about right, and to train yourself to keep to it exactly.
Checking can perhaps more than anything else make the difference between a student passing or failing.
There are many, many students who complain that checking never does any good, that they never see any of their mistakes; and there are even many students who say that if they read through their work afterwards they start changing things that were right in the first place into things that are wrong. It is true that both these things happen; but it is because candidates check in the wrong way.
It is useless to read through your work (probably only once) in a general way, looking vaguely for any mistakes that may be there. If you are looking for everything at the same time, you will probably either (if you are one type of student) see nothing at all; or (if you are another type) lose confidence in yourself and start thinking that half of what you have written is wrong.
You must remember exactly what you are looking for. This will make you efficient; and, in turn, because you know you are being efficient, it will give you confidence and you will not start changing things that are perfectly correct. This is where your own personal list of weak points (or 'favourite' mistakes) that I have talked about above comes in.
You should take each point in your list separately and read through your work looking for mistakes connected with that one point only. Do not think about anything except that one problem. You are then certain to see if you have made that particular sort of mistake. You then take the next point on your list and do the same with that -read right through and look only for that one sort of mistake. This means that if you have got seven points on your list, you must read through your work seven times; if you have twelve points, you must read it twelve times, and so on.
So this is the second reason why it is so important to time your examination carefully. You must give yourself the time to make sure you have not made any of those 'silly' mistakes which probably more than anything else cause the failure of those who could pass.
Examination technique - Summary
1 time to finish
2 time to check
The last point, confidence, is as important as anything else. If you keep to a timetable you will know that you are being efficient, that you are going to finish, that you are going to check; in other words, that you are in control of the situation. As a result, your work will probably be much better, because you will not be nervous - or at least you will be far less nervous - and you will not be in a panicky rush. And apart from the practical results, that is a much nicer feeling to have.
The three things to remember each time you go into the examination room are:
1 the list of your personal or 'favourite' mistakes
2 timing (with finishing)
Most language examinations these days have multiple choice tests. Multiple choice tests have fundamental defects. But they are a fact of modern exam life and have to be faced.
Multiple choice tests are supposed to be objective. In reality, however, it is possible to train for them, and if you have to do them in your exam it is very important that you should have practised the right technique for them.
To test people's ability to understand a language the examiners present a passage or passages, usually about half a page to a page in length, and give an instruction more or less as follows:
After each of the following passages there are a number of questions or unfinished statements about the passage. Each one has four suggested answers or ways of finishing; choose the one you think is best. (Sometimes more than four alternatives are given.)
Below is a little piece on the American health system (shorter than what you will normally get), followed by three of the type of question you could expect to be set on it.
The standard of medicine in the
But the American health care system has what look like insoluble problems. There are in fact two systems side by side. One is the private system run on the basis of free competition. The other is the public system which had to be created because such a large part of the population, including many of the elderly, could not afford to pay for the absurdly expensive private treatment.
The public system is vast. A
huge proportion - more than 10 per cent - of the
1 What is the state of the health system in
C too risky.
D too mechanised.
2 What can patients expect with regard to treatment in the
A Frequent mistakes by doctors.
B Very honest hospitals.
C Personal attention.
D Some of the most skilful nurses in the world.
3 Among those Americans who cannot get proper health care are
A some people who earn too much.
B old people.
C people with very large incomes.
D private patients.
Reading Comprehension - General technique
First, read through the whole passage fast. When
you come to words and expressions you do not know, whatever you do, do not stop
and start worrying about them.
Now, but not before, comes the problem of choosing the right answer from the four possibilities, A, B, C, or D. Three of these are wrong, of course. The examiners call these wrong ones 'distractors': they put them there to confuse you and lead your mind away in the wrong direction.
You must not allow these distractors to lead you away.
So, as you come to each question, look at only the base question (or 'stem') and not yet at the alternatives A, B, C, D. Before you look at these, look back immediately at the passage and find out what the passage says about the question. (A practical method is to cover the alternatives A, B, C, D each time with a sheet of paper, just leaving the base question showing, while you study the passage.)
When you have decided what the passage says, but only then, you can look at the alternatives A, B, C, D to discover which one fits what you have already decided is the answer.
It is always completely safe to do it this way, because if it is a good question there will only be one right answer and you will see it immediately.
To study the alternatives A, B, C, D before you look at the passage again is very dangerous in two ways. You will often be led astray by the distractors and immediately decide you like the look of one of them and so not be able to read the passage clearly with an open mind, because you are just trying to prove to yourself that your choice was right. This may in turn prevent you looking at the right part of the passage where you can find the real answer.
You must look first at the picture of reality the writer wants to show us. Looking at A, B, C, D first will often only give you the ideas of your own imagination.
One very common method, unfortunately, is the elimination method of looking at each alternative in turn and deciding whether it is impossible or not. This is a dangerous system, for the reasons I have just explained. Moreover, it is not only a bad plan to think about what the passage does not say; it also takes more time.
Always be very careful to be guided only by what the passage actually says. Never base any answer on anything you personally know or have an opinion about. If there is a piece about psychology, and you are asked how psychoanalysis developed, and one alternative suggested is that psychoanalysis was started by Freud, you must not choose that alternative if it is not stated in the passage.
When you study the passage in more detail to find out what it says about each question, you must still not worry about separate words you think you do not understand. First of all, you will find that in this sort of test the answer seldom depends on knowledge of just one word. Secondly, you should use your understanding of the situation to find out the meaning of single words. Always give yourself a picture of what is happening in the real-life situation the writer is describing.
Let us look at the three questions above.
is the state of the health system in
This is an instructive question, because if we ignore A, B, C, D for the moment and look at the passage we find that in fact there is nothing about the health system in the first paragraph. The first paragraph is about the standard of medicine and treatment, not the health system. If you assumed that the answer to the first question must be found in the first paragraph you would almost inevitably choose the wrong answer. To find out about the health system we have to read on through the second paragraph.
There is an important double moral here. Firstly, we must always concentrate carefully on exactly what the base question actually asks about. We must act according to what the question really is, not according to what we would like it to be - and what we would like it to be can be strongly influenced if we look at A, B, C, D first!
Then we must always be ready to look at any part of the passage, perhaps even read right to the end again. The information we need may sometimes be spread out in several different places. In this way, too, we will think about what is really happening according to the passage, not just think abstractly about some individual words or sentences.
It is clear from the second paragraph that the state of the American health system is not good. Now, but not before, we can look at the alternatives A, B, C, D, and it is immediately clear that the answer must be A.
You can probably see how dangerous it might have been to look at the alternatives first: there is mention of good medicine, of risk, and of technology in the text - but they are not the answer to the base question. If you did not look back at the passage first you might have been tempted by almost any of them and possibly not even bothered to look for confirmation in the text.
It is a good idea to mark with a pencil - just a small stroke in the margin - the parts of the text that give you the answer, and then rub the marks out when you've finished each question.
can patients expect with regard to treatment in the
Again we look at the text before looking at A, B, C, D. We are told about the treatment in the first paragraph. The standard is high, and there are many good specialists, individual attention, and modern equipment. The doctors and hospitals are careful.
Now we can look at the alternatives. There is only one that fits what we have just found out that the passage says, and that is C.
at the passage before A, B, C, D should make sure you are not tempted by D. If
you had looked at the alternatives first you might have thought to yourself
'Well, it's true, isn't it? The nurses in
3 Among those Americans who cannot get proper health care are
We look at the passage. We must be particularly careful here. We are looking for the people who are left outside the system. It isn't the elderly (paragraph 2), because the public part of the system was set up precisely in order to look after them, among others.
We find the people that the system does not help in paragraph 3, where it says that the income of people who use the public system must not be over a certain amount. So people who get more than that amount of money won't get government help. It also says that many unemployed people are left out.
Now we look at the alternatives. The answer is clearly A. C would of course be wrong. People with large incomes can get treatment through the private part of the system.
That raises a very important final point. When, by looking at the passage, you have come to a decision about what the answer to the base question is, stick to that decision whatever you find in the alternatives. Don't allow yourself to change your mind because of something you find among A, B, C, D. Never forget that the whole purpose of the distractors is to distract you! The only time you should even think of changing your mind is if you find something among the alternatives that immediately makes it clear that you have totally misunderstood the base question.
If you are preparing for an exam with multiple choice questions of this kind you should obviously practise with a lot of old or practice papers. (The best practice papers are those published by or in association with the examining body itself.) You might find it both interesting and useful to try doing the tests in two different ways. First do some by looking at the alternatives offered before you look back at the passage; then do some new ones and use the method I recommend - look at the alternatives only after you have studied the passage carefully in connection with the base question. See how your success rates compare!
There is just one warning: occasionally you will be presented with a bad question -bad in the sense that the base question will not tell you clearly enough what you have to look for in the text. If you are unlucky enough to be faced with this problem, you will obviously have to look at the alternatives first in order to find out what the examiners are talking about.
Nevertheless, in cases where the base question is a bad one because it covers too many possible points, still at least start by looking at the passage first, and mark all the relevant bits of information, even if you end up by only using one of them.
If you have studied the text, noted the information you think is relevant to the base question, and then find that that information is not mentioned in any of the alternatives, don't panic. Just go back to the text and study it more carefully.
You sometimes find this sort of test in exam papers that are called Reading Comprehension tests, although they are really tests of half active, half passive knowledge of vocabulary.
You will normally find an instruction like this:
Choose the word or phrase to fit each blank which best completes each sentence.
Here are four sample questions:
1 My landlady was very when I had my bicycle accident.
2 The receptionist to ring another hotel to see if they had a room.
3 I assure you I have no wish to my responsibility.
4 Has there been any on the strike from the government?
If you have not prepared well enough for this sort of test, examination technique will not, I'm afraid, help you very much. In almost all questions you will either know the right word immediately, or you will not. If you do not, then you must not waste time thinking about it. That will almost certainly not help. Just guess, mark your answer sheet, and go on to the next question.
If this sort of test is combined with other sorts of test in the same exam paper, give less time proportionately to this test than to other parts of the paper. The point is that even if it carries a lot of marks, you can do it far faster than most other tests.
But always answer every question, however uncertain you are. You will lose a mark if you leave a blank, and you will lose a mark if your answer is wrong. So put something -you have a one-in-four (maybe sometimes one-in-five or six) chance of getting it right if you close your eyes and use a pin. (This also applies in the type of comprehension test dealt with above.) You are throwing away marks every time you leave a question blank.
In a few questions, however, you will find that a preposition, an infinitive, or some other grammatical detail will tell you what the right word is, so watch for that sort of pointer.
There is, in fact, one little trick you can use when you get into difficulty. I explain this below in connection with question 3.
In the end, though, we come back to the
importance of preparation for this type of test.
The answers to the four questions above are as follows:
This is a fairly typical question, where you know the answer or you don't. The remaining three questions are not typical in that I have chosen them specially to illustrate particular things you can bear in mind when you do such tests.
The infinitive 'to' with 'ring' makes 'suggested' impossible. The use of 'suggest' here would be a classic mistake of students of English. 'recommended' and 'invited' would need 'me', 'us', or some other suitable pronoun or noun.
This is an example of where you might use the trick I referred to above, if you get into difficulty. If you are not a native English-speaker you very possibly know all the words except 'shirk'. Let us say you are fairly certain that all the other three words are wrong. So choose 'shirk', even though you don't know it. You will probably be right; you obviously must' be right if you 'know' the other words are wrong! And in any case, you have nothing to lose. So, when in doubt, choose the word that is new.
'on' is the key word. 'reaction' and 'response' would need 'to' and 'criticism' would need 'of'.
Just as you need to prepare for Reading Comprehension by reading a lot, so you need to listen a lot to prepare for Listening Comprehension. As with all types of test, you must practise it too. Try to get hold of practice tests and cassettes. The questions are organized in more or less the same way as the Reading Comprehension multiple choice tests.
However, you will have to use a slightly different technique from the one I suggested for Reading Comprehension. In the Listening Comprehension test you must look at the questions first, before you hear the recording, because it is important to know what sort of things you are going to be asked about, so that you can listen out for them when you hear the tape. In this test you cannot examine the text! But still try to concentrate on the base questions, as you listen to the tape, and use them to lead you to the right alternative. Don't let your listening be guided by A, B, C, D.
As in the Reading Comprehension, don't worry about new words you do not know. As always, think about the context and the real-life situation that is being described.
Immediately you sit down at your place in the examination room, take a piece of paper and write down on it the list of the mistakes that you tend to make.
Put the list in front of you where you can see it, and look at it often, as you write, to remind yourself of your own special problems. If you do this you will find it very difficult to make those particular mistakes. Here is an imaginary example of what a personal list might be for students of English as a foreign language:
NOT 'do something for doing' (purpose)
NOT 'the nature, the life'
since: NOT 'since three weeks'
NOT 'suggest somebody to do'
word order: NOT 'I eat seldom eggs'
if: NOT 'if I would'
NOT 'by my car'
NOT 'bigger as'
NOT 'a so beautiful town'
which, by the time the examination comes, you should have been able to turn into a 'shorthand' list, like this:
Do NOT copy your work out
It is an exam in language, not in handwriting! It is madness to copy your composition out again, so whatever you do, don't! Time that you might spend copying it out must be spent on essential things (such as those 'favourite' mistakes).
Many people, in fact, make their writing harder to read, not easier, when they copy out, because they do it in such a tearing hurry. What is more, many people make mistakes in copying that were not in their original. Write carefully the first and only time, making sure the examiner can read your writing.
Unless there are very strict rules preventing you, write on every second line. Then, if you make a mistake, you can cross it out with one simple single line and write your correction clearly on the empty line above. Don't draw a lot of balloons and arrows and confuse yourself as well as the examiners. Don't let your line become complicated, with lots of bits added on to it. If necessary cross the whole line out and write it again above.
Keep EXACTLY to your timetable
Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that you have to write two compositions of about 350 words each, in two hours. It is a pretty good principle to devote a quarter of the total time of a composition exam paper to checking at the end. This checking is vital. The total time allowed in the example I have suggested is 120 minutes, so your timetable should look like this:
At the end of 45 minutes stop, even if you are in the middle of a sentence, and start the second composition. Rigid self-discipline is essential here.
Do not write too much. You are wasting time if you do; and the more you write the more possibilities there are for making mistakes. Stop at the end of 45 minutes even if you have not written the number of words they have told you to write. You can write a little more later.
There is a little practical trick you can use to count the number of words you have written, not only in your compositions but in any parts of an exam where you need to know how many. Never actually count each separate word you write in an exam. That is a terrible waste of valuable time. Instead, long before the exam, in fact when you first start preparing for it, find out how many words you personally write on average in three lines. Then, when you want to know at any time how many words you have written, you need only quickly count how many groups of three lines there are.
Write on the subject the paper tells you to write on
You must write about the subject set in the examination; don't change the subject and write about something slightly or completely different. Follow the instructions on the paper.
You cannot pass with lots of mistakes, however clever you intend your sentences to be. Remember that you must show the examiner what you know, not what you do not know. If you do not make mistakes, and you write on the subject they ask you to write on, you are certain to get fairly good marks at least, even perhaps very good marks. So if you are not absolutely sure that what you want to write is correct, do not write it. Write something different.
In a composition nobody makes you write particular words, so don't make yourself do so. It is quite true that the examiners will want you to use language that suits the subject. But your language will not suit the subject if it is wrong.
It is an examination in language, not in philosophy or originality.
For this reason, too, if you have a choice of subjects you should not always choose the subjects that interest you or that you like. Choose the subjects that you know most of the foreign language about. If you are crazy about boats and the sea, for example, and one of the subjects given happens to be 'sailing', do not write about them unless you know the foreign words you must use. Choose another subject.
If at the end of the time you have allotted to actually writing the compositions you find you have written too few words, you will have to add a few more. But finish as quickly as you can.
You should spend as much as possible of your final period - 30 minutes, or whatever it is - on checking in the way I have described above (Examination technique Checking). This may make the difference between you passing and not passing the whole examination. It is more important to finish the paper and check than to have beautiful, perfect endings.
Please, whatever you do, never leave the examination room early, however much you are dying for a cigarette or a cup of coffee. There is always important work for you to do. You cannot check too often, if you do it in the right way.
I would like to make a special suggestion to all speakers of languages without definite or indefinite articles (English the and a) who are taking exams in languages that have them. For you the problem is usually, of course, that you leave the article out. So it is no good worrying in a general way about articles, however passionately, because you cannot study what is not there!
You must think about nouns.
When you check, think about every noun you have written in turn and decide whether it needs an article, and if so, which. (Chinese- and Japanese-speakers, among others, should ask themselves three questions about every noun, in the following order:
Should it be plural? Should there be a preposition? Should there be an article? The question about the article comes last because the answer often depends on the answer to the first two questions.)
Don't make avoidable mistakes through being too ambitious
There is something very important to bear in mind about compositions in exams at more advanced levels. I emphasize again the point I made in my introductory section. My advice is not for those who are confident they can write top grade essays in the foreign language. It is for those who worry that they will not be able to write well enough..
One of the worst things you can do if you are not confident is to try to be clever. You will almost certainly fail at advanced levels if you try to do what you cannot do because you feel you have to write very 'advanced', very elegant, very sophisticated language. You may be impressed by the high standard of the exam you are taking, and the standard may indeed be high. But an essential way in which it will be high is that you must quite simply not make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes that are allowed in lower level exams are not permissible at the higher levels.
There are examining bodies who say that in exams at advanced levels they are looking for linguistic ambition, width of vocabulary, vocabulary that suits the context, and naturalness of style. They object to the constant repetition of the short simple subject-verb-object type of clause.
But they will also be looking for correct grammar, punctuation and spelling, and use of the right words. To quote one examining body, candidates are often below standard 'because their control of language is not adequate for the thoughts they wish to express' and they go in for 'the meaningless contortions of "translatese"'.
So we must come back to the basic principle. Do not show the examiner what you do not know. It is useless to be ambitious in a composition if you do not have the means for achieving your ambition. It is useless to attempt a style you cannot achieve in the foreign language. It is useless to use words you do not know how to use. It is useless to try to produce everything that the examiners require if all you produce is incorrect grammar, illogical sentences and the wrong words.
If you are very, very good at the foreign language - and, as I say, my advice is not for you - you will perhaps be able to express yourself as effectively in the foreign language as you can in your own. But most people cannot get anywhere near this, and it is foolish to try. The only results will be that you use words in the wrong way, that you write 'translatese' nonsense (translating direct from your own language), that you produce muddled, illogical sentences, and make grammar mistakes that you would never make in simpler, less ambitious sentences.
Examiners may not like the subject-verb-object type of sentence. But a subject-verb-object sentence that is right is much better than a confused complicated sentence that is wrong. Bad mistakes cannot be natural style and incorrectness cannot be width and suitability of vocabulary.
(But in preparing for writing
discussion-type essays it is well worth learning a number of beginnings to sentences or
This is clearly a problem of the greatest importance.
I think we must define what we mean by (democracy).
From the earliest times (the individual) has been the victim of society).
Where (road transport) is concerned...
A good thing about (the new technique) is...
The same applies to...
On the other hand...
If you can learn thirty or so of these, and use them AT THE RIGHT POINT it is very important that you should not use them in the wrong context - you will find that not only do they greatly impress the examiner, but that they take up a nice lot of words on the page, thereby saving you the trouble and time of thinking of some more ideas to fill up the space with.)
Again and again we must come back to the truth that it is no good showing the examiner what you cannot do. And do not despise short sentences and simple language. Two of the finest twentieth-century writers in English on the sort of subject you will often be asked to write compositions on in advanced level exams were Bertrand Russell and George Orwell. They both wrote simply and clearly, often in very short sentences. You will find you can often keep yourself out of trouble by remembering that the full stop is your best friend.
In many languages there is a danger in building sentences that are built around nouns. Some languages tend to do this more than others. English used not to be one of them, but in the last few decades academic, or 'scientific', writing has had a fearful influence on the way English is used. My favourite example is from an American scientific journal: 'The fish displayed a one hundred per cent mortality response.' I guess he meant they all died.
Sentences based on nouns are in many languages much more difficult to get right. Much more knowledge is needed to fit nouns correctly into a sentence, because for them the linguistic conventions tend to be far stricter. One has to know the particular verbs, the particular adjectives, the particular prepositions that fit a given noun. One usually has far greater freedom if one makes verbs the key words of one's sentences; one is much less likely to make mistakes with sentences based on verbs.
To continue with English as an illustration:
These cars can travel at very high speeds.
This is a simple example of a noun-based sentence. It is based on speeds. To get it right we have to know that:
(a) speed can be used as a countable as well as an uncountable noun;
(b) high - not fast - is the conventional adjective with speed;
(c) at is the right preposition with speed;
(d) travel is a correct verb with speed - go would not be truly idiomatic in this sentence.
But if we choose go as the key to our sentence, we have no need of any special knowledge of that kind. We simply say:
These cars can go very fast.
You personally may have known all the points (a)-(d) that I have explained above, even if you are not a native English-speaker But I hope you can understand the principle. Here is a more complicated example where you may not know the various 'rules' of vocabulary.
Doubts might be entertained in certain quarters as to whether an alternative procedure might not, in preference, be adopted.
The sentence is formed around the nouns doubts, quarters, procedure and preference. First of all we have to know that those are themselves the right nouns to use.
Having got that far we have to know that entertain and adopt are the right verbs for doubts and procedure, that the adjective alternative suits procedure, that in is the right preposition for both quarters and preference, and that the proper expression linking doubts and the second part of the sentence is as to whether. Isn't it better to say what the sentence in practice simply means?
Some people might think there is a better way
Here the verbs think and is are the key words.
Essay construction: don't waste time on it
Examining bodies may emphasize that compositions or essays at advanced levels should be well constructed and thought out, with a clear pattern of connected ideas. Although they may not demand that essays should be particularly original or interesting, they may criticize candidates for not dealing with the subject properly, or for jumping suddenly from one point to another.
However, do not forget that examiners' judgement of these things is to a very large extent subjective. No two examiners are going to mark a composition exactly alike in these respects.
It is therefore impossible to know in advance how the examiners are going to judge your compositions as regards organization and the development of your ideas. So in your preparation for the examination, I believe that spending time and effort on essay organization, if you are still making a lot of mistakes in your grammar and vocabulary, is a luxury you cannot afford. A sense of proportion is needed here. Please get your grammar and vocabulary right first.
Grammar and vocabulary are objective problems. You can know definitely whether you are right or wrong. Concentrate on this area of certainty, not on the vague uncertainty of beautifully constructed essays. If you can write largely without mistakes you will be very unlucky if you do not get at least reasonable marks. You might even get very good ones. But you won't if you make bad mistakes, however well your essay is organized.
Once again you must be firm with your teacher. If your composition teacher spends time on essay construction, talking to you about how to produce striking beginnings, elegantly developed middle sections and effective endings, and about details like paragraphing, you should ask him whether these things are going to make the difference between passing and failing for you personally; whether he is confident that you have already shown that your practical command of grammar and vocabulary is so good that there is no doubt that you will pass as far as they are concerned; whether all that is needed to tip the balance is some training in essay construction.
(My advice should perhaps be modified in one respect here, however. If you can master a small set of elegant opening sentences that you know are absolutely right and that can be adapted to a variety of subjects, and can use one of them at the beginning of each composition in an exam, you may well influence the examiner in your favour. Exam markers are human too. While a single superb sentence right at the end of an otherwise mediocre or downright poor composition is unlikely to do you any extra good, at the very beginning it will very possibly make the examiner think more kindly about the rest.)
The biggest mistake you can make in compositions in advanced examinations is to aim too high. If you fail to achieve your aim, the best you can hope for is precisely that; that you fail to achieve it. But the worst and the more probable result is that your mistakes will cause you to lose far more marks than you would have lost if you had not been so ambitious.
So wherever you are not absolutely certain of yourself: KEEP IT SIMPLE.
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