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CAE - Preparing for the Writing paper

The CAE writing paper consists of two parts both of which carry equal marks. The first part is compulsory and you are given some texts of up to 150 words to read as input and as the basis of your answer.

The first part is typically a letter either informal or formal but it can also be a report, proposal or article. The candidate is expected to produce a text of between 180-220 words.

In Part two you are given a choice between 4 possible tasks and you are asked to write between 180-220 words on one of them.

You are given 1 hour and 30 mins to complete the tasks.

Task Types

The tasks can be any one of the following:

A competition entryA report
A reviewA proposal
A letter (formal or informal)An information sheet
An articleAn essay
Each one has its own specific purpose and intended effect on the reader. It is important to obey the criteria of each one and have each task type contain the respective qualities of the task.

There is a final choice that few people seem to be interested in and it is usually not very popular among candidates. It is a choice between two 'sub-questions' based on a book which is expected to be read prior to the exam date. The list of books used on the exam is kept on the Cambridge website for two years.

Marking criteria

This is one of the most important things to take into consideration when doing the writing tasks. What is the examiner looking for? Students typically think that the most important thing is the amount and nature of their grammar mistakes. This is not entirely accurate. In fact many things are taken into consideration by the examiner and the amount/frequency of grammar errors is probably least important.

1. Task Achievement: This criterion asks the question; Did the candidate complete the task in question? Was the correct text type given? If the task asks for a report, does the text meet the requirements of a report? If the task asked for a formal letter, were the rules governing the formal register obeyed? Was the word count obeyed? Very often students mistakenly think that more is better in terms of the length of the piece. This is not the case. Cambridge examiners are often looking to see not how MUCH you can write but how efficiently you can write. Writing efficiently means being able to complete the task in the designated amount of words.

2. Organisational Competence: A very typical mistake that candidates make is trying to write a piece of work whether an essay or a letter, in only one paragraph!! It is necessary in English to space the text appropriately into logical paragraphs. This is simply the nature of writing in English and in addition, it greatly improves the aesthetic appearance of texts. Compare:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to complain about the awful service I received in your restaurant last night. It was NOT my first time there but I can guarantee that it will be my last. First of all we arrived at approximately 8pm to find out that our reservation had not been taken. Furthermore the head waiter's attitude towards our dilemma left a lot to be desired. Then as we were waiting to have our order taken we noticed that there was loud music coming out of the kitchen and the cook was singing at the top of his lungs! Finally once our order had been taken and the food arrived we noticed that there were several mistakes in the order. What's more the waiter who took our order seemed to care very little about anything except the conversation he was having on his handphone! This kind of treatment from such an expensive and supposedly 'reputable' restaurant is inexcusable. I demand a full apology as well as compensation for our meal or else I intend to boycott your restaurant for the rest of my life.

Yours faithfully,

Bob Smith


And:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to complain about the awful service I received in your restaurant last night. It was NOT my first time there but I can guarantee that it will be my last.

First of all we arrived at approximately 8pm to find out that our reservation had not been taken. Furthermore the head waiter's attitude towards our dilemma left a lot to be desired.

Then as we were waiting to have our order taken we noticed that there was loud music coming out of the kitchen and the cook was singing at the top of his lungs!


Finally once our order had been taken and the food arrived we noticed that there were several mistakes in the order. What's more the waiter who took our order seemed to care very little about anything except the conversation he was having on his handphone!

This kind of treatment from such an expensive and supposedly 'reputable' restaurant is inexcusable. I demand a full apology as well as compensation for our meal or else I intend to boycott your restaurant for the rest of my life.

Yours faithfully,

Bob Smith


1. Range and Accuracy of Vocabulary: It is actually fairly easy to write a lengthy body of writing with absolutely no errors IF you use extremely easy language:

I went to the beach to meet my friend. It was hot there. It was great to see my friend. She is very pretty.

This third point asks the question; Is the candidate accurately using vocabulary at the appropriate RANGE for someone at the CAE level? From the example above 'hot' 'great' and 'pretty' are not words that would impress an examiner marking a CAE candidate's paper. Not to mention that in the above example there is an extremely low level of complexity to the sentences. This brings us to the fourth point.

2. Range and Accuracy of Grammar: This is what candidates typically believe is the MOST important point and while it is very important we can now see that it is nowhere near being the ONLY thing that matters. This is basically asking the question; Does the candidate use a range of different grammatical constructions with as few errors as possible? Range represents the breadth of grammatical attempts and accuracy represents the amount of errors within these attempts.

How is the CAE different from the FCE?

There is a greater variety of text expectations. For example, while the FCE writing only potentially asks you to write a report, the CAE exam expects you to know the difference between a report and the surprisingly similar proposal. A report presents a series of collected facts based on a current situation however a proposal provides suggestions for future implementation. They are in fact very similar in style and presentation but in the proposal it is essential to provide analysis of steps to be taken in the future. i.e. The allocation of a budgetary surplus.

The examiners' expectations are obviously also decidedly higher during the CAE. They expect candidates to use more creative grammatical forms. For example 'inversion for emphasis' is a grammatical structure that is very CAE in nature and if used correctly makes a powerful impression on the examiner. i.e. Under no circumstances should you give your credit card details to anyone over the phone.

There is also an enormous selection of words that CAE students will be expected to have encountered and internalized.

Not 'large open space'- But 'vast open space'

Not 'he looked very happy' But 'he looked elated/self-satisfied'

Tips and Tricks

There are two very important tricks that I tell my students to do.

1. On Part One always go through the input material very thoroughly, like a checklist to see if you have included all of the points necessary to address.

2. On Part Two always choose task types that you are very familiar with. The ones that you feel very comfortable with the 'paradigm'. Very example if the proposal looks like a 'hot' topic but you are not sure if you remember the criteria that a proposals requires then stay away from it. Stick to the ones that you feel most comfortable with. Go for the informal letter if that is the one you know the best and consistently had success with during your course. Of course ideally, all task types should be your best.

3. Also be very mindful of the time. You only have 90 minutes so you should try to pace yourself accordingly. Tick tick tick tick.

by Ricky Krzy┼╝ewski

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. The implementation of your tips and tricks, aside from the generally great explanations about what the examiners will be looking for, will help me and my fellow students passing the CAE exam 2013!

    ReplyDelete