Top Tips for IELTS

Using model essays in the classroom

This is a set of 5 ideas for using model essays in the IELTS classroom. Below I talk you through how I work these ideas in the classroom. Some teachers, though,  I know dislike using model essays, so first of all I discuss why I think they can work.

The dangers of model essays

Most textbooks do have model essays and the official Cambridge exam paper books likewise contain answers written by examiners. That said, they are not typically exploited in any detail. Why? Is there some danger to them?

Do they encourage students to rote learn answers?

This is I imagine why model essays are generally tucked away out of sight. I understand the fear. If an examiner reads an answer that they think is “regurgitated”, they will discount it. That is a clearly a danger, not least because many IELTS candidates come from educational cultures where the memorisation of the perfect answer is much more acceptable than in the Anglo/Australian academic environment.

My experience here is this. I find that presenting students with model answers within the classroom can actually discourage copying [notice the emphasis]. This works in two ways. Firstly, presenting a model essay in class allows me to address the issue of plagiarism head on and not in some theoretical way. Then again, my experience is that if I show a model in class and work through that model in class, the students are in fact deterred from copying it: perhaps they are more stimulated to write their own work, perhaps they just realise that they cannot practically copy out what was given to them.

I’d add here that this experience comes from working in cultures where copying is rife. What happens in the exam room I cannot tell, but I simply have not had problems in the classroom – except when I haven’t helped the students first by showing them a model!

Are they incompatible with communicative learning?

This is probably the other major objection – if one take “communicative learning” as a catch-all phrase for contemporary teaching methodology. My experience is that the opposite can be true – all it takes is a little imagination and a clear focus on what one is trying to achieve. Set clear aims first and model essays can work sweetly as a teaching tool – and that is what the remainder of this post is about – giving you ideas for exploiting model essays for lessons that are goal-orientated and potentially full of leaning potential.

How model essays can work

A little below I talk you through a few of the ways I have used model essays in the classroom. They generally work well for me. If they have anything in common it is this:

  • they are based on essays I have written myself: that is more engaging for the students – to find out how “teacher” writes. The essays I use in class are originals – not from here (and the I try to keep my classroom persona quite separate from my online being – to the extent that the majority of my students don’t know about this site). By all means use my essays, but I truly believe YOUR essays may work better for YOUR students
  • I show the students the model essays BEFORE they write – I use them as a teaching tool, not a testing tool. I use them to engage the students into seeing what can be done, not show them what they got wrong!

Idea 1 – Don’t show them the whole essay

There are many variations on a theme here (some of which I will post about separately). The core idea is this – to get students to think about the roles of the different parts of essays. For instance, one of the most intuitive ways to get students to think about conclusions is to show them an essay without a conclusion and ask them to write it themselves.

This activity can work with other sections of the essay, but conclusions tend to be easiest to handle. To set it up you need to discuss:

  • what the conclusion is for
  • what relationship it has with the introduction
  • what relationship it has with the body paragraphs

One natural activity is to write the conclusion of course.  Another possibility is to ask the students to choose the best conclusion from a number of options.  Whichever option you choose you end up with a very neat reading activity too that closely parallels IELTS reading tasks – integrating skills.

Download

Conclusion writing exercise - lack of housing (975)

Idea 2: What was the question?

This is a low maintenance routine that can generate useful discussion about key problem areas in essay writing :

  • the need to answer a precise question
  • each paragraph should address the question as precisely as possible
  • the point of view should be clear throughout

As before, this acts well as a reading activity that can integrate with IELTS reading. To determine the answer  the answer the students need to read for general meaning and also pay attention to the role of “topic” sentences in writing.

There are again a few variations here such as giving the students a range of questions to choose from, but I tend to just ask them to write the question themselves.

Idea 3: You’ve read it once, now what were the words?

This is the sort of activity that is found in textbooks. As with the other exercises, it has numerous variations. The variation I probably use most is to test the Academic Word List vocabulary. This is a personal choice. I tend to opt for this because it is getting students to focus on a consistent set of vocabulary they can recycle through different essays – almost regardless of topic. More efficient learning as I see it. It works much best if the students are already familiar with the essay and have discussed it first. It’s not a test of what the word mean, more a demonstration of how they are used.

The tool I use for this is the AWL gapmaker from Nottingham University. My download version goes up to list 10, you may want to start lower.

Download

Gap fill exercise (AWL) - housing shortage (696)

Idea 4: A little error correction

Error correction is a vital activity. I like model essays for this because it puts the mistakes into a context – students need to correct mistakes in an essay, so why not show them the essay? The way I normally choose to do this is to

  • use just paragraph – not the whole essay – that’s the way I teach my students to correct. Leaving it to the end is too late
  • ensure that they have read and discussed the whole essay first – I’m not testing comprehension, just checking their ability to find and correct mistakes

It is not of course necessary to use a model essay here – using students’ own work can be more intuitive/compelling. The one reason to choose an adapted model essay is that it allows you to control the target language i.e. you can choose the range of mistake they are looking for.

In the download below you will see that:

  • I allow students to cross check against the original
  • the mistakes are roughly categorised – in this case they are typically to do with cohesion possibly leading into a lesson on that

Download

Error correction exercise - lack of housing (682)

Idea 5: Read, discuss, write

It took me a long, long time to do this. It looks very simple and it is, but it can be a highly effective lesson. There is probably one condition to that – YOU have written the essay yourself. The moment you show the students something you have written, they tend to perk up – it is far more involving than a dry essay from a book or website. You get to share ideas and language.

You show the question, you talk about the question, you generate language and ideas and then you give them the essay to read. The natural reading questions to see which words/language they produced in class are in the essay. Then they have to write the essay. This is where I have never, ever had a student plagiarise the model essay.

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2 Responses to Using model essays in the classroom

  1. Jonal August 14, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    Hello Dominic,

    I am having my test on 20th august.Could you please suggest me how can I prepare for my writing and speaking tests. Because few model essays in the net I found it very difficult.

    Also is it manadatory to read newspapers before examination as i dont have any habit of reading any magazines or Newspapers.

    Thank you for your reply.

    Jonal

    • Dominic Cole August 22, 2016 at 4:08 pm #

      It’s by no means mandatory – it’s simply a good idea.

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