• A Simple Technique for Writing Focused, Short Answers and Paragraphs on Tests

Cover essay questions shot

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.) *

Advice from academic instructors: Give your ESL / ELL / International students practice writing short paragraph answers to test questions.

Academic instructors report that these types of questions tend to cause problems for our students:

  1. They are unable to finish within the time limit.
  2.  They don’t actually answer the questions.

Here is a simple technique that students can use which can actually resolve those two issues.

With this technique, students will know how to get started writing their answers immediately instead of spending precious time wondering how to start.

Also, it will help them focus specifically on what the question is asking. Often students understand the course material but fail to demonstrate this by not answer the question that is asked.

For example:

Question: Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Businesses should do anything they can to make a profit. Use specific reasons and examples to support your position. 

A student’s “weak” answer to the question: “An important mission for any business is to make a profit. Without a profit, the company will not be able to attract the best workers and expand. That is why profits are so important.”

The technique: Include part of the question in your first sentence.

For example, the student’s first sentence could be: “I agree that business should do anything to make a profit. The reason I agree is …”

Another example question: “According to Cultural Differences, people in some cultures say their opinions directly, and in others they say them indirectly. Explain the problems this difference can cause when people from different cultures interact.”

Student’s answer with the technique: “Telling opinions directly or indirectly can cause several problems when people from different cultures talk to each other…”

Here is a link to a set of exercises to introduce this technique to your students and to have them practice it: Technique for writing good answers on tests: First sentences.

Another effective technique that students can use that will impress instructors is to include in the test answer something that they found interesting about the course material that is being tested. To read more about this and for a set of exercises, see  • Simple Technique ESL Students can use to Impress Their Academic Instructors

Other techniques that students can use in their answers to test questions are:

  • Give examples from your experiences or from your culture or country
  • Tell what was new to you and what you learned from the course material.
  • Tell what is important or significant about the readings or lectures.

For exercises that help students develop these and similar techniques, see Cultural Differences Exploring and Understanding Cultures Using Academic Skills

For more about preparing students to write short answers / paragraph on tests, see my next post: Developing Paraphrasing Skills: Oral Paraphrasing Before Written.

David Kehe

*About the free-download materials. During my 40 years of teaching ESL, I have had many colleagues who were very generous with their time, advice and materials. These downloads are my way of paying it forward.  

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