How your child can prepare for an English writing exam
By Victoria Burrill
03 May
Victoria Burrill is the author of our new English for Key Stage 2 series. As Head of Year 6 and an English teacher for Years 3-8 at a London prep school, she has extensive experience of preparing children for 11+ and 13+ exams. Here, she shares her essential advice for any child looking ahead to an English writing exam.
With 13+ Common Entrance exams rapidly approaching, and revision kicking into full swing, it’s time to think about the finer details of the English papers and what they require. Moreover, it’s a great chance to think about your strategy for the exam and what you can do to really make yourself stand out. We’ve already looked at the comprehension section of the English exam, now let’s think about the writing elements.
You will choose two writing tasks over the two papers. What should you choose and how can you make the most of your opportunity to demonstrate your skills in writing?

Choosing carefully

Your first task, when faced with either paper, is to select which of the 4 tasks on offer you are going to attempt. Read each one carefully to make sure you know exactly what is expected. Many professional writers expound the idea of writing about what you know, so look for topics you are familiar with, stories set in places you’ve written about before, personal writing tasks which resonate because you do remember an embarrassing moment or you can vividly remember a time you felt anxious. Although it is not a good idea to have a handful of pre-prepared essays ready to wheel out, it is more than acceptable to choose a task which is similar to something you have practised. Just make sure you can adapt it to closely fit the exam task. If there is nothing familiar available, choose something you are interested in, something that sparks some excitement. Trust your intuition!

Planning for success

Once you have chosen a task, it is vital that you plan what you are going to write. You have a limited time to complete a composition and you need to have direction and a clear end point. If you haven’t planned carefully you can end up waffling, running out of ideas or writing without a clear structure. If, when you start planning, you realise you don’t have enough points to make, or examples to give, or the storyline peters out, then you have time to choose a different approach or even a different task. Better to work this out now than when you’ve already spent 20 minutes writing two paragraphs!
Time is limited, so when you plan, focus on your areas of weakness. If you struggle with structure, plan the key points in each paragraph. If conclusions are tricky for you, put more detail into that part of the plan. If using imagery is a challenge, brainstorm your imagery ideas and figure out whereabouts you’ll use it in your writing. Everybody’s ideal plan will look different. By practising some ‘speed planning’ before the exam, you can refine your own style. Plus, the more practice plans you have done before the big day, the more likely you are to find a familiar looking question in the real exam.

Making your words sing

Now it’s time to write. Of course, what you write depends on the task but, like any reader, the examiner wants to be engaged by what you write and how you write it. Your first and last sentences are key in being memorable to a reader - make them stand out. Use short sentences to vary the rhythm of your work - if all of your sentences are the same length it can have a lethargic effect like windscreen wipers on a rainy day. In practical writing, guide the reader through your ideas, using discourse markers and starting each paragraph with a sentence which summarises what it is about. These signposts orientate the reader. Choose vocabulary carefully - know the difference between yelling, shouting, bellowing and caterwauling.
Finally, one of the most powerful ways to show flair and originality is in the structure of your work; stories don’t have to start at the beginning and finish at the end. Circular structures can work equally well in descriptions, speeches or articles. Telling a story from an unusual perspective might really make it stand out. In your preparation for the exam, experiment with different structures for different text types. It can really make all the difference.

And finally…

Proofread your work to avoid silly mistakes. You won’t have long but a scan through your work might flag up a missed capital letter, an avoidable spelling mistake or a quick vocabulary substitution.
Good luck with your writing.
For advice on how to tackle the comprehension paper of the exam, check out Victoria’s other blog article.

Build confidence and perfect technique with exam-style questions in our English Exam Practice Questions for 13+.

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