This post outlines an activity to help students focus on following the instructions in exam questions and include everything that’s required. This is specifically addressing ‘content’ in the Cambridge exam mark scheme.

Content – Answer the Question

This is a simple activity that uses short form writing to show a direct link between answering every part of the question clearly and achieving a high mark. It uses PET writing part 2, which involves writing a note or email of 35-45 words and including 3 elements.

Example: Your friend John has invited you to a party. Write an email to John.
In your email you should:

  • Thank John for inviting you.
  • Ask him about the time and location of the party.
  • Suggest what food he should serve his guests.

Write between 35 and 45 words.

While this type of question is only in the PET exam, the activity is also relevant to any Cambridge exam student. In teaching FCE I often mark pieces of work where the student has ignored, or failed to properly respond to, parts of the question. This activity demonstrates to students exactly how and why they lose marks for content.


Collect sample questions, either from old PET exam books or online. You can also write some yourself as the format is easy to follow. Collect or write enough for a different question for every student. Here is a link to some I’ve prepared myself. It includes a couple of examples of more challenging tasks which are more appropriate for FCE students.

example PET part 2.png

The question and answer should be on the same page so that students can clearly see the links between the question and answer during a later peer review stage.

Write the example question we looked at earlier on the board. Explain that there are five marks available and ask students to discuss in pairs what they need to do to achieve those marks. Elicit that they need to write ‘To/Hi John’ or some kind of greeting to start, end with ‘See you soon, [name]’ or ‘Lots of love [name]’ and write about each of the three elements in the question within the word limit.


Flexible stage for PET/weak FCE classes: Write an answer, with your class, on the board. Elicit each part, with hints where necessary, linking everything you write to the question. If students suggest irrelevant information add it, but then cut it later if you exceed the word limit. It’s important to show how short the word limit is and how words ‘spent’ that don’t relate to the question are not contributing to the answer. After the example is completed on the board, add any additional language students need.

Students are each given a question sheet and asked to write their note/email. Monitor and assist where necessary, reminding students not to go too far over the word limit and to answer every part of the question. The finished results are spread out and students are asked to move around the class in pairs, discussing each piece of writing and simply marking them out of 5 for whether they answer the question and include a suitable ‘to’ and ‘from’.


After the class collect and mark them, purely in terms of whether they answered the question and followed the instructions or not, and highlight where students have implied an answer rather than being clear and direct. Students lose marks for exceeding the word limit but not for mistakes in language unless they impede meaning.

In future, when you’re marking any exam writing from your students, explain their content mark in these terms, drawing links to the question. This should encourage self evaluation and help students recognise where they have failed to fully answer a question.

For FCE classes this task could also be done with a focus on register, with half of the students writing informal emails/postcards and the other half formal letters. It could also be used with longer form writing, provided you could afford to give students the extra time needed to read through longer pieces of writing.

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