Better Understanding English Proficiency Exam Essay Expectations

Brent H. Amburgey, Hitotsubashi University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: TOEFL, IELTS, writing, consciousness raising
  • Learner English level: Lower intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: High school to university
  • Preparation time: 20 minutes
  • Activity time: 45-60 minutes
  • Materials: Sample scored essays from an English proficiency test (e.g., TOEFL, IELTS), essay-rating sheet

Students struggle with achieving high scores on tests of English proficiency for a variety of reasons: lack of preparation or motivation, the grueling nature of the exams, years of ineffective English instruction, and so forth. One additional factor, which this lesson seeks to address, is comprehending what is expected on the exams. The first step in reaching a goal should always be understanding what is necessary to achieve it; however, this step is often missed. This lesson is a consciousness raising activity for both teacher and student, specifically with regard to essay writing for English proficiency exams.


Step 1: Print scored example essays from a relevant English proficiency exam (enough sets for students to examine them in groups of three to five). One essay per page makes sharing between group members easier.

Step 2: Hide the scores of each essay, and instead label them with letters (e.g., A – E). Randomize the order so the letters do not correlate with the score.

Step 3: Create and print out a rating sheet. It should have space for students to order the essays from best to worst, and to also provide written justification for their choices. An example is available as an appendix to this article.


Step 1: Organize students in small groups of three to five and provide each group with a set of essays.

Step 2: Instruct students to read each essay and discuss as a group which they felt were best and worst, and why they felt that way.

Step 3: Students may be quiet at first, as they focus on reading. After some time has passed, encourage them to discuss the merits of the essays together.

Step 4: Once there has been some healthy discussion, hand out the rating sheets. Encourage students to not only order the essays from best to worst, but also give their reasoning. If time is short, have students focus specifically on explaining their choice of best and worst essays.

Step 5: Discuss, as a class, how each group chose to order the essays. Contrast these results with the official scoring and reveal the criteria on which essays are rated. Use any disparities as a jumping off point for further discussion of essay writing skills.


This activity should raise awareness for both student and teacher. The students will leave with a better understanding of what is expected on English proficiency exams, while the teacher will gain a better understanding of how their students think about writing, and what aspects might be worth devoting more time to in class. In my experience with this exercise, students favored essays that were (1) simple, easy to read, (2) relied on transitional words to explicitly organize points, and (3) provided many (often weakly supported) main points. In contrast, the scoring criteria and example essays from exams often favor essays that are (1) complex, with room to demonstrate advanced grammar and vocabulary, (2) organized by logic, with transitional words being used but not relied on, and (3) focused on strong development and support of reasoning, even though there may be only one or two main points. This exercise could also be adapted for writing for other purposes than proficiency exams.


The appendix for this article is available below: