Editing Texts – Exam Classes

I don’t know about you but I have had awful trouble in the past, trying to get my exam students to think beyond grammar and spelling when it comes to editing texts. I completely understand it, every writing exercise they’ve done in every language class ever has essentially been a language test and nothing more. Most of our correction keys (if we even use them) revolve around language errors and maybe paragraphing if they’re lucky. Then suddenly they rock up to an exam class and we start banging on about style and register.

Luckily, my girlfriend produced this email from her inbox the other day. And what a treat it was. Having kindly ordered some toys for our cat (in the hopes that it would play with them and not our ankles or toes) online, she patiently waited for a month before saying: “ehhhh…China, where are my toys?”. She received the email below. And it is fantastic!

cat toys

This is a quick and simple lesson, using a real email that just didn’t nail their communicative aim. It’s a nice way of highlighting to students that it’s not just about the spelling. The phrases you use can really miss the mark if you’re not careful. my favourite is: “we’re always here for you”.

Dear Customer.

Thanks for your e-mail, these are imported products,  under normal ,it will take 15-20 working days to arrive, I’m sorry to hear that you still have not received it , we contact with Logistic agent today, and have Urged them to send this package as soon as possible, now could you please check the delivery address:


If the address is correct, could help you to wait 2 days, when 2 days have passed, in normal it will be put in your  mail box directly , could you please atttention for this , my customer ,if days past , you still have not received, send me an e-mail, we will issue refund to you immediately, that’s ok? if you have something to this purchase, please send me email, we will solve it immediately. we are always here for you.

Keep in touch!

Best regards,

  • Level: Int and above
  • Time: 60 – 90 mins (this may take longer if you feel you need to teach a lot about punctuation. This lesson is designed more to raise awareness than to teach but it may be necessary depending on your group).
  • Objective: to encourage students to consider more than language errors when editing their own texts.



  1. online shopping (word document)
  2. online shopping (pdf document)


This is a simple one as the students do all the work really.

  1. Discussion: activate a bit of schemata with a nice opening discussion on online shopping. Add in any questions you like.
  2. Gist reading: Sts skim the letter to find the purpose of the email.
  3. Second reading: Sts read it again and discuss how successful the writer is in getting their point across and whether or not it’s an example of “good” or “bad” writing. I suppose what you’re looking for here is that communication occurs and the fundamental information is there but that’s not enough. This text doesn’t read well and is largely inappropriate. 
  4. Pre-editing: Discuss as a class, what aspects of this email you might think about edting. Draw their attention to the editing tip below the email if they’re having trouble.
  5. Editing: sts edit in small groups.
  6. Comparing: I would put them up around the room gallery-style and let sts move around and compare each other’s work. Feedback as a whole class and take bits and pieces from each one.
  7. Comparing 2: reveal the sample answer on the back of the sheet and compare with sts answers. Did they miss anything? Were their ideas better than mine? Were there any sentences they should have deleted because they were irrelevant that they didn’t?
  8. Feedback as a whole class.
  9. Reflection: how can they apply this to their own writing.


Opening lines – Making an impact

So, any students of mine who have been in my Cambridge classes in the last few years will recognise this lesson, I usually do it right at the beginning of term.  I like it as it uses novels, and asks students to respond to them in a natural way, then examines the language that is used to attract the reader, and then features a bit of peer teaching of vocab.


Right, to begin you need to pick 4-6 novels and photocopy the first page (it can be a good idea to blow them up a bit to make them easier to read), cutting off any paragraphs that continue onto the next page, or you can just use the first paragraph if you prefer.  Also have the extracts photocopied onto A4/A3 so that you can hand them to the students.

Books I have used include:

  • Girlfriend in a coma – Douglas Coupland
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull – Richard Bach
  • The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
  • The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguru

Those ones have always worked pretty well and all have a different beginning, but any books that have a good opening that you think might interest your students will do the job.

At the beginning of the class, stick the different beginnings up around the classroom spaced out.

1: Reading:  Ask students to read all of the 1st pages, give them between 5-10 mins depending on their reading speed.  Emphasise that here you are not worried about them understanding every single word, but just reading to get the general idea.

2: Reacting: Ask students to go and stand next to the extract they found most interesting and ask them to try to justify why.

3: Checking gist / memory: Ask the students to sit back down and brainstorm in pairs what they can remember about the different extracts.

4: Genre / dating: Hand out the photocopied extracts to students in pairs and ask which they think is the oldest and why.  Give them the answers, but accept that in some cases they will be written in a more archaic way.  For example in the books above, students always expect “the remains of the day” to be oldest due to the formal language used, when in fact it is the most modern.  Similarly, “Catcher” is normally believed to be the most recent, as long as they can say why, I am happy with any answers.

5: First line analysis: Ask students to look at the first line in each extract and to look at what grammar or lexis has been used to try to grab the readers attention. I monitor while they do this to help students and push them in the right direction.

For example

Girlfriend in a Coma“I’m Jared, a ghost” – short sentence, abrupt, shocking, directly addressing the reader.

The Remains of the Day – “It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days” – Directly addressing the reader, use of language of prediction, being vague about the expedition

Jonathan Livingston Seagull – “It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea” – Very poetic, lots of adjectives, setting the scene, letting the reader picture it.

The Catcher in the Rye – “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – Conditional makes it confrontational, use of slang, really long sentence that sounds as if the narrator is speaking to the reader directly.

Optional: You can ask for students to look for other specific bits of grammar, depending on their level, you could do it as a grammar hunt, or just ask them to find things of interest if you think they are strong enough, basically, scaffold the task as much as you think your class will need.  I do this on the first day so I tend to use it as a form of diagnostic to see how much grammar students know.

6: Vocab: Ask students in pairs to work on one of the texts each, they can use their dictionaries if you want. Or you can help each group.  If you have already worked on meaning from context, encourage them to do this.  Then, ask them to peer teach the other students the new vocab.

7: Reflection:  Ask students to think about where this could be used in their writing to improve it, give it more range.  This stage is especially useful for Cambridge Exam Students

Set texts – go on, set a text!

So, CPE is the last one standing, the set texts having been taken away from the FCE and CAE exams as no one answered the questions on them.  Well, some of my students did, and even if they didn’t, reading the set text gave us the chance to practice lots of other skills as well as the obvious benefits of students reading.

When I first started teaching I encouraged my students to read and the first advanced class I taught we read a book together, I have also used audiobooks in class for extended listening practice.  To be honest, some of those were not so successful, but I think that was a failing with me as a teacher, I just wasn’t experienced enough to get the most out of the materials.  Last term I taught CPE, and we read Howards End by Forster and as well as note taking, building character profiles, discussing themes etc. we also did a variety of other things.

I’ve put ideas for some of them below, give them a go, they give the reading much more focus.

  • Turning a page of it into a part 1, 2, 3 Use of English, classic but reliable fall back and a chance to get the tip ex out! Or, if you are very smart try to copy and paste from a digital version.  With my last CAE class last year, I wrote summaries of the chapters and then made them into different parts of the paper.
  • Getting students to create their own reading parts of the exam, for example giving them a section and getting them to write multiple choice questions for it.
  • Cutting up the text and seeing if they can put it back into order using logical sequencing (you have to check that you can do this yourself).  Practices reading part 2
  • Showing the film of the book (if there is one) and getting the students to review it.  With the film there are obviously lots of opportunity to work on pronunciation as you already have a model to work from.
  • Summary writing of sections of the text will help them write concisely and learn how to paraphrase. Summary writing is also a necessary skill for CPEs.
  • Encourage students to make a set text dictionary, especially useful if they can list page numbers and example sentences, to help build vocab.
  • Do a Grammar hunt in a particular piece of text, students search for Conditionals, participle clauses, passives etc to build grammar awareness.
  • Vocabulary from the context, students match synonyms, practises scanning as well as building their vocabularies.
  • Rewriting some of it into a different register, for example if you have a book with rather formal text it can be fun to get them working in pairs to rewrite it in an informal way.
  • Using the direct speech for students to practice intonation and word and sentence stress, get them to record themselves, practice it, get them to think about changes in meaning depending on where the stress is and to think how it should be said, it is also really good to get students to think about where phrases should end and where they should breathe, for many, this is a real challenge and encouraging them to think about it can really help, especially if you do a little of this often.  Recording again after working at it gives students the opportunity to really see progress and who doesn’t like that?

Many students don’t want to read, so short stories or any form of text can be used for a lot of these activities, but I do think that for many students the satisfaction of reading a story and understanding it, along with the practice that they have put in by reading it can make a real difference to their confidence as well as level.

Just always remember to stress why it will be useful for them and what skills you are practising!