The “Writing” part of the Cambridge Exam

In the B- and C-Level exams you have to write a short text as part of the exam. There are different types of text that can be asked for, which I will look at below and give tips on how to do them.

  • Informal Letter or Email
  • Semi-formal letter
  • Report
  • Article
  • Review
  • Essay

So what are the differences between these, and what do you need to think about for each type of document?

Informal Letter or Email

This is a letter or email to a friend or a member of your family. You don’t need to write the “to”, “from”, “date” or “subject” (if you do, don’t count the words you have used for these as part of the total number of words you have written).

Start with an informal greeting, such as “Dear Peter” or “Hi Mary”, and on the next line remember to start a new sentence with a capital letter. Make some comment about what what they wrote to you before answering their questions and giving your own news. Finish with an informal phrase such as “All the best”, “Cheers”, “See you soon”, “Love” or something similar.

Semi-formal letter

A semi-formal letter could be to a company, your local newspaper, or the local government, probably to tell them about a complaint or an opinion you have, or maybe to apply for a job. In the exam, you don’t need to write an address, the date, or the subject. If you want to include these, the number of words in these parts doesn’t count in the number of words you have to write.
In this case, you need to use more formal language, (for example using the passive voice, e.g. “it is said”, “the quality has become worse”, etc.) and will probably start with an expression like “Dear Sir/Madam”, “Dear Mr Jones”, “Dear Sirs” etc. The ending will also be fairly formal, for example: “Yours faithfully”.


A report is usually written for your boss, or for a customer. For example, you may be asked to suggest ways of improving how your company treats customers, or you may have to make suggestions to a client about their business. A report needs to start with a title, and to have several sections which each have a different main idea. The sections should each have a heading on a separate line. You will need at least 3 sections, normally you will need more than 3. The first section should be the Introduction, then you will need one or more sections to present your findings, and finally a section (usually called Summary or Conclusion or Recommendations, depending on the style of report you have written).


An article is something written to be published – in a blog, a newspaper, a magazine or something similar. It is written to interest the reader of the publication. Again, the style should be semi-formal, unless you are writing in a discussion forum. An article needs a title, like the report does, but doesn’t need headings for the sections. You’ll need to write an introduction in the first paragraph, and remember to summarise the main point(s) for the reader at the end of the article. The article needs to be structured, with each paragraph having a main idea.


A review is special type of article. It should start with a title for the review and be written in a semi-formal style. It’s written for a blog, newspaper or magazine, but it reports your opinion about something. It could be a review of a restaurant, a fashion show, a film, a book, etc. It’s very similar to an article, but here what counts is your opinion, which you should justify. For example, don’t just say that the service was bad or that the food was terrible, say that the food took over forty minutes to arrive at the table, and it was served luke-warm. Again, the review, like an article, should start with a short introduction and finish by summarising your opinion and the reason for having it.


An essay will usually ask you to discuss something. As in the other types of document that you can be asked to write, it should be structured with a main idea in each paragraph.
An essay doesn’t need a title or section headings, although I think it is a good idea to give a title to the essay. The number of words in the title doesn’t count towards the number of words you have written. It’s important in an essay to include views for and against the point you are being asked to write about. However, you should make your own views clear and give reasons why you think your views are correct. Don’t forget to finish with a conclusion or a summary of your views.

General things to remember in all the above document types

  • Make sure you answer all the points/questions that the exam paper asks for. If you are asked for 3 reasons for something, and only give two, you can not get full marks for your answer. This is the easiest way to collect marks – even if your English isn’t perfect you will get marks for answering all the parts of the question!
  • Remember that if you write too few words, you have probably not answered all the points you were asked to write about in the question; and if you write too much, you give yourself more possibilities of making mistakes, and if you write much to much, the examiner may stop reading altogether, and you may get marked down for an incomplete answer!
  • Remember that in English we don’t usually write “…” at the end of a list to show there are more possibilities which have not been listed. Instead, you can say “etc.” or “and so on”.
  • If you have time at the end of the exam, re-read what you have written, and check you haven’t made typical mistakes such as writing he when you are talking about something a woman did, check that each verb has a subject (which can often be it), check you haven’t written plural forms of adjectives. Adjectives don’t have a plural form in English – there are no blacks cats!

How to find a synonym in the English langauge

Thanks to Peter Mark Roget the English language has a type of dictionary which is not available in many other languages: the thesaurus. A thesaurus doesn’t tell you the meaning of words, it gives you a list of words having a similar meaning to a specific word. It’s useful if you are writing a report or an essay, and wish to avoid repeating the same word several times in a short text.

The best known thesaurus is named after Roget, who published the first thesaurus in 1852. You can find Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus online here.

You have to be a bit careful when using a thesaurus, because some of the alternatives listed may only be useful in specific situations. For example, synonyms of the word “child” include “bairn”, which is only used in the north of England or in Scotland, and “whippersnapper” which is an old-fashioned word used in the 17th century, and means “an unimportant but offensively presumptuous person, especially a young one.”

Resources to practice listening to English

One of the skills you need to practice if you are going to take intermediate or advanced English exams is listening. If you don’t have a “tame” native speaker to talk to, it doesn’t matter. There are lots of possibilities in the internet:

TED TalksTED talks are normally 18 minutes long or less. They are given by experts in their field. There is a huge number of recorded TED talks online.

They cover just about anything you can think of. Even such esoteric topics as "dog poetry"! So you should be able to find something to interest you.

TED talks take place all over the world, if you keep an eye on TEDx Events, you can see when the next one near you is (for Valencia in Spain, there's a TEDx event in February 2016, for example).
The English we speak (BBC)The BBC has a lot of information about the English language (grammar, for example) and also many podcasts (usually a couple of minutes long) and short programs (4-5 minutes) on its website. The link on the left takes you to podcasts / broadcasts that help you learn English.

The BCC also offers podcasts to its listeners (not just learners of English) about general topics. These are also well worth listening to.
The BBC World Service RadioThis is a selection of news and current affairs reports which are broadcast on the BBC World Service.
YouTube Upper Intermediate EnglishThere are a number of good language schools and freelance teachers on YouTube, who offer free classes on a the use of English. I like the videos from Anglo-Link, Benjamin's English Classes, EngVid, Let's Talk and English Lessons with Adam, but there are many other good producers of English videos on YouTube. (You can look for any level, not just upper intermediate, of course!)
YouTube DocumentariesThere's a lot of documentaries (e.g. from the BBC, National Geographic, The History Channel, and many more) to choose from. You can narrow them down to the most recent ones by searching for "documentaries 2015", for example.

In the same way you can search for films and TV programs. Not just British video, by the way. You can search out Indian or American material, or whatever takes your fancy.

Recommended reading material for intermediate students

Choosing reading matter to help you learn English is difficult. The most important thing is that you read something which interests you. For one person that might mean reading romantic novels, for someone else maybe reading photography magazines is a better idea. I wouldn’t recommend starting by reading books aimed at young children; the language may be simpler, but that advantage is offset be the fact that the vocabulary won’t be as useful (unless you really want to learn childish expressions or about fairies, evil witches and so on!).

Books for young adults are often a good place to start – the language is still a little easier to understand, and the variety of literature available is similar to adult literature. Don’t try to start reading a 500-page book for your first attempt, better to choose books which are 100 – 250 pages long, so that you’re not stuck reading the same book for too long. If you think you might like reading a book, check its page on, and you can see a description of the book, the number of pages, sometimes even read a few pages of it, and read what other people think about it.

If you are lucky enough to own a Kindle with a touch-screen (not a Kindle Fire, as they don’t support using the dictionary in the same way) you can read books a slightly higher level than you would otherwise, because you can use the built-in dictionary to translate words between your language and English. It’s much more convenient than using a paper dictionary and your English will improve more rapidly as a result.

Below are some ideas, in no particular order, to help you find texts to improve your reading skills:

linguapress.comBeginner / Intermediate / AdvancedInteresting short texts accompanied by exercises based on the the text, grouped according to the student's level of English.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl IntermediateAlthough this is a children's book, it is such fun that I have to recommend it. I read it at least three times in Spanish to improve my Spanish.

Anything else by Roald Dahl is also worth a try.
City College of San Francisco: Novels for Intermediate Level ESL StudentsIntermediateWhat's really good about this list is that it covers a variety of topics, so most students can find something interesting at their level.
Go ask Alice

Available from Amazon Spain here.
IntermediateA 1971 novel about the life of a troubled teenage girl, written in the form of the diary of an anonymous teenage girl who becomes addicted to drugs.

The novel's title was taken from a line in the 1967 Grace Slick-penned Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" ("go ask Alice/when she's ten feet tall").
Listopia Best Young Adult BooksIntermediateReading books for young adults can be interesting for adults too.

This list includes books and series of books which I have enjoyed a lot as an adult and which have been turned into Hollywood films, such as the Hunger Games series, the Harry Potter series, The Maze Runner, The Book Thief, The Hobbit and many more.
ESL: Reading English at the Intermediate LevelIntermediateLucy Tse has some recommendations in her blog entry. She recommends books from the winner's list of the Newbury Medal awards. These are books especially chosen for children, but many are quite sophisticated and will appeal to adults too.

Cultural differences Spain / Germany (customer service)

In Germany and the UK, contacting customer service of a commercial company is usually free and easy to do. Not so in Spain.

Even if you want to contact a Spanish company you will have difficulty contacting them for free, and probably have to use a phone number which starts with 901 or 902 where you have to pay for the call by the minute. For a ten minute call, you would be paying about one Euro for a “902” number (the most common number). Annoying, if you are trying to do the company a favour by reporting a leaking water main, for example. Particularly annoying when I lose my phone and internet connection and need to inform the telecoms company by mobile phone – that 10 minute call costs over 5 Euro. That happens about once a month at the moment – where I live the only telecoms service available is a WiMax (radio WiFi) link to the Castle in Xàtiva, and it doesn’t seem to be particularly reliable; this week I have just had an internet / phone outage of over 28 hours.

Contact via internet isn’t much better. Again, usually the only contact information on an internet page are a 901/902 phone number and maybe a contact form which you can fill in on their webpage. No postal address, no other contact information. Recently I reported an error in the online banking system of one of the biggest banks in Spain using the contact form on their website. After a week they wrote back by email to say that they could only process the error report if I sent them my tax number and my user-id for their banking system. Both are completely irrelevant in respect to the error I reported. Sorry, I can’t be bothered to provide the information they requested, so that error will probably never get fixed, and they will continue to provide a poor service via their website.

By the way, you can sometimes avoid using 90x phone numbers in Spain: there is an unofficial service at, which lists alternative “normal” phone numbers. Many people have a national flat rate for their phone, which makes these numbers truely free, whereas the 90x numbers produce costs to the caller even if they have a flat rate phone tariff!

Lists of phrasal verbs

The first use of the term “phrasal verb” was only in 1925 – if you’d been born 100 years ago, you wouldn’t have to struggle with them when learning English grammar! Of course, phrasal verbs were in use before 1925, but no one had thought about them as a grammatical construction until then. There are new phrasal verbs being created all the time, so the problem isn’t getting smaller.

Phrasal verbs cause problems for students of English – there are so many. A phrasal verb is a verb made up of two or more parts: a verb, a preposition and/or an adverb. The problem is, that the meaning of the phrasal verb is different from the meaning of the verb which is used to create the phrasal verb.

For example:

turn up
turn: to rotate (e.g. The wheel was turning slowly)
turn up: increase the volume (e.g. Please turn the sound up on the TV, I can’t hear the film properly)

There are lots of phrasal verbs; well over 3000 in total, of which you need to know about 150 for the B2 exam, and about double that number at the C1 level. This website has a very good list of many, many phrasal verbs. It’s best used as a reference list. To get started with a more manageable list, try this page.

Cultural differences Spain / Germany (contacting companies)

Coming from Germany (where I Iived for over 30 years) I am sometimes surprised by cultural differences in Spain.

For example, in Germany, if you want to cancel a contract or contact the customer relations department or the management of a company by letter, it’s no problem. The letterheads of invoices and other written communications in Germany have to have the names of the member of the board of directors and the address of the company headquarters on them. Websites have to have an “Impressum” which tells you the address of the company, an email address to allow you to contact them, and various other contact details.

If your German letterhead or website doesn’t conform the legal requirements, you can be sure that quite quickly you will be contacted by a predatory lawyer specialised in prosecuting such offenders and you will probably have to sign a cease and desist order which can often cost you 500 – 1000 Euro (you have to pay the predatory lawyer for his alleged time and materials to issue the order). So nearly every company follows the law.

In Spain contact information is treated as a strict commercial secret. Websites don’t have any contact address for letters on them, usually only the hotline phone number and maybe an email address. The phone number is usually not a freephone number, so you have to pay to contact them.

Letterheads and invoices don’t have to have any useful contact information on them, and even commercial contracts (for example for my private health insurance or for my mobile phone) don’t have an address to contact if you want to cancel the contract. My bank statements don’t include the postal address of the branch that my account is managed by, and only include a phone number (non-freephone) to contact the bank.

The only form of cancellation that Vodafone will accept for a mobile phone contract, for example, is by fax. And don’t forget to include a copy of your residence permit and passport otherwise they won’t process the cancellation on the grounds that the cancellation may be fraudulent. They like to make it as difficult as possible to contact them or cancel a contract!

What does Level B1, B2 etc. mean if you’re learning a language?

If you’re learning a language in Europe, you may be aiming to get a certificate showing the level of competency that you have reached. there is a standard framework used in Europe, called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment, abbreviated as CEFR or CEF, which defines 6 levels. These apply independently of the language you are studying, and of the European country you are studying in. It is also recognised in several non-European countries, such as Colombia and the Philippines.

Level groupLevel group nameLevelLevel name
ABasic userA1Breakthrough or beginner
A2Way stage or elementary
BIndependent userB1Threshold or intermediate
B2Vantage or upper intermediate
CProficient userC1Effective operational proficiency or advanced
C2Mastery or proficiency

The levels are described in detail on the website linked to above the table.

The EOI (Escuela Oficial de Idiomas) in Spain uses a slightly different way of referring to the levels, for example, they refer to the B1 level as “Intermediate”, but the B2 as “Advanced”. You can see a description of their levels here. This difference is because the levels are regulated by the “Ley Orgánica de Educación (Real Decreto 1629/2006)”.

You can reckon that for English, German or Spanish you’ll need about 75 hours to reach A1 level, 180–200 hours to reach A2, 350-400 hours to reach B1, 500-600 to reach B2, 700-800 to reach C1, and 1000 – 1200 hours to reach C2 level.