Guidance for teachers preparing candidates for the Writing paper of the Cambridge Preliminary Exam.


In the Cambridge English Preliminary (PET) exam, the reading and writing components are on the same paper. In the writing section of the exam, which consists of three parts, candidates are encouraged to focus on the structural patterns of language and to communicate a specific message in a clear and concise manner.

The three writing parts on the paper are as follows:

Part 1: Sentence transformations

This section tests the candidate's ability to say the same thing in different ways. Candidates are given an initial sentence and asked to fill in the gaps in a second sentence using a different structural pattern, so that it still has the same meaning. There are five sentences, all related by theme. There is one mark for each correct answer. Candidates have to fill the gap with one, two or three words. Take care! Contractions count as two words, e.g. ‘don’t’ = do + not

Number of marks: 5 (In order to be awarded the mark for each sentence, no errors are permissable.)

Things students may be asked to do

a) Think of a word with the opposite meaning, e.g. old / young.
My brother is too young to read computer books.
My brother isn’t ... enough to read computer books.
b) Change the tense of a verb, e.g. opened / has been open.
The castle opened to the public last year.
The castle ... to the public since last year.
c) Change indirect / reported speech to direct speech, e.g. are met / meets.
Visitors are always met at the door by the owner, Mr Brandon.
The owner, Mr Brandon, always ... visitors at the door.
d) Change a passive sentence to an active one, e.g. was designed / designed.
The Bluebell was designed by a famous architect.
A famous architect ... the Bluebell.
e) Change the way you compare two things, e.g. more interesting / not as interesting.
I think that history books are more interesting than novels.
I think that novels are ... as history books.
  • Students should read the example, which shows them what they have to do.
  • Then they should read all the sentences to understand the topic.
  • After writing the word(s), they should read each full sentence to themselves and compare it carefully with the first sentence. Is the meaning the same?
  • When they have finished, it is a good idea to let them practise writing only the missing words on the answer sheet.

How to improve your students’ performance

Students who have focused on fluency in English but have not paid much attention to grammatical or spelling accuracy may find this exercise very difficult.

1. Accuracy

Providing examples of how inaccuracies (in grammar or spelling) can produce misunderstandings may help to focus attention on the need to say what you mean (e.g. Mary was giving a lecture / Mary was given a lecture; John is interesting / John is interested). You may also want to stress how important clarity and accuracy are in the world of work and education, and how much employers value accuracy.

2. Paraphrasing

Make sure students understand that paraphrasing is a useful skill in the real world. It is a skill we use in order to clarify and explain: we rephrase or reformulate information by saying it again using different words. Link this exercise with the need to paraphrase in the speaking test when the students do not know or cannot remember a word or expression to describe something in the photograph.

Part 2: Writing a short communicative message

Candidates have to write a short communicative message of between 35 and 45 words.The focus of this task is on communicating a specific message in a concise and clear manner. Candidates do not need to show creativity because they are told:

  • who to write to (e.g. a friend);
  • the reason why they are writing (e.g. they are visiting a city and they want to send a postcard; there is some important news; they have received a present, etc);
  • and three content points that they must include in the message (e.g. thank your friend, explain what you will do with the present, and invite your friend to visit you).

Number of marks: 5

How to improve your students’ performance

1. Include all three content points

To get full marks, all content points must be included. If one content point is missing, the candidate will get a maximum of three marks.You may want to say that a few minutes devoted to planning what to write is not a waste of time!

2. Write within the word limits

Candidates will lose marks if their answers are longer than 45 words or shorter than 35. You may want to give students examples of answers that are too short, so that they can say what is missing, or too long, so that they can say what information is not required.

If your students’ answers are too short, get them to write a short sentence (you could dictate this to them) and then build it up to 45 words. This can be achieved by asking students a series of questions related to the sentence, and then incorporating their answers into the original sentence. For example:

'I went to the park.'
‘On Wednesday morning, I went to the park.'
How did you get to the park?
‘On Wednesday morning, I rode my bicycle to the park.'
How did you feel? (etc)

3. Write clearly and accurately

Minor errors will not result in lost marks. However, if there are errors that affect the clarity of the message, then marks will be lost.

Part 3: Continuous writing

In this part candidates can choose to write either a story or an informal letter of about 100 words. Candidates who write fewer than 80 words will lose marks. Candidates should be advised to write at least 90 words and not to worry if their answer is a bit longer than 100. This task is worth more marks than tasks one and two combined, so remind students that they must leave enough time to complete it fully.

Number of marks: 15 (The task is marked out of five, and then the band score is multiplied by three to translate it to a mark out of 15. For example, a candidate who gets a Band 4 will be awarded 12 marks out of 15.)

How to improve your students’ performance

1. General advice

In this part of the exam, students can use their imagination and have a chance to use a variety of vocabulary and structures.They should be encouraged to be ambitious within the limitations of the language they have learnt. They will be awarded higher marks if they use a range of tenses and appropriate vocabulary and expressions. [See page 30 of the PET Handbook:]

Students could be shown example letters or stories which have clear flaws, e.g.:

  • They are too short. (They should work in pairs to make them longer by adding a few sentences.)
  • They lack interesting vocabulary. (They should work in pairs to introduce some different words or expressions.)
  • They lack a proper introduction or conclusion. (They should work in pairs to provide it.)

It is a good idea to encourage students to judge their own letters or stories by asking themselves these questions:

a) Is it clear and interesting?

  • Will the reader understand the points in the letter or follow the development of the story?
  • Is it divided into paragraphs?
  • Is the handwriting clear enough?
  • Is there an interesting introduction and conclusion?

b) Can I correct any language mistakes before handing it in?

  • Is the spelling correct?
  • Are verb tenses used correctly?
  • Have I used punctuation marks?

2. Specific advice

a) The letter

The letter in the exam task will tell candidates what to include in their letter. It is important to read the letter carefully and 1) make a note of the topic (e.g. it is about free time activities / museums / mobile phones, etc), and 2) underline any questions the friend is asking.

Students need to be told that if they get carried away and end up writing about a different topic, or they do not give the information the task is asking for, they will be penalized. They must include appropriate opening and closing lines.

b) The story

This question will give a short title or the first sentence of a story. Students should be encouraged to read the task very carefully. The answer must be linked to the question in content, so candidates should note any names or pronouns used in the question. If the first sentence is in the third person, for example, the story must be written in the third person.

Students should get used to making a simple plan of the story before starting to write, making sure to include the following details:

  • The beginning (e.g. Who is the main character? When and where does the story start? What happened?).
  • The development (e.g. What happened next? How did X react? What did X do?).
  • The conclusion (e.g. What happened in the end? How did X feel about it?).

To write a good story, students will need to have a good command of:

  • Past tenses: the past simple, past continuous and past perfect simple (regular and irregular forms) in affirmative and negative sentences.
  • Simple reported speech (e.g. Peter asked the woman if she could help him).
  • Sequencing words and expressions (e.g. Then..., After that…, While..., When…, The following day…, In the afternoon…, etc).

For more ideas and tasks, information and tips, see Macmillan Education's Testbuilder series, available to purchase here: 

Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET)