Written expression is, together with reading and listening comprehension, an externally assessed skill in the Language B subject of IB Diploma Programme. That means that it is not the regular teacher at school who grades the students’ final exams. In contrast, the IB institution will send the written exercises to an external examiner who will then check them and send back the marks.
There are not big differences between standard level (SL) and higher level (HL), and in both cases the students need to choose one option out of three tasks that are based on the five course themes: identities, experiences, human ingenuity, social organisation, sharing the planet.
Small differences between HL and SL written expression paper are indicted in the following table:
In both cases the assessment criteria do not take into account the factual knowledge the student has when writing about a particular topic. That is the student will not get higher marks if he/she shows a broader knowledge of the topic and the other way around, but will be graded based on three criteria that assess specifically the written productive skill in the target language.
The first of these criteria, Criterion A, is ‘Language’, and it focuses on vocabulary, grammar and the accuracy in the use of both linguistics components. In second place the examiner pays attention to the ‘Message’ as Criterion B, what means taking into account if the student successfully achieve the goal of the task through the ideas developed, its clarity and organisation.
The third is Criterion C of ‘Conceptual understanding’, and this is the one we want to develop more in depth in the present article. This criterion is aimed at analysing if the written production of the student adapts to the context, purpose and audience that are describe in the instructions of the choice picked.
How to choose the appropriate type of text to write?
The way a written exercise adapts to the context, purpose and audience described depends, in first place, on choosing the most appropriate type of text or format from three options suggested for each task. Before the new 2020 specifications the student was told what type of text to write, but from May 2020 the candidate also has to be able to identify.
Once the student chooses one task out of those proposed, he/she has to decide which is the appropriate type of text out of three suggested for that task. The first step to take is to discard one format that for sure will not match the message to convey in the written piece. For example, when being asked to write about your experience on a concert or film you watched at a cinema, in make no sense to write a leaflet. Also, when writing about the activities that will be offered in your school during the Earth Day writing a review will not be the best option.
There is always going to be a non-suitable type of text for every instruction, so the first step is to identify it and discard it. Then, a decision between two options is to be taken.
As a second approach paying attention to keywords in the instructions is crucial to take the right option. Words like “describir la experiencia” –describe the experience- are suitable for a review, “sugerir soluciones & explicar por qué” –suggest solutions & explain why- are appropriate for a speech, and “describir los retos & dar consejos” –describe challenges & give advices- are adequate for an article. In the same way, being asked to write about your feelings makes writing a personal diary more suitable, or being told to write a text for a conference makes it clear you should go for a speech.
Although the new 2020 specifications have introduced this small change on selecting the appropriate format by the student, the types of text to be learnt along the course are still the same than before, so the daily learning practice should not be that different. Based on this premise, the more frequent formats in past papers should be also the suitable ones in a bigger number of cases in the new papers developed from now on. Here, we show a table with the frequency some types of text have been asked in Spanish B past papers from 2012 to 2019. The student should then pay more attention to the most frequent ones:
What to do after deciding the best format for the task chosen?
Marks awarded to Criterion C of ‘Conceptual understanding’ also depend on the use of appropriate conventions of the type of text selected, particularly related to structural features that characterise that format. So making sure how a formal letter or a leaflet look like and which are the main parts of them are essential points.
In many occasions the type of text is also linked to particular grammar and vocabulary characteristics. For example, giving advices on an article or instructions on a list of instructions make advisable the use of imperative tense, verbs like “sugerir” –suggest-, “aconsejar” –advise- and “proponer” –propose, or even structures like “yo que tú / yo en tu lugar” –if I were you- followed by conditional tense in a more personal context.
Developing this association between conventions of a particular type of text and grammar and vocabulary features along the course will ease the student to write a good exercise.
Finally, using the appropriate register for the audience describe, formal or informal, will also be taken into account by the external examiner when grading an exercise.
How many marks depend on these features of a written expression exercise in the final exam?
In the following table we show the number of marks awarded according to i) the type of text used, ii) the conventions of this particular type of text showed, and iii) the register used in the text, the three factors affecting the Criterion C of ‘Conceptual understanding’.
As showed 6 marks are awarded to Criterion C out of a total 30 marks for the written expression paper; that is 20%. Taking into account that the written expression skill account for 25% of the final Language B grade, that means that Criterion C of the written expression exam will determine 5% of the final subject grade. Although not much, in some cases this can make the difference between getting a 6 or a 7 in the Language B subject, and finally getting a 44 instead of a 45 in the global IB Diploma.
Where can I find more about formats and tips to improve my written expression paper?
Some books have special sections where they describe types of text and conventions, for example the new 3rd edition IB Spanish B (OSC IB Revision Guides for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme). Also the Spanish B for the IB Diploma (Oxford IB Skills and Practice) has a special chapter in this issue.
More general tips on written expression are to be found in the Educational Resources for Schools webpage of Cambridge University Press; tips 2 and 6 are directly related to format and types of text, but more ideas are developed as well: https://www.cambridge.org/us/education/blog/top-tips-paper-1-languageb