A sign of the times?
I decided to take my family out and spend this weekend in the country. We soon came to the little town where we usually stay. There’s a railway station where you can catch one of the two slow trains per day to the capital city, and there’s a road sign warning drivers about the level crossing with no barriers. The sign is a red triangle that shows a black steam train on a white background. Everyone who sees this sign understands it, because that’s the universal and instantly-recognisable symbol of a train. That’s strange! Trains haven’t looked like that for more than fifty years.
It doesn’t look like that anymore!
That made me think about how many other symbols we use and recognise which are completely outdated. On the roads, the sign which means you mustn’t sound the horn shows a sort of trumpet with a rubber ball at the thin end. You might have one on a bike, but cars haven’t those in the last 100 years! Signs indicating where telephones are, or the prohibition of cameras, usually show a device that hasn’t looked like that since the 1970s. And if you Google images for “writing”, you’ll see more pictures of people holding pens on pieces of paper, and old-fashioned mechanical typewriters, than using computers or mobile phones.
Writing on paper?
When was the last time you wrote anything more than a shopping list with a pen and paper? You probably remember the feelings of cramp in your fingers that come after more than ten or fifteen minutes of writing, your pen running out of ink, and your hand sticking to the paper. If nowadays we hardly ever write with a pen and paper, why should an English language exam expect you to write like that?
In my last language exam, I actually had to write an email using a pen and paper! There, printed on the paper, were the instructions about what I had to write, and a box full of lines which I was supposed to turn into an email to a friend, telling him all about my new life and job in the city where I lived. I found it quite hard to take it seriously — it seemed like a bit of a joke — but I did my best, and then realised I’d written nearly twice as many words as the maximum that was allowed! So I went back and crossed out everything that wasn’t really necessary, and my email ended up looking like a complete mess.
Writing in the Oxford Test of English
When the Oxford Test of English was being designed, one of the most important considerations was that the test should be as realistic and relevant to students as possible. Because you take the Oxford Test of English online, you’ll do the Writing part on a computer, where the keyboard and screen take the place of the pen and paper, which are used in traditional exams. It means that you’ll be writing English in the same way you do every day. Also, if your handwriting is a bit scruffy at times, and gets worse with exam nerves, you don’t need to worry about the examiner not being able to read what you’ve written!
But it’s not just emails that we write on computers — we do all sorts of things at work or while studying on a keyboard, such as writing an essay or a report, or just explaining our point of view. And that’s exactly what you’ll have to do in the Oxford Test of English.
In Part One of the Oxford Test of English Writing module, you’ll have to write an email too. You’ll be given an email that you have to respond to, and there are always three sections of the email which are highlighted in blue, with just a few tips advising you on what you’re expected to do. For example, the original email may say: “How did you find out about us?” — and the tip might say: “Say how”. This means you’ll always know what you have to do: you’ll never be sitting there with your mind going blank! You have 20 minutes to write between 80 and 130 words, and there’s a timer on the screen which shows you how much time you’ve got left to complete the task. You can also use the keyboard to cut or copy, and paste, text wherever you want. This makes it much easier for you to order your sentences, or even just to get rid of unnecessary words without having to cross them out, because – like me – you’ve written more than the maximum!
In the second part of the Writing module, you have 25 minutes to write between 100 and 160 words, and you can choose between two tasks: usually an essay, a review, or a magazine article. So if you’re accustomed to writing essays at school or university, this will give you an opportunity to show off what you’re capable of. But if you’d prefer to write something less academic or formal, you can choose the review or magazine article. Don’t worry, there won’t be any of those old-fashioned tasks you can find in some traditional exams, such as writing a letter of complaint.
Marked by human assessors
Although the Oxford Test of English is online, the Writing module is marked by human assessors, because they can evaluate everything from the communication point of view. And because the two parts of the Writing test are each marked by one, two, or even three assessors in two different teams, you will have to wait a few days for the result.
Another important advantage of the Oxford Test of English is that, by being online, it can be made available to Test Centres whenever they need it — on any date and at any time. So test sessions can be smaller and more frequent than with traditional pen-and-paper exams, which makes it much easier for you to sit at a safe distance from other test takers.
Find out more
If you’d like to see what all this looks like in real life, why not try the demo of the Writing module on the Oxford Test of English website?
You can also download our FREE Oxford Test of English Writing Tips, packed with tips and advice on how to ace your Writing module.
Check out our other blogs to find out more benefits of online proficiency tests:
Don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter so you can access free online lessons helping you to prepare for your English test!
Simon Ferdinand is Head of Market Development for ELT Assessment at Oxford University Press, where he is in charge of launching the Oxford Test of English worldwide. His career spans 26 years in the field of English Language Teaching, first as a teacher of English and French at a language school in Madrid, then as a sales rep and product manager with Oxford University Press working on English File and exams material.
Simon speaks six languages fluently and he is also the author of ‘Cómo negociar en inglés’ (How to Negotiate in English) which was published in Madrid in 2006 and has sold 27,000 copies.