Writing tasks

Writing tasks are used for direct testing of writing ability, which means that test-takers are required to produce an extended (beyond individual words or short phrases) written response to a given stimulus.

Unlike direct testing, indirect testing of writing ability attempts to assess competencies underlying writing ability, such as the knowledge of written grammar, spelling or genre conventions. An indirect test of writing ability might, for example, include a task assessing test-takers’ knowledge of grammar or a set of items assessing the knowledge of spelling and punctuation.

Although it is widely accepted that grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. play a role in one’s writing ability, it can be argued that writing ability goes beyond these individual ‘components’. This might mean that a test-taker who knows written grammar, spelling, etc. will not necessarily be able to write a good essay, report, etc. That is why, setting direct writing tasks is the most common approach to assessing writing ability nowadays.

A writing task normally consists of a set of instructions and a prompt. Below, a series of recommendations on producing effective writing prompts and instructions is provided.

Recommendations for topic selection

  • The topic should be accessible to all test-takers. Care should be taken not to disadvantage any of them because of their unfamiliarity with the topic. It is easier to find suitable topics for test-takers with similar backgrounds.  In a test intended for a wide international audience, choosing a suitable topic might be more problematic.
Describe your favourite app and how you
use it.

This topic will be unsuitable for test-takers who do not use apps or might not have a smart phone.

  • Choose a topic which does not require creativity, imagination or advanced logical reasoning from test-takers. This is because writing tasks are meant to test writing ability and not imagination, creativity, etc.
What would you do if you found a pair of
magical shoes?

This topic requires imagination from test-takers to produce an extended response. Not all test-takers will have it in equal measure. Those without a developed imagination will be disadvantaged by this task.

  • Topics that are interesting for test-takers will normally elicit longer and better-quality responses.  At the same time, a balance should be found between topics that are engaging and topics that might provoke a strong emotional response. The latter might affect the test-taker’s ability to produce an adequate piece of writing, and the resulting response might also be difficult to rate.
Write about a time you had to lie to your
best friend.

This topic might provoke a strong emotional response from some test-takers: remembering this clearly unpleasant situation might make them anxious or upset, which could affect their writing ability. On the other hand, some test-takers might find it difficult to recollect such a situation. To produce a response, they will have to use their imagination to make up a story that never happened. As discussed above, not all test-takers will have a developed enough imagination to come up with a coherent or plausible story.

  • Avoid so-called ‘taboo topics’ – topics that are controversial and might be perceived as unpleasant by test-takers or might be unsuitable for a particular group of test-takers. For example, setting topics that touch upon pigs or dogs might not be suitable if there are Muslims among the test-taker population. Generally, topics about alcohol, drugs, wars, violence, sex, and politics are to be avoided. In small-scale localized testing, however, some test developers are not averse to using controversial topics because they are thought to provoke extended responses from test-takers. When using such topics, it is important to ensure that they will not result in a strong emotional response from test-takers.
  • Avoid banal topics that will only be found in a test. Those topics will not pique test-takers’ interest and can only result in equally banal responses.
Describe your typical day from morning
to night.

This bland topic is often found in textbooks. It might help test-takers to display their knowledge of the present indefinite tense, but it is unlikely to result in interesting responses that would go beyond describing a string of actions. It is also difficult to imagine where such a response might be called for in real-life situations.

Recommendations for genre selection

  • Choose authentic writing genres – genres that are found in real-life writing situations.
Write a conversation you have with a
friend about a holiday you plan to have
This example is cited from Hughes & Hughes (2020)

A conversation is not an authentic writing genre. In real life, the ability to ‘write a conversation’ might be required only from a script writer. Moreover, the conversation is imaginary and might disadvantage test-takers without a developed enough imagination.

  • Choose genres that test-takers will use outside the testing situation. For example, test-takers who are taking the test for university entry might require report or article writing ability, while test-takers who are taking the test for professional reasons might have to write business reports, memos or meeting minutes, depending on their job.
  • Narrative (e.g., a story) and descriptive (e.g., travel writing) genres are cognitively easier than expository (e.g., a report) or argumentative (e.g., a persuasive essay) genres. Different genres might also require different types of language. For example, stories often require the knowledge of past tenses, while modals and conditionals are often used in argumentative essays. These should be taken into consideration when setting a writing task at a specific proficiency level. 

Recommendations for producing writing prompts

Writing prompts set the scene and provide the background information necessary for producing a written response. A writing prompt might include some source information (e.g., a reading passage or visual stimulus) or can simply give a topic to write about. Writing prompts that include extensive reading passages are often used in integrated reading-to-write tasks which are not discussed here. For those who are interested in integrated reading-to-write tasks, I included a reading suggestion in the Further Reading section at the bottom of this page.

  • Writing prompts should be unambiguous, clearly laid-out and easy to read, to ensure that a lack of clarity does not prevent test-takers from producing a high-quality response. As much as possible, the language of the prompt should be one proficiency level lower than the test level.
“Travel broadens the mind”. (J. Smith).

Test-takers who are not used to this specific task format might find the prompt ambiguous: 1) not all test-takers will know what kind of response is expected because ‘discuss’ might be insufficient to explain the required genre; 2) it might be unclear why ‘J. Smith’ is referred to in the prompt and whether it is expected from text-takers to mention J. Smith in the response.

  • Unless the prompt is for a reading-to-write task, it is important to reduce dependence on test-takers’ reading ability. This can be achieved by using visuals. For example, a story can be elicited with a set of pictures; a graph/chart/table can be used as a stimulus for a formal report. However, care should be taken that visuals are clear and that test-takers are able to interpret them. For example, if a prompt includes a map, map-reading ability might be called for to produce a response, while map-reading is not a part of writing ability.
  • Avoid so-called ‘misfires’ (a term coined by Ruth & Murphy, 1984) – writing prompts that can be interpreted in an unintended way.
Many different suggestions for
improvement of Central High School have
recently been made. Describe one
problem or situation which you feel needs
correction or improvement, giving

reasons for your choice, and suggesting
one or more solutions.
This example is cited from Ruth & Murphy (1984)

This prompt was created for high-school students. The teacher who wrote the prompt assumed that the information about potential school improvements, widely circulated and discussed in the school, was common shared knowledge. But when students were interviewed about their interpretations of the topic, it became clear that not all students shared this background information about the suggestions.  It was also assumed that the request to ‘describe one problem’ would lead students to produce an essay about a single problem in the school. However, several students interpreted the task as having to argue that one problem was more important than others, so they discussed more than one problem.

To avoid the situation discussed in the above example, examine the prompt for possible misinterpretations, check for ambiguous wording and, if possible, trial the task with several test-takers who are similar to the target test-takers. However, if a ‘misfire’ still occurs, it might be advisable to approach the scoring with an open mind and to accept unintended interpretations if they make sense as a written response.

  • Give enough background information to provide a level-playing field for all test-takers. Background information will particularly help test-takers with less knowledge about the topic or with a less developed imagination/argumentation ability.
Write an essay on environment protection.
Write an essay on environment protection in your town/city.
Write an essay suggesting measures to
protect the environment in your town/city.
Discuss the following measures intended
to protect the environment in your
a) Encourage recycling
b) Reduce the use of plastic
c) (your own idea)

Compare the following four prompts. They give progressively more information to test-takers. Prompt 4 is the most informative and can be particularly helpful to those test-takers who are not very familiar with environmental protection and would otherwise struggle to think of measures to discuss in their response. At the same time, the prompt encourages test-takers to include their own ideas.

  • Providing background information will also reduce variation in responses. The responses will be more comparable and, as a result, easier to mark. At the same time, a prompt should not be so restrictive as to stifle more capable test-takers:  “… a good prompt should allow weaker writers to write at their own level while allowing better writers to demonstrate their best writing” (Weigle, 2002, p.90).
Some people believe that life offers them
an endless choice of opportunities.
Others think that life is a series of one
problem after another. Compare these

two ways of looking at life. Which idea do
you agree with? Give reasons to support
your choice.
This example is cited from Weigle (2002)

When the prompt was trialled, it was found that the resulting essays lacked focus because there were too many different approaches to the topic so the raters found it difficult to decide whether a response was on topic or not.

Recommendations for producing writing task instructions

  • Instructions should be brief but informative, ensuring that test-takers know exactly what they have to do.
  • Instructions should include information about the audience (i.e. the potential readers of the written response), the situation and purpose of writing, and the required genre.
Write about a memorable event from your childhood.

This writing prompt gives no information about the purpose of writing (to explain? to describe? to persuade?), the situation and the audience (A penfriend in an email exchange? Fellow-students reading a school newspaper?) and the expected genre, which largely depend on the situation of writing (an email, a newspaper article, etc.)

  • Instructions should specify the expected length of the writing response, e.g. ‘write at least 150 words’ or ‘write between 150 and 200 words’.
  • Instructions should specify how much time test-takers have to produce a written response. The time should be sufficient to allow for planning and drafting a response. This can be established by trialling the task with several test-takers who are similar to the ones the task is intended for.
Write an article for a school newspaper,
describing a memorable event from your
childhood. Write between 150 and 200
words. You have 30 minutes.

This is a revised version of the writing prompt discussed above. The revised prompt specifies the genre (an article), the audience (readers of a school newspaper), the expected length of the response (150-200 words) and the time allocated for writing a response (30 minutes).

  • The language of instructions should be simple, ideally one level lower than the level of the test. For example, if the test is at CEFR B2 level, the instructions should be accessible to B1 level test-takers.

Further reading

Hughes, A., & Hughes, J. (2020). Testing for language teachers. Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 9 ‘Testing writing’ provides practical recommendations for producing writing test tasks)

Plakans, L. (2021). Writing integrated tasks. In G. Fulcher and L. Harding (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing (pp. 357-371). Taylor & Frances. (This book chapter discusses the production of integrated writing and speaking tasks, including reading-to-write tasks).

Ruth, L., & Murphy, S. (1984). Designing topics for writing assessment: Problems of meaning. College composition and communication, 35(4), 410-422. https://doi.org/10.2307/357793

Weigle, S. (2002). Assessing writing. Cambridge University Press.