On August 3rd, 2019, there was a significant change that took place regarding the OET writing sub-test. In this article, I will explain what has changed and what that means for future test-takers, as well as looking at the new criteria that all OET candidates need to know. Firstly, though, it is important to outline what has not changed. Although these current changes are important, they are in fact quite limited, and there is a great deal that remains absolutely the same as it used to.
What hasn’t changed for OET writing?
Most importantly, the actual test itself hasn’t changed at all. You are still required to write a formal letter on the same basis as before, and you will be given exactly the same amount of time to do the writing sub- test. That means five minutes to read the notes and forty minutes to write the letter.
Additionally, the level of diﬃculty will not change. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, the test will not become any harder nor any easier than it used to be. There are no new skills for you to learn, no new requirements for you to fulfill, nor are there any new strategies for you to adopt in order to succeed in the OET writing sub-test.
So… keeping all of that in mind, has anything really changed at all?
What is being changed about OET writing?
Essentially, the changes to the OET writing sub-test are all about how it is assessed. The previous system of assessment is changing to an overhauled version that includes new names for each of the criteria, and a slightly changed focus of assessment that pays more attention to what healthcare professionals are looking for in a letter of this sort. The new assessment criteria will take into consideration what these people need in order to gain information from your letter easily and effectively.
Let’s now look at the marking criteria and how it has changed between the old version and the new:
Previously, there were five categories to be marked, worth a total of 30 points:
- Overall Task Fulfillment
- Appropriateness of Language
- Comprehension of Stimulus
- Linguistic Features
- Presentation Features
However, since the upgrade, this has all been revamped and there are now six categories of assessment, worth a total of 38 points. Five of the categories are ranked out of a maximum of 7 points, with the remaining category marked out of 3.
- Conciseness and Clarity
- Genre and Style
- Organisation and Layout
Looking closely at these new categories of marking, it can be seen that the overall requirements of the test are the same. The test basically still involves the same skills, but these are now marked under a different set of names.
What does this all mean?
Those categories above are pretty confusing unless you know what they each mean. The marking system is actually quite complex, so I will try to explain it for you in simple terms.
This is the first of the categories listed above and it is diﬀerent from the others in that it is graded out of a maximum 3 points, whereas the others are graded from 0 to 7.
As the name suggests, candidates are marked on whether or not the letter is fit for its purpose. At the very lowest levels, the purpose of the letter is wrong because the task has been misunderstood, while a letter that achieves the maximum score of three has its purpose immediately clear to the reader.
The oﬃcial OET guidelines suggest that the purpose should be made immediately clear early in the letter, then expanded upon later as appropriate. It should be absolutely obvious to the reader what the letter is about, and they should not have to waste time reading and rereading the letter in order to find its purpose. This mimics real-life situations, in which healthcare professions do not have the time for this.
Next on the list is “content,” which means the information that the letter contains. Basically, a letter should contain the relevant information – in other words, the key details from the task sheet. It is also vital that all information that is included in the letter is accurately represented.
A letter that performs poorly for this criteria will have missed out important information or misrepresented the information it includes. In order to get the highest mark for this criteria (which is 7 points), the candidate must include the most important details, with no inaccuracies.
Conciseness and Clarity
This next category is a little harder to understand than the previous two, so I will explain it in depth. “Concise” means that something is stated clearly and eﬃciently. It contains no unnecessary information and does not use too many words to say something that could have been stated more clearly. In the healthcare industry, people do not have time to waste on long letters that contain lots of words that don’t quite get to the point. As such, conciseness is highly valued. A good letter is able to convey the necessary information without saying too much. Clarity, on the other hand, means that something is clear and obvious.
A letter that is successful for this criterion is not going to feature any extra information from the notes, and will state all relevant information in an eﬀective way. The reader will not have to look at many sentences that do not directly address the key issue.
It is important here to think in terms of the letter as a summary of the notes. You are not trying to state anything in great detail, but rather to take the key ideas from the notes and write them down in an effective and reasonable way, with no distractions from the main points.
Genre and Style
This is one of the hardest parts of the criteria to explain, but most seasoned professionals and those who have prepared well for the test will already implicitly understand it. It means that the letter should be written in a style that is appropriate to its purpose and the industry in which it functions. In other words, this letter is from one healthcare professional to another and it should not be written like a personal e-mail to a friend or any other sort of informal letter or note.
There are diﬀerent purposes to these letters and they require slight alterations to the tone and other information. If the letter is meant to be read by a patient, for example, then much more explanation is necessary and a different set of vocabulary might even be required. A letter from a specialist in a particular discipline might contain diﬀerent language when written to a general practitioner than to another specialist in the same discipline.
A successful letter will be written in the correct tone, and make use of the right sort of language for the letter’s purpose. It will be polite and factual, but it may vary according to the situations explained in the previous paragraph.
Organisation and Layout
One much overlooked part of professional letter-writing is organisation and layout. A letter should, of course, conform to standard letter-writing protocols, but it should also adhere to certain industry-specific requirements. In this case, that means using organisational features to make the important parts of the letter stand out over less important parts. This could include organising the document logically so that its diﬀerent sections each handle a different part of the idea that the letter intends to convey.
A poorly performing letter may be too heavily based on the structure of the case notes, showing that the writer has not rearranged information manually in order to improve its comprehension. On the other hand, a successful letter will feature very logical organisation and layout, making the retrieval of information easy for the reader.
The final category is “language,” which refers to both vocabulary and grammar, thereby also comprising spelling and punctuation. This is the category that will be particularly challenging to many, as it is this that ultimately tests your English language ability.
Grammar and vocabulary are a huge challenge for many OET candidates, and yet they are of the utmost importance. This is because any small mistake could have major consequences. In order to score the highest possible number of marks, the letter should be free of errors. Lower level scores may be awarded for letters that feature grammatical or lexical mistakes that tax the reader to some extent.
Why have these changes been made?
Ever since its creation, the OET has undergone updates to make sure that it is fit for purpose. Rather than staying the same each year, it undergoes slight changes from time to time in order to adapt to a changing world. Its purpose is to be the best possible exam for English-speaking medical and healthcare professionals, and sometimes it is necessary to make slight alterations to the exam content or assessment criteria in order to ensure that it meets the needs of the wider industry.
The most recent update was made after meetings with a wide range of people in the healthcare industry regarding what they thought was important for English learners to know. When dealing with formal letters, they gave feedback that inspired the recent changes to the marking assessment. The new evaluation criteria can thus be seen to better fulfill the expectations of medical professionals.
In short, all of the previous requirements of the OET writing sub-test still exist and have now been incorporated into the new marking criteria; however, these now are structured in such a way that the exam better suits the needs of the people working in the healthcare industry.