In the OET writing sub-test, candidates are required to read a set of case notes and then write a formal letter (such as referral, discharge or transfer) to someone using the notes that were given. At the beginning of the test, you will be given five minutes to read these notes, and then you have forty minutes to write your letter. So… what should you do during this five minute period? How should you turn your case notes into a letter? In today’s article, you are going to find out the answer to both these questions.
Dealing with case notes
First of all, it is important to know what is required of you, as a candidate, in this test. This means what are you supposed to do with these case notes? Obviously, you cannot just repeat them or even rewrite them in your letter.
More than just a test of your English, the OET is looking at how well you can process the information that is given to you. As such, in the case notes, there will be lots of irrelevant information that you must cast aside. You are only required to choose the most important pieces of information according to what is stated in your task.
As such, you need to be able to do three things with these notes:
- Select relevant notes to include in your letter
- Organize the notes appropriately for your letter
- Transform the notes into grammatical language
Selecting the right notes to include
First of all, before you even look at the case notes, you should examine the task and find out to whom you are addressing your letter. This is of the utmost importance because it will ultimately determine what notes you select from the sheet. If you are writing to a physiotherapist, you will choose a totally different set of information to include compared to a letter that is addressed to a home care nurse.
This sort of information will be found in the task, which is located at the bottom of the case note paper. You should skip over the case notes to read the task, and then look back to the notes only once you know what you are looking for. Ask yourself questions such as, “Does the recipient of the letter already know the patient?” This information will prove very important in helping you choose the right things to include.
If the person to whom you are writing does not already know the patient, then some parts of the case notes are going to be of particular use. For example, the section marked “medical history” will definitely be necessary. However, if the recipient has already dealt with the patient before, then it would be a waste of time and effort to include any medical history because they already know this information.
Think carefully about who is receiving the letter and what they will do for the patient in future. This requires not just noting the recipient of the letter, but the reason for the letter. If you are writing to a physiotherapist who will help a patient with a spinal problem, is it necessary to include information about their dental surgery from five years ago? No, of course not. What about informing a dentist that the patient had a broken ankle six months ago? Again, this is completely unimportant.
As you can see, it is really important to look at the information in the task and think carefully about who is receiving the letter, as this will affect how you choose information from the notes in a major way. Sometimes it is quite easy to tell which information is irrelevant, but sometimes it can really be challenging.
Finally, keep in mind that the people who design the OET writing sub-test will actively choose to include information to distract you from the task. There will be details in the case notes that you need to discard, even though they might seem relevant to the task. This is added as a challenge to ensure that people who get a good score are really able to pick through the details and accurately assess what needs to be included.
Organizing the information into a letter
Once you have selected the relevant information to include and discarded all of the irrelevant information, you can begin to think about organizing your letter. This basically means how you will construct a structure to write the information to your reader.
Remember that you cannot actually write anything during this first five minutes of the writing sub-test. Unlike in the IELTS exam, you cannot note down a loose structure on the question paper, or in this case the notes. Instead, you have to keep that structure in your head while you are reading.
Generally, there are two ways to structure your letter. You can:
- Arrange information in order of importance
- Arrange information chronologically
There is no such thing as a perfect template, and each task will require the candidates to create a logical and purposeful structure for their own letter. You should pay close attention to the task and the notes, and devise a structure that allows you to logically lay out your information in a way that is convenient for the recipient to read.
If you are going to write about the notes in the first structure (order of importance), then you will perhaps lay out your information accordingly:
- Give your reason and/or purpose of writing
- Describe the most recent situation (esp for urgent cases)
- Relevant current medical history
- Relevant past medical history
- Expansion of purpose (if required)
Again, this is not a perfect plan that should be memorized and used, but it is instead a general outline that can be adapted for use in the writing sub-test. Obviously, it will depend upon the information in the notes. You should also not take each of those steps as an individual paragraph, and instead choose the paragraphing according to the actual information that you need to include.
If you choose instead to write in chronological terms (that means describing events in order of time), then you may want to follow this basic outline:
- Give the reason and/or purpose of writing
- Describe the main medical issue
- Talk about the first visit
- Talk about the second visit
- Talk about the latest visit
- Discuss ongoing care/assessment/treatment
This also should be adapted to your own notes, and should not be taken as a perfect layout to be followed exactly. You need to be very flexible and go into the OET writing sub-test without any fixed plan. Be ready to organize the case notes according to the requirements of the task and the data given to you.
Transforming the notes into regular English
Some forms of written English do not conform to regular grammar. Think about news headlines, for example. These simply do not make sense until you learn to add the grammar in your head. Note-taking is basically the same. When you are in a lecture, you will write notes but you will not waste time with articles (a/an/the) or prepositions (to/with/by/on) or other grammatical parts of speech.
In the OET case notes, you will see that the writers have also chosen to eliminate grammatical components, and this has been done for two reasons:
- It is realistic to real note-taking
- It challenges candidates to transform them into grammatically correct language
As such, after you have selected the case notes that you want to use, you should then mentally convert them into regular English, using the appropriate grammatical structures for the letter.
For example, let’s take the case notes of a patient who is going to be referred to a physiotherapist. The case notes will include some details about the patient’s life, which will be useful for a physiotherapist who has to contact the patient and then make a home visit. In selecting the case notes, you decided that the physiotherapist needs to know this information in order to schedule the visit. The notes say:
- lives alone
- wakes 7am, bed 11pm
- can use computer, phone
- communicates with dictation software
You will see that in these notes, there is no subject. This is because, in note-taking, it is a waste of time to use a person’s name or pronoun repeatedly, especially when it is known. You should add this, as well as any relevant parts of grammar. For example, we might say:
- The patient lives alone. He wakes up at 7am in the morning and goes to bed at 11pm. He uses dictation software for communication.
This information would definitely be useful for the physiotherapist to know, and as you can see we have converted the note form language into full sentences that are grammatically correct. This includes adding a subject, some prepositions, and also conjunctions.
In conclusion, converting case notes into a letter requires a number of steps. You should first pick out the notes that are useful to your intended reader, then think of a structure in which to convey them logically. Finally, you should convert the notes from note form language into proper, grammatical English.