How to write your answer to the concorso essay questions: 12 practical tips

If you have tried to answer some of the concorso essay questions, you know they aren’t exactly the easiest exam format.

In the past few years, I have worked as an online consultant for teachers preparing for the concorso: they would send me their essays and questions, I would mark them and add my comments, and then we would discuss them together in online Zoom meetings. Here’s some of the feedback we received:

I had a consultation with Chiara on an essay I wrote relating to the concorso question. Nothing has been more valuable for my preparation to the exam. Chiara analysed my essay, telling me in details what I had to improve in order to pass the concorso: how the structure had to be modified, how the description of the teaching methodologies had to be expanded, where the use of tenses needed coherence. Thank you Chiara for being professional and for understanding exactly what my needs were.

Paola B.

This work has been extremely engaging and has given me the opportunity to meet and help some great teachers. I have also regularly engaged with the teachers taking our self-study courses in the Discussion Boards where they share their answers and give each other feedback.

Throughout this period, I have learned a few lessons about common mistakes made in the concorso answers. I have collected them in a list of 12 do’s and don’ts for you.

What do the concorso questions look like?

Based on the questions we have from previous years, we know that open questions generally provide a quote, which the candidate has to discuss, followed by a question that relates more practically to issues of classroom practice – including materials, activities, assessment forms and groupings.

This is an example from the 2016 A24-A25 exam:

“A task has been defined as “a feature of everyday life in the personal, public, educational or occupational domains” (Council of Europe, 2001). Textbook writers are mostly concerned with ways of constructing language courses based upon the use of tasks, while language teachers are interested in developing tasks that help learners learn (i.e. produce language that will stay with them and will be later used in meaningful ways and contexts). Rod Ellis (2003: 4-5) illustrates some of the most well known studies of task-based learning and makes a distinction between tasks that can be performed without using language, such as ‘painting a fence’, and tasks that require language, such as booking a flight. To Ellis, ‘tasks’ are “activities that call for primarily meaning-focused language use. In contrast, ‘exercises’ are activities that call for primarily form focused language use”(Ellis, 2003:3). Even if the main purpose in both tasks and exercises is to learn a language, it is the way this purpose is achieved that makes the difference.

Discuss the role of tasks in language learning and briefly illustrate how you would use tasks in your English language lessons. Provide an example of the tasks you would use.”

What are the possible topics?

Topics for these questions may pertain to the Language Teaching Methodology field, including questions on:

  • Language teaching methods (e.g. CLIL, TBLT)
  • Second Language Acquisition (e.g. explicit and implicit knowledge; the roles of input, output, feedback and negotiation of meaning in language acquisition)
  • The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and how specific descriptors may apply to your context

Other possible questions may relate to the field of linguistics (e.g. questions on the role of grammar or phonology in English as a Lingua Franca) or teaching literature in the language classroom: see this article for a list of possible questions.

Note: we cannot know for sure what the next concorso will look like. What we do know is the frequency of the topics that came out in the past few concorsi: you can read our dedicated article to get a sense of which topics you should start studying.

We also cover the different types of questions and topics in this video:

12 practical tips for writing your concorso answer

Here are my top tips based on my experience reading, marking and discussing the concorso answers of several teachers in online consultations:

1. Avoid generic statements

Writing an answer to the concorso questions means justifying your choices with reference to theory and practice. However, an important caveat is to avoid self-evident or generic statements. For example, a key point to discuss in almost any question related to teaching is students’ needs and invidividualisation. Nevertheless, consider a statement like the following:

The Flipped Classroom offers the opportunity for students to work at home and then come to school and do more interactive activities. This is important especially for students with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Now, it may very well be true that students with SpLDs may benefit from a Flipped approach: however, from this answer, it is not clear how. Here, it woud have been appropriate to provide an explanation of how these students may benefit and how students with different types of SpLDs in particular may benefit, possibly with examples of activities catering for different students.

2. Don’t rely on the reader’s prior knowledge

Of course your examiners are supposed to know what you are talking about, generally speaking. However, it is not good practice in academic writing to take the reader’s prior knowledge for granted. Further, it may well be that you are introducing a construct or topic that your examiner really is not familiar with.

Consequently, avoid statements like “it is well-known that..” or “we all know that…” Also, when you’re introducing a new construct or theory, make sure you briefly define it. For instance, if you refer to the Zone of Proximal Development to support your argument that peer assessment is beneficial for secondary school students, the first time you refer to the concept, you need to define it. This serves a twofold purpose: a) to make sure the reader knows what you’re talking about and b) to show your examiner that you know what you’re talking about.

3. Justify your choices

This is possibly one of the biggest sticking points that emerged in my analysis of teachers’ answers. The questions will expect you not only to provide examples of how you would teach, but also to back up your choices. This can be done with reference to theory, learners’ needs and frameworks:

  1. Theories of learning:
  • Constructivism, the Zone of Proximal Development
  • Connectivism (especially for online/blended learning)
  • Second Language Acquisition and Instructed Second Language Acquisition: Input/output/interaction/feedback; motivation

2. Learners’ needs:

  • Levels, mixed abilities
  • Ages
  • Type of school
  • Specific Learning Difficulties and disabilities

3. Frameworks of reference:

  • CEFR
  • Indicazioni Nazionali

4. Refer to the theory clearly, concisely, appropriately and explicitly

I mentioned in point 3 that you can justify your choices with reference to theories. This is crucial, but make sure that you do so clearly, concisely, appropriately and explicitly:

  • Clearly: make sure you explain the theory you are referring to in enough detail: it’s not enough to just mention Constructivism, it has to be clear what the theory says.
  • Concisely: at the same time, however, the examiner doesn’t need a full treatise on any theory you present. This also wouldn’t be sustainable given the time constraints of the exam. When you introduce a theoretical point, unless it is part of your core argument, a few sentences (sometimes even just 1-2) will be enough to explain what you mean. This also helps make sure the text remains focused and tight and you keep the reader’s attention.
  • Appropriately: make sure the theory you’re referencing has something to do with the pedagogical decision you are discussing. For example, if you’re saying you would use a PPP structure for your lesson and back it up by discussing Instructed Second Language Acquisition, this is not going to work (because ISLA is pretty clearly against using a PPP structure).
  • Explicitly: make the connection between what you are discussing and the theory explicit. If you use a PPP structure and reference Cognitive Load Theory, it has to be clear that you are trying to avoid overload in your learners.

5. Refer to the actual context and include practical examples

The question will ask you to discuss a quote and some theoretical concept or framework but also relate them to a specific context. Make sure you define your context clearly (e.g. learners’ age, level, number, type of school, SpLDs, etc.) and give examples of some classroom procedures. For instance, if you say “I would use peer assessment in my classes” but don’t say how (e.g. students mark each other’s writing based on an assessment rubric; students give each other informal feedback on speaking performance), it leaves the reader wondering what you mean.

6. Whenever possible, use tasks and refer to the CEFR

As outlined in the 2001 and also the recent 2018 version of the CEFR and its 2020 Companion Volume, language teaching is increasingly shifting toward a task-based paradigm. It is therefore useful to refer both to the CEFR and to introduce tasks in your lessons.

7. Discuss the quote

A common question I got from teachers in my online consultations was what it meant to “discuss the quote”. The quote can be an extract from a CEFR descriptor or something more “theoretical”, such as the definition of a teaching method, an explanation of a theory, a quote from a literary text or an academic’s opinion on methodological matters.

This multiplicity of types of quotes makes it difficult to give suggestions that would apply to them all; however, my general suggestions would be to:

  • Read the quote in full a couple of times: spend a couple of minutes on this to make sure you’re not missing important parts (which I’ve seen happen on multiple occasions).
  • Identify and underline the key concepts: these might be references to theory, names of specific authors or hints to something that can be discussed further. Consider this extract from the B02 concorso from 2016:

A widely held view is that a teacher working in a heterogeneous (mixed-ability) class should adapt the tasks to individual learner needs. Such individualization turns a lesson into a mixed variety of the individual–fit activities, and is sometimes described by teachers as impractical” (Millrood, 2002:128)

What does this tell us? That sure, we need to discuss mixed-abilities and individualisation and contrast them with lockstep teaching, but also, there’s a hint to the other side of the coin – that for all its merits, individualisation is burdensome for teachers. Discussing this will make your answer well-balanced and show the examiner your criticality.

  • Make connections to theory and practice: after identifying the key points (underlined in the extract above), discuss them in relation to theory and also practice. For example, in the quote above, I would discuss what a mixed-ability class is and what learner needs are (with examples). I would also say what a lesson with a “mixed variety” of activities would look like and then list the practical reasons why it may be an impractical approach. Remember to balance the theory with the practice throughout your answer.
time lapse photography of square containers at night

8. Keep the focus on the core question

Each essay question will have a core topic, like the Flipped Classroom (FC), English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) or how to teach Extensive Reading. Your answer needs to reflect that: this means that throughout the text, you need to be answering that broad question. A common issue in the answers I read was that at one point or another, the candidate veered off the question and went into side topics in too much detail.

While writing your answer, make sure you ask yourself: am I answering the core question or am I going off topic? If the question is about the Flipped Classroom, everything in your answer needs to support the arguments you’re making about the Flipped Classroom. So it’s good if you talk about learners’ needs because the FC is flexible and allows learners to go at their own pace; however, it’s off topic if you launch into a two-paragraph discussion of what learners’ needs are and how SpLDs are provided for in Italian law.

9. Avoid disproved theories and neuromyths

This was a common one and it is something I frequently see in my work as a TESOL lecturer and supervisor. There are theories and constructs out there that have been popular for a very long time and as such, they are often referenced in students’ answers. Take, for example, learning styles, i.e. the idea that we learn better when we receive information in the format that we prefer (e.g. audio, visual, kinaesthetic). This theory has been disproven time and time again for twenty years, yet it finds its way into the classroom. In your concorso answer, avoid referencing such types of “neuromyths”. You can refer to my article in English Teaching Professional to find out more.

10. Tackle all the parts of the question

You will think I’m teaching grandma how to suck eggs, and yet this was a common oversight I noticed in the essays I marked. Because of the nerves and time constraints on the day of the exam, make extra-sure you’ve read the question carefully and identified/underlined the key points. One section that was often forgotten was assessment: if the question asks you to discuss and justify, say, classroom procedures, materials and assessment, remember to discuss the three aspects.

11. Consider whether you need a full lesson plan

This is another very common question I got from teachers. The real answer is, naturally, that nobody knows for sure until we see the exam questions. However, I will say that the way the questions are phrased does not suggest they are asking for a formal full lesson plan.

My view on this is that you need to gauge the level of detail the question requires: if they ask for classroom procedures, for example, you will need to give an indication of how you would use specific classroom activities for specific learning outcomes. This can mean refering to some broad activities you would use or, if time allows, providing a breakdown of how you would use them in a specific lesson.

12. Balance adherence to textual conventions with time pressures

Finally, bear in mind that you will be pressed for time, but the form of your answer will also be assessed. Language use was one of the three indicators in the assessment grid for the last concorso straordinario. This means that you will have to balance the need to write a fluent, linguistically appropriate text with the time pressures that might make you want to write everything in bullet points, contractions and abbreviations.

My suggestion is to avoid features of informal language such as contractions and abbreviations and use bullet points judiciously. Also, try to avoid one-line paragraphs – a common feature of the essays I read but one that is unlikely to earn you points for textual cohesion. Save time by practising answering questions on a timer and structuring your answer before you start writing.

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