HomeAssessmentSix steps to writing transactional letters in the FCE Exam - Part...

Six steps to writing transactional letters in the FCE Exam – Part 1




Young woman thinking in examMichael Duckworth, a teacher and author of several courses for preparing students for Cambridge ESOL examinations, gives a two-part guide to writing the perfect transactional letter in the FCE Exam. Part 2 explores steps 4-6..

The first question in Paper 2 of the First Certificate in English (FCE) Exam is one that all candidates have to answer. This is the transactional letter or email – the word transactional simply means that it is a response to a letter or email and some notes.

I’ve found it helpful to give students a checklist to go through when they write their answer in the exam, and to give them key vocabulary for the types of reply they may need to write. Here are the first three steps of my six step process that will help your students write their best answer. There will be a summary at the end of the next post.


Before you do anything, read the question carefully and find out the following:

  • who you are writing to
  • why you are writing (e.g. to ask for information, to complain, etc.)
  • what you are writing about

When you have worked out what the purpose of your letter or email is, you should be able to work out what kind of style you will need to use.


Remember that the transactional letter needs to be between 120-150 words, so can be quite short. Take advantage of this and use the extra time for planning – a well-planned answer will be much easier to write and will get a much better mark.

There are three things to consider when you are thinking about a plan:

a) The question – This will give you the basic details about who you are writing to and why.  It will also help you decide whether your reply should be formal or informal, as choosing the correct style is an important part of the test.

The question may also contain clues about the functions you will need to use – in other words whether you are writing to apologise, congratulate, thank, ask for information and so on.  In your preparation for the exam, make sure you are familiar with the language needed to do these things.

b) The original letter or email – This will give you a very clear idea of the subject, and the original letter or email can be helpful in giving you some of the vocabulary you might need.  However, remember that the more you can use your own words and phrases the better.

c) The handwritten notes – These are perhaps the most important part of the input.  The notes sometimes give you details that you can use in your answer, but more often than not they suggest something that you have to write about.  For instance, if the note just says ‘weather?’ you will  be expected to ask what the weather is like at that time of the year, what sort of clothes you should bring, etc.


The next stage is to decide what will be in each paragraph. Usually the answer will have four or more paragraphs:

a) A very short opening paragraph – usually just a sentence – thanking the other person for their letter or email and adding any other appropriate comments.  Make sure that you know a range of set phrases (formal and informal) for this.

b) The first main paragraph – The topic for this is usually given in the original question, so make your plan based on the letter and notes.

c) The second main paragraph – The topic for this again is usually given in the original question, so make your plan based on the original letter and notes.  (There may be additional paragraphs after this, depending on the exact topic of the letter).

d) The ending – Again, this will usually be short – just a sentence or so – but make sure you know a range of formal and informal ways of ending.

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  1. […] Oxford: Six steps to writing transactional letters in the FCE Exam ? Part 1 (13 Dec 2010 15:02) […]

  2. I have a problem with the phrase ‘bartok nosepieces’ to ‘ jillionaire incinerate’ please help me the meaning of the phrase or where I can look up . Thanks

    • Hi Lê Công To?i,

      “Bartok nosepieces” and “jillionaire incinerate” have no meaning. They are what is known as “Googlewacks” – a Google search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks, that returns exactly one hit.

      Hope that helps,


    • They’re not phrases actually. They are examples of a computer term of googling something which shows only ONE single result back. Objective First Certificate Student’s book Fourth Edition, Cambridge University Press. Page 19

  3. Thanks for your help. Your answer makes me more confident when I explain it to my students.

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