DELF writing exam: how to prepare (DELF, DALF, TEF, TCF)

Summary
– French exams: what you are really tested on
How to write a French essay
– Why it’s important to structure your texts and use logical connectors
– How having structure lowers the stress level
– Why work with a coach to prepare an exam
4 typical outlines to write a French essay


The DELF writing exam and the oral presentation can seem like daunting tasks but with good preparation, you can succeed!

There’s one thing to keep in mind when you’re taking a French test like DELF, DALF, TCF or TEF. You’re evaluated both on the “mechanical” quality of your language (grammar, spelling, pronunciation) AND your ability to express your point of view. The following advice work both for the writing and oral tasks.

As you move further up the levels (B2, C1, C2), the language becomes a tool to express convincing thoughts. You need to showcase a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures. You also need to organise your production to showcase your analytical skills and your opinion.

This is “French culture 101”: the French have an opinion about everything and they looooove exchanging views and arguing. In the 17th century the French aristocracy popularized the concept of “salons” or discussion circles. There, aristocrats, poets and well-educated guests would gather to talk about anything (grammar, philosophy, current affairs, etc). It’s at that time that French became the language of choice of most European courts (including Russia).

French aristocracy started the tradition of stylish French conversation in the 17th century.

French essays and exposes, like French conversations, are “something like an English garden. It’s highly cultivated to look and feel natural.”

The Bonjour Effect, Julie Barlow – Jean-Benoît Nadeau (2016)

And that’s why you should know the rules of the “game” and practice, practice, practice before taking the DELF writing exam.

Watch the video or keep reading

How a French essay differs from an English essay

Many things have changed since then but the education system has perpetuated this tradition for reasoning. As early as middle school, French kids learn how to write formal essays with an introduction, a conclusion and well-organized paragraphs about just about anything (litterature, philosophy, history…). As you enter secondary and post-secondary schools, you’ve acquired the structure so well that, when facing a “problématique” (a complex question), you immediately start to envision a 2 or 3-parts essay (see at the end of this post for the detailed breakdown).

In a French essay, you’re supposed to pick a side and clearly state your personal answer to the problematique but not before you’ve examined the pros and cons and explained why we should value some aspects over others.

DELF writing exam

When I went to Ireland to study for a year, I had to “re-learn” how to write an essay. Over there, I was supposed to pick a side at the beginning and defend my choice. Two or three supporting arguments explained why why my choice was the best option. Although you include some cons or limitations, it wouldn’t take up as much space as in a French essay. It’s possible to use the same patterns to write essays in English and in French. However I think the most common patterns differ from one country to another. I’m not an expert in writing English essays so I could be mistaken…

The importance of signposting in your DELF writing exam

Once aspect that’s common to all good essays is the importance of structuring your thoughts.

The French essay will mix a lot of contradicting ideas and include nuances. In order not to lose your audience, you need to have a very clear structure. You need to take them by the hand at the beginning and constantly let them know where you are, how you got there and where you’re going next.

Think of this as driving… When you’re going from point A  to point B, you use a map and sign posts. You also use your signals (turn, headlights, stop) to communicate your intentions to other drivers…

Well it’s exactly what you need to do to get a great score at your test. Be very clear about your map and constantly share your “directions”. That way the reader/audience can understand where you are and the logic of your thoughts. 

“Articulateurs logiques”: logical connectors are essentials in your DELF writing exam

To signpost, you’ll need what we call “articulateurs logiques”. They can be adverbs, conjunctions, expressions… So, make sure you learn a few connecting words for each concept (opposition, concession, addition, sequencing…) so that you’re not always using the same ones.

The higher level the exam, the more variety you’ll need. Learn 2-3 connecting words for each concept at B1 level, 4-5 at B2 level. For C1 and C2 try to learn some fancy connectors you’ll only see in the newspapers. Make sure you work with your coach or a qualified tutor to understand all the nuances between these words. Linking words are not always interchangeable.

How signposting keeps the brain calm

Especially in the oral exam, this will have a beneficial effect both on your brain and on the examiner’s. On one hand, you’ll be calmer as you won’t get confused about what to say next. On the other hand, the examiners will follow your train of thoughts clearly. They will be more relaxed as they don’t need to figure out where the heck you’re going with this.

You will provide context and direction. Even though your sentences may not be 100% correct, it will be easier for them to understand. If they don’t, they may ask for clarification after so you’ll get a second chance to get it right.

In the writing exam, you won’t waste precious time while writing the essay. You’ll know what you want to say, your thoughts will flow faster.

Give your brain some love!

And you’ll score points for your ability to organize your thoughts and be convincing. Honestly, these are easy extra points to get if you practice complying with the format.

An exam is already a stressful process. The last thing you want is to go through it with your brain in “panic mode”.

You might also like to read this post: 3 ways to calm your brain

How to prepare for your French exam

Don’t think you can “wing it” on the day of the exam. It’s not something you can improvise on the day of the exam, you do need to practice.

Some strategies will help and make your training a lot more efficient in the long run. 

The principles of the best strategies are: 

  • Acquire knowledge (read, listen…) about the most frequent exam topics
  • Take notes and organize your knowledge into your brain: for example with mindmaps, flashcards, memory palace…
  • Practice finding a “problématique(a complex question) on a topic and brainstorm to draft an outline. You can invent one and/or use past exams samples.

If you do that, you’ll accumulate efficient hours of practice thinking about these topics and organizing your thoughts. You’ll already have arguments and examples, therefore you’ll feel more confident on the day of the exam.

Once that’s done, you can focus on the form and produce the best French you can. 

A convincing expose or essay for a French proficiency test is roughly 1/3 knowledge, 1/3 methodology and 1/3 language skills*

* grammar, vocabulary + enunciation if oral

The benefits of working with a Neurolanguage coach

We understand the necessity of keeping the brain calm and strive to remain in this state during the sessions. We provide tools for you to achieve this state when you study independantly and then when you’re taking the exam.

I find it can be useful to mix working with a tutor or teacher and with a language coach.

With the first one, learn specific aspects of the language, correct some exercises and get extra speaking practice.

When you meet with your coach, you can work on 3 aspects. First, you can fine tune your understanding of a concept. Neurolanguage coaches constantly focus on making grammar “digestible” for your brain. We have in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of the language. We will encourage you to create connections with concepts you already know. Then, we work on your fluency by practicing focused conversation. Finally we’ll draft up together a customized plan to improve.

Your coach will steer the conversation to practice what you need to and facilitate the creation of the connections in your brain. The end goal is that you learn how to think in French naturally.

Instead of lecturing about French essays, we’ll make sure you can embrace the exercise with your own style and your own words.

Types of French outlines (called plans)

Now that you know why it’s important, here are some concrete resources to help you. These are 3 examples of typical French essay or expose outlines.

DELF writing exam: theatre outline

PATTERN A: it unfolds like a Moliere play
Part 1: Exposition / Facts
Part 2: The action, what problems are we facing because of Part 1 facts
Part 3: The resolution

DELF writing exam: philosophical outline

PATTERN B: everything in life is relative, a philosopher’s reflection
Part 1: “Yes/White” (thèse = thesis, which reflects the direction you’re leaning toward to answer the question)
Part 2: “No/Black” (antithèse = antithesis)
Part 3: “Yes but,/Grey” (synthèse = synthesis, from the arguments in part 1 and 2, find a middle ground or opening to an answer that’s neither of the extremes)

DELF writing exam: yes but outline

PATTERN C: “YES, BUT…”
It’s also acceptable to do 2 parts only:
Part 1: 2 or 3 arguments in favour of your point of view (YES)
Part 2: Limitations of Part 1’s arguments (BUT, why it’s not ideal)
Your conclusion would emphasize the upsides of your arguments and how we could overcome the limitations.

PATTERN D: Chronological
Part 1: Phase 1 or Before/The past
Part 2: Phase 2 or Now/The present
Part 3: Phase 3 or After/The future

Which outline should you choose for the DELF writing exam?

There is no “right” pattern, it will depend on what you have to say. The content needs to be divided into balanced parts.

  • Pattern A is efficient because there’s tension, your audience wants to know the end of the play.
  • On the other hand, pattern B might be the most difficult. You may end up not being convincing enough in conveying your opinion to your audience.
  • Pattern C is maybe the most accessible if you’re used to writing English-style essays.
  • Pattern D is a rather obvious choice when you’re dealing with a topic spread across a period of time with distinct phases. Make sure you include argumentation, not just facts!

Troubleshooting:
If you’ve decided to do 3 parts but end up with 2 long ones and a short one, it means you should do 2 parts only or find more material for your 3rd part. If you were going for a 2-parts outline but have a lot of sub-parts (paragaphs within each section), you should probably divide them up in 3 parts. That’s why it’s important to think and plan before you start writing your DELF exam.

Keep in mind the word count range you’re allowed at the test you’re taking and practice the format.

Watch this video explaining the process leading to writing a good outline

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