How To Use Pro-active Thinking Maps For Writing Exam Success


“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”

William Shakespeare
What’s good in education?

What’s bad?

Think about it;)

As teachers we throw ourselves into planning courses, objectives, projects and outcomes. Beyond that we want our students to excel in exams so as to ensure their continuing education, future employment, and specialiations in fields that utilise their passions and talents. We want them to experience the joy of learning creatively without becoming burnt out by state exam systems and establishments. Most importantly, we want to show them how to appreciate life on deeper levels.

How do we do all of that?

By teaching them how to think, of course. There is no other way to overcome exam hurdles or life’s ups and downs, for that matter. We must also show them that thinking is fun, artistic, surprising, and never boring.

Last week I introduced concepts and tools for pro-active language learning in my article called 11 multi-media lessons to inspire change. Today I’m going to focus on one of these types of tools and show you how it can be utilised for writing exams training. Obviously the power of mindmapping extends way beyond writing, but as this topic is virtually inexhaustible, I’ll focus only on writing for exam tasks today. Next week, I’ll feature ideas for using the same tools to practise other important exams skills.

The first thinking tool is the mindmapping tool.

First of all I’ll explain why mindmaps are powerful as writing tools. Here are some points I mentioned in my ebooklet called “Timeless Teaching Techniques For The Digital Age”.

a) As laterally-designed mapping spaces, mindmaps are powerful visual aids for brainstorming.

b) They work by association. We have one central key word and brainstorm some associated key words, arranging them on key branches. Then we build up more associations and sub-branches from the main branch.

c) They build up into a visual network of associations and ideas that can give us new insights into problems. These branches are potentially never-ending and it gives you the sense that your ideas are infinite.

d) Creating mindmaps for varrious purposes in education makes teacheers and students more organised and creative at the same time.

e) Mindmaps allow us the see the bigger picture and smaller details simultaneously.

f) They are perfect tools for planning essays, blog articles or books.


Planning essays, stories, letters, reports, reviews etc.

Students can think and plan very quickly using mindmaps instead of lists for essay planning. It’s also much more effective because students get an holistic view of the essay skeleton or blueprint at paragraph level, before getting lost in detail. Each new layer of a map can be considered as the flesh and clothing on the skeleton. Here are different ways in which they can map out their essay plans

a) Idea generation.


Students free their minds by just mapping out any ideas they can associated with the topic they have to cover. After they have finished brainstorming they can choose the best ideas, fine-tune the plan and edit map till it’s perfectly focused. This ensures that students don’t get bogged down in too many ideas, too few ideas, irrelevent ideas, weak ideas or boring diversions from the topic at hand.

b) The skeleton.


Students learn to visualise and focus on the bigger picture at paragraph level. This is something that students often avoid doing, and it’s the main reason why many students may dislike writing or thinking about complex topics. They may tend to get lost in their paragraphs and not see the woods for the trees. They can divide the paragraph headings into branches, then plot out key words onto sub-branches so as to have a clear idea as to what should be included in each part of the essay, letter, report or review. This also trains them to carefully check the exam task rubric and not to miss any essential aspects of what must be covered.

c) Use of English, grammar, sentence formation.

Another thing that students fail to explicitly plan is sentence construction. Even though the ESOL Cambridge exams have a whole paper on Use Of English, and a specific section on sentence transformation, they rarely think of carrying over these constructions into their writing. A great way to channel the use of more sophisticated sentence formation into student writing is to have them decide beforehand what structures they may wish to employ for each paragraph or point.

They can create dedicated sentence formation mindmaps for each type of writing task, use a blanket approach for multiple writing tasks and/or add sentence structure branches to a general writing mindmap.

Students can decide to use as different structures for each point and paragraph so as not to be repetitive.

For example, they can decide to include comparisions, conditionals, emphatic structures, inversion, and so on….Needless to say, this increases writing scores exponentially.

d) Register/formal/informal/ key words

Another challenge for students is use of correct and appropriate register.

For formal writing tasks they can use the mindmaps to generate appropriate acceptable phrasal verbs and expressions. Although phrasal verbs are usually too informal for certain tasks, there are some that are used in formal settings and students should be able to isolate and use them.

For informal writing tasks it’s a great idea to mind map as many phrasal verbs as they can think of that would help them to cover the topic at hand. This kind of focus prevents them from subconsciously reverting to direct translation while writing, using mixed registers, and coming up with all kinds of false friends you’ve never heard of and would never wish to meet on the street;)

e) Parts of speech

Students can mindmap verbs, nouns, adverbs, and adjectives that they may wish to use in the set writing task. Plotting out parts of speech helps them to pro-actively engage with these words, as opposed to just seeing them on a table but never appreciating their power at sentence level.

After mapping out verbs, nouns, adverbs and adjectives on separate branches, they can then go on to form collocations and add them to approprite sub branches.

A great resource to help with this process is the collocation poster collection created by Fluency MC, which you can find here.

f) Tenses


One reason why many students never fully master the tenses is that they learn them in isolated chunks, as parts of exercise sheets or in disjointed stages of the learning journey. Although we need to teach tenses slowly but surely, we also need to show them how tenses form the bigger picture of the whole language, past, present and future as part of a logical and multi-dimensional spectrum.

As teachers we can create holistic mindmaps of the whole tense system, and parts of the system can clarify the big picture for students. Colour-coding different aspects, such as progressive, perfect, simple etc. – creates a natural web of meaning for students to latch onto and remember.

Students, for their part, can ask themselves which tenses they may need to use for particular writing tasks and add these examples as appropriate sub-branches to the main mindmap.

When a full mindmap is completed, a teacher should be able to take one look and predict what the final essay outcome would look like. For this reason, we should train our students to mindmap every essay or writing task. We could, for example, set one mindmapping task per week and one actual writing task that would be created from the original mindmap.

But there’s no time to mindmap or play around with multi-media tools under exam conditions

What then?

That’s not the point.

By the time the get to write the exams, the experience of mapping will be wired into their brains and their essays will write themselves. Their brains will have fine-tuned the nuances of the writing craft, while their instincts will have mastered the nuances of style, creativity and original thinking. Also they can hand scribble rudimentary maps in two-minutes before starting to write.

Here is my collection of favorite mindmapping tools for you again.

Have fun exploring minds, thoughts & creativity.

Mindmapping tools, by silversal

More useful links and references:

IQ Matrix by Adam Sicinski

Mindmap inspiration: top ten mindmaps

Brainfriendly ways to memorise – my mindmap-to-movie ideas

engames – mindmaps and games

Collo-tune maps in association with engames

Teaching English article on mindmaps

Sylvia Guinan

is an online English teacher, writer and blogger who facilitates professional development online. She uses brain-friendly techniques to help students and teachers around the world. She designs educational materials, develops courses, writes resource papers and publishes ebooks. Her work is the result of much research into the psychology of learning, as well as hands-on experience with multi-media technology.

1 thought on “How To Use Pro-active Thinking Maps For Writing Exam Success

  1. Thanks Sylvia for triggering the uninitiated into Mind maps, like me, to try them. They are definitely very useful for presentations. Apart from that I assume they are useful with discursive composition topics. I think organising ideas and even generating more ideas on the topic will be facilitated through them.

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