Preparing and drafting formal emails of complaint through a process-genre approach
by Esther Ratcliff

Preliminary Information

The level is advanced and corresponds to the C1 level on the CEFR. They normally use Straightforward Advanced by Roy Norris MacMillan 2013. These students have studied for a number of years at advanced level, and some have studied intensive courses at IH.All the students are working towards the Cambridge English Advanced exam in the near future. I would say that these students are slightly weaker than other students at the same level, perhaps due to the fact that they only have class for three hours a week.

Class Profile
There are five female students in this class ranging from mid-twenties to mid-forties who are studying a general English course. (1.5 hrs 2 days a week) They come to class after work, and it is the last class of the day. Consequently, they can sometimes seem tired and unenthusiastic. I find that the students can be a little quieter than other classes, as a result discussion activities or pair work can seem stilted. I also think that varying personalities within a small group also affect the dynamic of some activities. I have tried to overcome this by playing very low music in the background during pair work. They all have similar types of jobs and use English in their job.

Timetable fit
This class forms part or a series of lessons based around the topic of ‘The Voice’which includes lessons on speaking in public, different ways of speaking, talking about irritating things. By the time the students do this lesson, they will have learnt how to talk about complaints with a variety of phrases, seen a bad example of a letter of complaint that uses language that is far too direct to have a positive effect on the reader. The lesson builds on this idea by focussing on written discourse for complaints.


Main aims;

  • To give practice in preparing and drafting formal emails of complaint through a process-genre approach.
  • To give practice at analysing formal register in complaints.

Subsidiary aims;

  • To raise awareness of the use of specific connectors used in formal register.


Communicative features of formal complaints

3-4 paragraphs
P1-Introduce writer and establish a relationship with the reader
P2-Express what was expected of the service or product
P3-Express dissatisfaction of the received service or product
P4-Express desire for compensation and/or acknowledgement of complaint

Layout/organisation - Aligned to the left hand side

Purpose - To express dissatisfaction with a service or product

Tenor (status) - Distant relationship between writer and reader. Writer assumes authoritative position over the reader

Cohesion - Evidence of formal connectors that guide the reader through the argument and help clarity Style Formal

Grammar - Passive voice to avoid direct culpability of the reader, inversion and cleft sentences to create emphasis, mixed and 3rd conditionals to talk about hypothetical present and past situations

Lexis Higher number of noun phrases rather that verb phrases, no phrasal verbs, more Latinised root words, lexical chains related to expected or received service or product

 The communicative features of a complaint letter include using appropriate textual discourse markers in a way that guide the reader through the ideas in the text, and also strengthen the clarity and arguments.

*However and furthermore usually only have a strong form in spoken discourse. Speakers might also decide to stress these words in the suprasegmental stress of a sentence to add emphasis to what is about to be said.

**Moreover is not normally used in spoken discourse as it is for very formal registers.

(Swan, Michael 2005 Practical English Usage 3 rd edition OUP pp.138-157)

The table below shows how the cohesive devices function in formal written discourse.

Assumed knowledge

The students will be quite receptive to the topic of complaints, as everybody can usually draw from experience in this area. The topic of the lesson is also a natural progression of what we have been discussing in class recently.
The students will be familiar with the register of the model text and some of the conventions of formal genres, such as no use of contractions.
They are used to writing in a formal style at work, and so the actual task of producing a short formal piece of writing should not be that problematic.
The students are advanced, so they will be confident with using lexis about travelling, restaurants, hotels and holidays for the writing task.
The students will have an awareness of some of the different connectors in the text such as ‘however’ and perhaps ‘furthermore’.

Anticipated problems and solutions

Problems with the Tasks

Problem: The students might find the text sequencing part challenging because it is not something that they are familiar with doing.They will find the sections that refer to the ‘first night’ and the ‘second’ night easier because the links are more explicit. I expect that they might link up the parts of the text by recognising lexical chains, grammatical links or by simply noticing how the ideas progress. They might also decide that some of the sentences could come at the end when they are actually part of the introduction. I have cut the sections of the letter in way that means it is not obvious which sections match up, because the parts don’t match perfectly.
Solution: I will try to help them to focus on how the linkers help the internal coherence of the text, rather than general ideas within the letter which is obviously also valid. When they see the final complete version of the letter, I will ask them to see if and why it differs from their version.

Problem: I think there is a risk that one of the students (Marta) may become dominating during speaking activities and also maybe in feedback after the speaking activity.
Solution: Through classroom management I will try to make sure that she is sat with Nuría who, although is very softly spoken, quite strong and will hopefully make discussions with Marta more balanced. I will also try to nominate quieter students during feedback.

Problem: Students might find Stage 6 a little strange because they have never done something like this before. In particular, they might not be able to think of ideas for their complaint before the drafting stage.
Solution: I will try and encourage them to verbalise their ideas in a way that stimulates better expression of ideas. I will also draw their attention back to the model answer to help stimulate more ideas.

 Problems with the Language

Problem: Students might be confused by the fact that the use of pronouns vary from ‘I’ to ‘we’ throughout the model letter.
Solution: Reassure students that this is one of the conventions of a formal letter when you are writing on behalf of other people.

Problem : Identifying features in Stage 4 that make the writing formal might be more difficult for some students because although they are familiar with formal registers, they might not be able to analyse it immediately that well.
Solution: I will draw students’ attention to the parts of the text, which should generate ideas about the level of formality, i.e. formal lexis, passive voice, the beginning and the end.

Problem: There is a possibility that students might get confused with ‘in fact’, and ‘indeed’ as this is an area that has come up before in both speaking and writing activities.
Solution: Explain that ‘indeed’: Can be used with very to emphasise an adjective or an adverb I was very pleased indeed to see him. Thank you very much indeed.
Can be used after be or an auxiliary verb to suggest confirmation or emphatic agreement.
Did you have a good time? I did indeed.
Explain that ‘in fact’: Can be used to show whether somebody’s expectations have been fulfilled or not Did you enjoy your holiday? Very much in fact.
Can be used to introduce additional surprising or unexpected information.The holiday was awful. In fact we had to come home early.
Can be used to say that the hearer’s expectations were not fulfilled. How was the holiday? Well, in fact we didn’t go.

Problem: Asking students to explain the implicit cohesive devices in Stage 5 by paraphrasing might be too challenging because they are not familiar with doing this. Also, by nature, the use of a cohesive device, replaces the need to use longer sentences, so this might also be a little unnatural for the students.
Solution: I will help students by encouraging them to think of the message of the sentence. This will help them to become aware of the internal coherence of written discourse, and also of the function of each connector.

Problem: Students might have problems with the form of the connectors in Stage 6. They might not be that familiar with despite + gerund, because they might only remember, despite the fact that, despite this/that, in spite of (noun). Yet may also be new for them. Furthermore and moreover are will probably be less problematic. However is not likely to cause too much confusion.
Solution: Remind them of the rules associated with the meaning and form of the connectors on a separate slide on the PPT.Draw their attention to despite + gerund, is actually the same as despite + noun. (They have recently studied gerunds and infinitives.)

Problems with Technology

Problem: Powerpoint, USB, laptop, projectorsfails. Solution: Students work from handouts of the slides.

Lesson Rationale

Process-genre approach
The rationale behind this lesson aims to enhance the shared needs of the group by addressing something that will be useful for them in their jobs and also in future writing exams. Because it is a non-exam class, it was an opportunity to spend some time developing process writing of a genre with which the students are familiar. In addition, the choice to focus on the process approach towriting was because whilst they are all familiar with formal genres, I spend very little time in class on writing, and rarely give students an opportunity to organise their ideas in class before beginning to write.

I decided that I would draw on the research of spoken protocols and paraphrasing in this lesson because I feel that this approach helps recreate what happens in spoken language. Speakers have more tools and coping mechanismswhich make spoken communication more fluid, yet in written discourse, writers are expected to have much more immediate precision. Talking about ideas in the draft stage gives students an opportunity to organise their ideas in a similar way to what happens in spoken language. It is also an opportunity to address writing in a less atomistic manner, as students see a model text, analyse the genre and are given time to make some notes. I think this approach will be especially beneficial for this group as they can be rather quiet in classroom activities. I hope that it will stimulate ideas, and also give students the confidence and the time to verbalise their ideas in class which will help them achieve greater internal discourse coherence.

The decision to develop the sub-skill of formal cohesive devices was firstly based on my wider teaching observations at this level; as in my experience advanced students have difficulty using connectors correctly. Secondly, it was because it is area that Cambridge highlights as a main student weakness in writing exams which I discovered from going to a training session for the Cambridge Advanced writing paper. Lastly, it is because I think written language cansometimes be more powerful than spoken language. Successful use of connectors, and an understanding of their nuances, can transform a piece of writing. I do not anticipate that students will become fully aware of the mechanics of linkers in discourse, but it aims to make them more aware of how they can enhance a piece of writing.

I decided to narrow down the focus of the connectors because even though these students are advanced, I think it is better to have a good command of a narrow range of connectors that are used correctly, rather than a wide range used incorrectly. Therefore, I adapted the material in a way which highlights the use of a few connectors. The task of sequencing the formal letter helps students to see strategically how the connectors link up the text. I decided to keep ‘however’, because it is a high frequency connector, and it is often overused by advanced students. By selecting other specific connectors, I want students to notice there are also other connectors appropriate to formal registers. I decided to include ‘in fact’ because two of the students confuse ‘indeed’ with ‘in fact’ when they want to use ‘actually’ or ‘in fact’. Although the decision to work on the implicit and explicit meaning of discourse markers in stage 5 of the lesson is challenging, it is a way to check that students have an understanding, rather than a vague idea of how linkers work in discourse. It also pushes students to notice language and develop the subskill.


Stage 1 warmer Visual stimulation
Aims: To set the context.
To Introduce stds to the topic of the lesson.
To activate language that is used in spoken discourse for complaints.

stds-stds, stds-T (5m)  

  • Show stds a picture of someone complaining in a restaurant and in a hotel.
  • In pairs stds discuss what they could be complaining about and what the people in the pictures might actually say to each other.
  • Whole class feedback
  • Show stds a picture of someone complaining in a restaurant and in a hotel.
  • In pairs stds discuss what they could be complaining about and what the people in the pictures might actually say to each other.
  • Whole class feedback.

Stage 2 lead in
Aims: To give stds a chance to activate schemata of formal complaints.
To give stds a chance to personalise their answers on the topic.
To hear opinions of other stds in similar situations.

stds-stds, stds-tch(5m)  

  • Stds discuss in pairs: (i) Have you ever had a very bad experience in a restaurant or a hotel? (ii) What happened? (iii) Did you make a complaint either in person or in writing? (iiii) What response did you get?
  • Whole class feedback.

Stage 3 Model text
Aims: To activate schemata of a specific topic through an image.
To give exposure to the formal genre of complaints.
To give practice in ordering paragraphs and practice at noticing how linkers work in written discourse.
To give reading training of formal genres.

Stds-stds, Ind std (10m)

  • Stds look at the picture on the PPT (p.112 NEF Adv) and think of possible complaints related to the picture, and holidays in general.
  • Tell stds that in pairs they are going to try and order the letter of complaint connected to the picture. Tell them it is cut into sections and they must look at how the parts of the letter link up in order to make the text coherent.
  • Give stds the complete letter on another handout so they can check their answers. Clarify ‘misleading’ (adj) if necessary.
  • Stds read the model complaint again on separate hand out and answer, ‘What exactly is the complaint about?’
  • Whole class feedback.

Stage 4 Language Analysis  
Aims: To give practice at looking specifically for examples of formal and language typical to letters of complaint. (analysing genre)

stds-stds, stds-T (5m)

  • Stds look at the model letter. Ask stds to discuss in pairs what makes the text formal.
  • Elicit some examples in whole class feedback, and project answers onto the whiteboard.

Stage 5 Introduce and develop sub-skill
Aims: To encourage stds to paraphrase the linkers to check that they are confident with the meaning of each linker.
To make sure stds know the function of each linker through explaining the explicit meaning of the linker.
To provide students with a narrow range of linkers for use in this context.

std-std, std-T(10m)

Establish that there are a range of formal cohesive devices in the text.

  • Draw stds attention to the linkers that are used in the text. Ask stds to paraphrase the sentence. Do an example with ‘Despite having high expectations of the holiday’ and ‘However, not only was he not funny at all with the whole class.
  • Whole class feedback of answers, reveal some possibilities on the PPT.

 Stage 6 Preparation of writing Task
Aims: To provide another source of input material to generate more ideas related to the genre.
To generate a context for the stds to write a response.
To give stds time to prepare their ideas.
To check that the stds understand the communicative event and purpose of the task.

Ind std, stds-stds(10m)

  • Check/pre-teach ‘make a fuss’ and ‘rip-off’. Stds read the input material to the task and answer the questions: (i) What exactly is the ‘Board First service? (ii) What problem did she have?
  • Whole class feedback of ideas.
  • Tell stds they can either write a letter of complaint to one of the situations that they discussed at the beginning, or a complaint about the board first service.
  • Stds write some notes in preparation for their complaint on the handout.
  • Explain to stds they have a table to help them plan. On the back of the handout stds complete the content table individually.

 Stage 7 Writing a draft
Aims: Help remind stds of the features and characteristics of formal writing.
To give stds time in class to develop their ideas in a recursive way.
To guide stds through the writing process helping them to express their ideas.

T-stds, IndInd-T (10m)

  • Explain that there are 3 stages to writing: draft, edit and check. Tell stds that they will do the first stage in class today.
  • Elicit some advice for writing formal emails/letters. Project the ‘tips’ onto the whiteboard and Stds think about the Qs on the PPT in relation to their letter.
  • Stds begin writing the draft email individually using the notes they made.
  • Monitor and help stds by giving them any vocabulary necessary for the task.

Stage 8 Rounding up  
Aims: To help stds see the importance of the draft stage and how it is essential for the internal coherence of writing.
To help stds see that self-reflection on a piece of writing is also a crucial stage.


  • Explain the importance of taking time to express ideas well at the draft stage of writing.
  • Explain that stds must carry out the edit and check stages at home.
  • Give stds the checklist designed to help them check their work when they finish.

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