Have you ever thought about why it is that not all excellent students can pass an exam? And why can others, whose performance has never been outstanding, do it? Passing an exam is not equal to speaking/understanding a language. It’s more about understanding what exam writers want to see and how they want to trick candidates. Exams are business, they have very little to do with real language competence. But they cost money…

So preparing for an exam is a big responsibility and a real challenge initially. Exam preparation lessons are not simply more General English lessons. Some courses prepare for an exam and students often use a book that provides plenty of exam practice built in the units. However, even in these all-year courses, students should be given explicit explanations on how to face their future exam, and at the end of the course they should do a MOCK test (trial version of the real exam). On the other hand, not every course has as its target to send students to sit a formal assessment and so they teach only General English. In addition to this, schools might offer intensive exam preparation courses, which only focus on exam training. These latter ones can be really stressful, since they don’t leave any space for engaging and get-the-students-from-their-chairs activities, but need to concentrate exclusively on simulation and feedback.

Whichever type of preparation course you need to teach, here are some tips on what and how to do, and what to include in your suggestions to your students.

  1. Sit the exam yourself: not for real, but find a sample test, sit down and do the test. Time yourself to see if the given time limits for each part are a bit tight, even for you. Then compare your answers with the answer key and reflect what difficulties you have encountered, what and why it might be difficult for your students and how to prepare them for these. Doing this is the single most important thing a teacher cannot underestimate: firstly, because you cannot prepare for something you don’t know; secondly, because it gives you a guide as to what type of materials and exercises you will need to find for your lessons; and finally, because it will make you reflect on your students’ strengths and weaknesses which will enable you to provide them with appropriate help.
  2. Analyze structure, time and the marking methodology with your students. Before your students start completing the exercises, give a sample test to them and ask them to understand the exam format. They should answer questions like:
    – How many parts/papers does the exam consist of (Reading and/or Use of English, Free Writing, Listening, Oral Exam, or in integrated skills tests, Reading and Writing, Listening, Reading and Speaking, etc.)?
    – How many and what type of exercises are there in the different papers? For example, multiple-choice and matching in the Reading paper, gap-filling (cloze) and sentence transformation in the Use of English part, etc.
    – How many marks can they get in the different exercises? There are some questions that are rewarded with more than one point for each correct answer, so they are more valuable in the total score. For example, in FCE, each key word transformation can earn 2 marks for the candidate.
    – How much time do they have for the different papers? In First Certificate, candidates are asked to complete the Reading and Use of English part with 7 tasks (52 questions) in 75 minutes! This means that they have about 10 minutes for each exercise plus 5 minutes to check and copy the answers onto the answer sheet (in the paper-based version).
  3. Time is money: Let me explain a bit more about this time issue. In many cases, students fail exams, because they cannot manage their time. They could complete the exercises correctly, but fail to respect the time limits or can’t control their thoughts under pressure. In other cases, they want to give a too-detailed answer (e.g. in the free writing part) and waste their time. So it’s essential that they get conscientious about time as early as possible. Right from the start of a course (but latest in the exam preparation phase), get your students used to being timed. Give them a time limit in every exercise and respect these limits yourself. Ask them to have a watch with themselves (even on the exam day) and to keep an eye on it. By the exam day, they will have to know how much time each exam exercise requires in order to answer most of the questions.
  4. Easy goes first: When I was a student, I was taught to start with the most difficult exercise, saying that I had more chance to complete it ‘with a fresh mind’ and that I could do the easy questions afterwards. This resulted in wasting an awful lot of time on sometimes low-score questions, while leaving out questions that might have earned me higher scores. In an exam, the candidate’s target is to collect as many marks as possible in the given time. So direct your students to start with the easy exercises: these will reward them with points and also with motivation since they will feel satisfied after having completed many questions in a relatively short time.
  5. Clarify and simulate exam regulations: Read the notifications to the candidates (available on the official sites of each exam board) and transmit these to your students. If they have to write their answers on an answer sheet, then insist on giving them a copy of these so that they can get used to completing them (another easy way to make silly mistakes in an exam). Ask them also to complete their (full) names (Italian students often write only their first name, since ‘name’ is a false friend for ‘nome’ which means ‘first name’ in Italian). If the answer sheets need to be filled in with a pencil, do not accept answers written with a pen. Ask your students to bring their ID to the class (you can even do some fun activities with their IDs, excellent to practise ‘used to’), so that they won’t forget it on the exam day. Make it clear what they can take into the examination room: water? still or sparkling? tissues? a watch? etc. You can even turn it into a pyramid discussion – students in pairs, then in small groups (two pairs paired up), then in bigger groups, finally in whole class – can discuss what security measures exam invigilators need to apply in order to guarantee fair play and equal chances to all candidates. This is an engaging topic, knowing how sly some of our students might become if it is about cheating.

(To be continued)

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