Teaching exam preparation classes involves a balance of teaching language such as vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation; with inclusion of the four skills such as reading, speaking,writing and listening as well.
The difference between regular English teaching and preparing your class for an exam is that now your students need to know the format of the exam and ensure they have the best skills to get the best grade possible. So this also means knowing how the papers could be marked and the grades they are likely to achieve – holding mock exams for example and acquiring past papers.
With exam classes there is the added stress of the students needing to pass whether or not they’re personally motivated. So they may need to pass to enter University or to include that particular qualification on their CV or resume. This means that students are invested and there could be a lot riding on the result as they will put in time, effort and money towards this. This said, exam classes can be rewarding because they can follow a formula so they show progress pretty clearly and they are something for the students to work towards. This can feel quite daunting to start with and even experienced teachers need to be well prepared, but with practice we can really get to know the exam format well and it can change your approach but be very rewarding.
The reasons why student take English language exams
The main reason a student would take an English language exam is to either enter university or to achieve better job prospects. This is usually between the ages of 19 and 30, often in order to come to the UK or an English speaking country.
Students can take an exam to enter University and study English there or they may enter University on an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification. Most of them will do this in an English-speaking country and the most common exam is IELTS, with the TOEFL exam a close second. Most universities require a score of between 5.5 and 7 for the IELTS exam or a TOEFL score of between 80 and 100. You can find the entry-level requirements for English on a university’s website in the course details. It is very common for international students to study English during the summer on pre-sessional courses at University in order for them to improve their English enough to join the regular course in September or October. More on IELTS later.
The other main reason for international students to take an English language exam is to add it to their CV or resume and try to acquire a better job at home or abroad in an English speaking country. They may take an exam in English language such as IELTS or the Cambridge range of exams (FCE or CAE), or they could actually take the Cambridge English Business English Certificate (BEC) to prove their skills for a role. More on Cambridge later.
There are several other reasons they may study for an exam including just for the challenge and pleasure of it! This shows it can very much be an intrinsic motivator or personal choice, therefore students can be very committed. Alternatively, it may be an extrinsic motivator, which may not be particularly motivating for them, such as the exam being part of their school curriculum (often in Italy, Greece or Spain at high school). Where it is obligatory, you will often find mixed levels in the class and mixed levels of interest. It is often to help them enter 16+ education provision.
There are some industries that require a certain level of English for the profession such as Aviation, Military or Medical and these may only test on some of the skills such as speaking and listening. Sometimes these types of exams do need the teacher to have some background knowledge but not always, so it is a possibility for anyone to teach.
CEFR Language Levels
One of the other more common reasons to take an English exam is for visa requirements usually to live and work in an English-speaking country. The levels for these can change as governments change their requirements, so it is a good idea to keep up to speed with this. This leads us on to CEFR levels (https://www.britishcouncil.pt/en/our-levels-and-cefr), which are related to exam levels.
With regards to visa requirements, one example is that if a student wants to enter the UK and has no family connections there, they will need a recognised exam qualification at C1 level. In contrast, a spouse of a UK citizen would need to have at least an A1 level qualification in order to move there. Knowing these differences is vital for teaching exam preparation classes so you can help the student understand what exam they need to sit, assess their current level, and advise on the next steps.
The CEFR levels have been around a while and even if students are not taking an exam they are a useful tool to assess English language level, progress and suggest directions or study programmes.
Ways that exam preparation classes are different from regular, general English classes
Teaching English exam classes are different. Although you are still teaching English there’s now a different focus and these differences are key to supporting your students and responding appropriately.
The biggest difference is the content. When you’re teaching an exam English you really need to think about exam skills, which includes how to approach the questions on the exam paper and the format of the exam. Sometimes this is less to do with target language and more to do with exam strategy. Looking at what the exam tests on, for example the skills or the aspects of language, will help you to plan the tasks you want to use in your lessons. This might be as big as teaching the time allowed for each skill for example, or as small as studying what type of questions are asked such as a true false question or a multiple choice.
Most of the big publishers have good course books for the exams on offer and if you can also obtain a number of past papers this will help not only your students but also yourself to become familiar with the exam format. It is really important to include as many relevant activities as possible, especially as the students will be invested in these classes in order to pass the exam so avoid any unnecessary activities or tasks for them that are unlikely to appear in the exam itself.
There are a few other aspects to consider such as motivation, age, aims, and language level. First of all, exam students are usually very motivated unless taking the exam is obligatory and then understandably motivation could be lower, so you may have your work cut out. Some of the exams are designed for particular age groups so it’s important to ensure that the age group of your class are preparing for the right exam. Some exams include formal correspondence such as a job application and younger learners may struggle with this. Usually most of the class will have a single aim and reason for being there and that is, to pass the exam making your syllabus and planning easier and clearer.
The level of your exam class is really important and you really need to be teaching at the level of the exam rather than the level of the class, which is usually the case for general English lessons. So this means the placement testing needs to be accurate as well as what process or exam you suggest the student tries. For example, the placement test outcome might be that the student is at pre-intermediate (A2) and you would suggest taking the PET exam rather than the First Certificate (FCE for B2).
Finally, some aspects to consider that might not be so obvious or necessary in regular English lessons include focussing on accuracy, lesson planning and time management and maintaining momentum. Most of the exams on offer are marked according to accurate answers rather than a fluency focus (that you may have in general English). So teachers need to guide their students with this in mind especially with grammar accuracy in reading and listening papers.
Speaking and writing accuracy is important, but there could be more allowance from examiners with this and more emphasis on communication competence. During your planning of the lessons or course, it is important to balance English language needs with exam strategies and formats – you might front-end the language then nearer the exam date concentrate on exam strategies and past paper practice, depending on the length of the course. However, it’s also essential to consider ways to improve your essay writing before the exam. Lastly, keeping the momentum can be challenging if the exam is some time away, and students need to continue to stay interested and feel positive. Naturally, some can find certain areas of the exam easier than others, and the preparation can feel relentless and often not much fun. Be prepared for this, and where possible, offer some lighter moments or exam tasks with a more exciting feel.
Examples of exams you may need to support students with IELTS (International English Language Testing System)
IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is a proficiency test of English that scores all candidates on a scale between 1 and 9 with increments of 0.5 in between. There are two versions of the test: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Most students take the academic version to gain entrance to a university.
The score a student can gain only lasts for a limited time – 2 years. There are 4 sections to the test: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The reading test is for 60 minutes with 3 texts that have related questions on each totalling 40 in all. The listening test is 40 minutes, which has 4 sections with 10 questions each that are about different situations with conversations, a monologue and one academic topic. The writing section is for 60 minutes and has two sections: task 1 is an essay responding to visual data such as a graph, pie chart or diagram; then task 2 is a longer essay similar to something you would write at university and is often a pros and cons type.
The speaking interview lasts about 15 minutes with 3 parts: part 1 is general questions to settle the candidate, part 2 is a 2-minute monologue from the candidate from a prompt, and part 3 is further questions about the topic in part 2. The IELTS General Training paper for speaking and listening is the same as the Academic, but its reading and writing are similar more everyday genres and topics meaning it is deemed slightly easier. Students will know which paper to sit due to the reason they are taking it – either to enter university, put on their CV or possibly for visa purposes. Candidates receive a score for each skill and results take about 2 weeks.
TOEFL , IELTS and TESOL
TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is not directly related to TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System), but it plays a significant role in language education and preparation for these exams. TOEFL is similar to IELTS in that it is usually taken to gain entrance to university. TESOL professionals, equipped with expertise in language teaching methodologies, can assist students in developing the necessary skills for TOEFL. TOEFL is mostly taken online and evaluates proficiency in all four language skills. The reading section ranges from 60 to 80 minutes and includes 36 to 56 questions related to 3 or 4 academic texts. The listening component spans from 60 to 90 minutes and comprises 34 to 51 questions based on lectures and classroom discussions. The speaking part lasts for 20 minutes, during which students engage in 6 tasks that require expressing opinions on familiar topics, including a speaking task related to the reading and listening texts. Lastly, the writing section entails crafting an essay-style piece based on the reading and listening tasks. TESOL professionals contribute to the teaching and learning processes that facilitate students’ success in TOEFL and similar language proficiency exams.
Cambridge general English exams are managed by Cambrige Assessment who offer a suite of exams at different levels including Key (A2), Preliminary (B1), First Certificate (B2), Advanced (C1) and Proficiency (C2). The two lower levels have three papers; (1) reading and writing, (2) speaking and (3) listening. The three higher levels have four papers; (1) reading and English in use, (2) writing, (3) speaking and (4) listening. They are marked with a pass or fail essentially and results take about 6 weeks.
BEC is Cambridge Business English Certificate which is only available at B1, B2 or C1 levels and comprises 3 or 4 papers dependent on level with a selection of reading, writing, listening and speaking with contexts that reflect work-related situations.
Key points about exams that students should know before taking the exam
Some aspects from a student’s view are vital and you would be best to find these out and tell your students. Starting with explaining to your class if the exam is paper-based or computer-based (depending on where they have booked to sit the test) this could make all the difference. Also finding out the location of the exam and the time it starts will help them enormously.
Research how long the exam takes to complete and if it is done in one day or over two days. How many papers does the exam consist of, which usually means what skills are tested – such as reading, writing, listening and speaking – but Cambridge often has a grammar paper called Use of English as well. Plus, knowing how many parts each paper contains will help students manage their time during the test.
It will help if they know the format of each part. Text reading questions may be a mix of multiple choice and short answer questions for example. If you can tell them how many questions will be in each part, they can work out a time management system and know how many marks for each question means they will know the heavier weighted questions to maximise their scores and not waste time.
Looking at the answers sheets will help the class – most exams have the question paper (to be left blank) and an answer booklet or sheet that they write their answers on. They have a limited time to transfer their answers to the answer sheet, so knowing more about this, the time limit and having some practice all helps. If you can research and tell the class the rules of the exam day and what they can and cannot bring with them will help with nerves and stress levels.
Some common problems or mistakes that students can make but avoid
There are some simple mistakes that candidates make and therefore lose marks, but with practice and help identifying them, they can be avoided.
Allowing enough time to transfer their answers to the answer sheet is a common problem – so during practice tests you must practise this part too. They can spend some time checking their answers on the question paper but they must remember to transfer them as they will lose (all) their marks if they do not – no leeway is given for this.
Candidates can sometimes misread the question, especially in the written parts of exams. They may be asked a cause and effect type essay question, but answer it as a problem and solution. They must read the task carefully, write from the angle specified ensuring they do not forget to include any aspect of it.
Exam questions are often formed with a specified number of words, such as ‘write NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS OR A NUMBER in each gap’ and candidates often drop marks here when they do not pay attention to this. They can only use the necessary words asked for.
Finally, students who plan first before writing, usually score better. Taking one minute at the beginning to create a rough plan really helps to ensure they cover everything necessary. Plus one minute at the end to very quickly proofread their answers so any spelling errors can be corrected.
In conclusion, teaching exams can be a positive and fruitful experience – students will always take language exams and need support with this. It takes some extra preparation and practice plus requires you to know the exam pretty well in order to be able to answer their questions on it. Think of it as being similar to taking your driving test – much of it is technique and strategy, not only language alone. With the class all having the same aim it is rewarding, communicative and empowering for all!
Try the exam for yourself, look at all its components online (there are lots of resources), use an exam coursebook to start with, observe an experienced teacher’s exam class, watch a conference presentation or even become an examiner!