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How Should I Help my Students Succeed with their Language Examinations?

Henry Stephens

We all know that employers usually like to see formal, universally accepted qualifications. For young adults the pressure is on to get language-qualified, and this costs them. For course providers the challenge is to get students who are not ready (level-wise) over these hurdles. Occasionally, students can have a good enough level but little familiarity with formal tests. We need to balance these two considerations. We need to orientate and familiarise learners with the requirements specific to each exam, while also raising their level globally.

Getting well acquainted with what we need to cover for exam classes usually isn’t hard. For instance the Cambridge Suite of Exams in English language – PET, FCE, CAE and so on, all have extensive on-line advice. It’s well worth downloading their PDF booklets. They tell us what exactly is being tested, and provide specimen or modal answers. Further than that, it’s a good idea to make sure we are up to date with the format. Even if we have taught for the exam recently, things can change, and materials quickly become out of date. Make sure learners are being prepared for the exam they will be taking.

In an exam class, as in any, learning is slow, but potentially enjoyable. Syllabus research, parallel course content, periodic progress testing, avoiding over-use of past papers, and developing study habits, are all positive steps.

Most exams test a wide spectrum of language skills. Things like knowledge of structure and grammatical accuracy will be a consideration, certainly. But then, can learners use the language face-to-face in a short interview? Do they know how to go about laying out a report? Can they adjust their register accordingly when addressing a friend or writing to complain? To help get answers at the outset, a needs analysis should be prepared that will give exposure to the real exam, or wide- ranging sections of it.


Starting with the exam itself has the added benefit of making students aware of what they will be facing. They will also see the typical question formats, and all the associated instructions – things like match, write no more than two words, or (the notorious) ‘write Yes, No or Not Given’ (IELTS). Inviting discussion, reactions, peer-to-peer correction, and input from those who have already taken or have experience with the exam all helps build a sense of shared purpose in the early stages, and gives us a chance to listen.

This initial period of testing needs to end though. Teachers can fall into the trap of perpetual ‘exam practice’. Far from motivating students, it risks frustrating them. At the same time, students need to perceive material as consistently relevant. Only a few marks are typically allotted to, say, conversational discourse. Therefore a disproportionate amount of work on this won’t be welcomed (or where it is welcomed it should be discouraged). We need to build skills parallel to the exam, like developing so called top-down processing (they make predictions based on known higher context) and bottom-up processing (they figure out the context from known words/phrases). Students don’t need stressful and, let’s face it, tedious exam practice in order to develop these important skills

Having said that, we do need to push harder – and generally this will be welcomed. In fact students will probably need to study a lot outside of class. We can always adjust what we expect from individuals, according to their level, and to how soon they will be taking the exam. Keeping close records of homework really helps develop a routine where you consistently set work, expect it to be completed, get students into the study habit and psyching them up for the goal. Work on self-study techniques will always be useful as well. Things like ways of noting down vocabulary or using to the full a monolingual dictionary. Learners also need to work to strict timings. Doing timed exercises in class is essential – make this strict using a bell or timer! And students should time themselves when completing homework too.


Despite the looming exams, it’s helpful and encouraging to show learners that course content is relevant to the real world. Texts are interesting and engaging for their own sake, vocabulary useful and valid regardless of the syllabus. Highlight the extra fluency and practical ability paid as a dividend for exam prep. Then the course will seem useful, pass or fail.

While nudging students towards success, we can’t expect linguistic miracles. Tongues of fire will not descend – unfortunately (how I wish they would!). In an exam class, as in any, learning is slow, but potentially enjoyable. Syllabus research, parallel course content, periodic progress testing, avoiding over-use of past papers, and developing study habits, are all positive steps. Taken together they should help students gain that all-important piece of paper – the one that says ‘congratulations’!

Can you think of any other ways to help students do better on their language exams? Let us know! We’d love to hear your thoughts.

About the author

Henry has been working in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language) since 2001. Henry is married with one young son, and he lives in Harrow, London. In his spare time he enjoys playing the piano and practicing his Spanish whenever possible.