/ Exam training, Teachers

What do you usually do in an exam preparation course? How are these lessons different from a normal lesson? How do you deal with the situation that not every student in your class might be at the right level and/or ready for the exam? Or an even harder question: 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…


1. Sit the exam yourself
2. Analyze structure, time and the marking methodology
3. Time is money
4. Easy goes first
5. Clarify and simulate exam regulations

Paper: Reading
Exercise type: multiple-choice questions
Paper: Free Writing
Exercise Type: Writing a letter of complaint or application/essay/review/report, etc.
Paper: Use of English
Exercise type: Sentence transformation or Key word transformation
Exercise type: Gap-filling
Paper: Listening
Speaking/Oral exam
Exercise type: Introduction/Introduce yourself
Exercise type: Describing pictures
Exercise type: any
Computer-based oral exams


Exam preparation: Tips and Tricks


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. Analyse 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.


I have listed some exam exercises that definitely need explicit explanation and preparation.  My purpose is not to list all exercise types here, but mainly to give an idea what might be of importance and how you can teach exam skills.

Paper: Reading

Exercise type: multiple-choice questions

This is the type of exercise where students are asked to choose one correct answer (A, B, C or D) to several questions after reading a text passage. All questions are related to the text and either refer to a certain paragraph/sentence/line or ask about general understanding (intention of the writer, possible titles, etc.).

Why is it a ‘tricky’ exercise?
1. Because it tries to trick students who cannot distinguish their opinion from opinions expressed in a text.
2. Because it tries to trick students who trust their memory instead of double-checking answers in the text.
3. Because the questions are loaded with difficult vocabulary items but most of the time can be interpreted from their context.
4. Because the lexical items in the questions rarely come up in the text (or are misleading), they tend to check knowledge of synonyms/antonyms, etc.

How to do this exercise?
a) Students must read the text twice. First quickly (reading for gist), then they need to read the questions (not before), finally they have to read the text again more slowly. The text can be read this second time parallel to the questions, swapping back and forth from questions to text, etc. The questions are always listed in the order of their reference points in the text, except general understanding questions, which are either at the beginning or more probably at the end of the questions.
b) Students should be trained to underline the text passages the questions refer to, this way they can make sure that they don’t only ‘remember’, but they have understood.
c) Teachers should explain to students the difference between ‘False’ and ‘Doesn’t say’. Multiple choice questions are often a) True b) False c) Doesn’t say type of questions. The difference between the latter two options is not as obvious as we would think. Students need to understand that a statement is false if the opposite is stated in the text (and can be underlined), while ‘doesn’t say’ means that there is no information about the statement/question in the text, which means the student cannot underline anything in the text.
d) This type of exercise tests the students’ lexical knowledge and it often checks if a student knows a synonym or antonym of a word. So students should not be fooled by finding the same words in the text and in some answers, this is often just a trap.
If the answer refers to the same lexical field, it gives you a great opportunity to revise it. For example, if in the question the students are asked if the main character:
A walked     B hurried     C ran     D wandered
to the window, you could revise verbs of movement: students can rank them based on speed or act them out in a vocabulary recap game.

Paper: Free Writing

Exercise Type: Writing a letter of complaint or application/essay/review/report, etc.

Students, mainly at higher levels, are asked to do a free writing task in a fairly limited time. They usually have the option to choose what type of text to write.

Why might it be difficult?
1. We live in the era of communicative language teaching, which also means that written communication is often neglected in the lessons. So students often perform very well in the Speaking exam or they are really good in the Reading and/or Use of English part, but they often underachieve in the Free Writing papers.
2. Free Writing is the skill where L1 interference might cause serious difficulties. Students often translate from their mother tongue and write very artificial or inaccurate sentences.
3. Free Writing doesn’t only test language knowledge, but it checks on the students’ knowledge about:

a) register and features (appropriate expressions usually used in the given genre), e.g. I’m writing to you to express my deep dissatisfaction with your company’s customer service,
b) format and layout (what different genres look like), e.g. a report has headings at the top of each paragraph and there is a blank line between each paragraph, etc.,
c) style. It is not true that English uses only informal language – modal verbs and conditionals are used to express formality in English, however, the person remains ‘you’.

All these things need to be analyzed and explained to students.

How to prepare for Free Writing?
a) Be good at 2-3, not all genres: Your student might be good at writing reports, because he/she is often asked to do it in his/her job, but understands little about reviews. No problem. Help your students to understand which genres they are good at and prepare them for these. Every student should be prepared in 2-3 genres (my favorites are letters/emails, essays and reports). Leave the other genres, so your students won’t be overloaded.
b) Have a template in mind: Every genre has its very own set of useful phrases or common expressions and a typical format. Teach these to your students. For example: a report has a longer and expressive title, starts with an Introduction, every following paragraph has a heading and needs a Conclusion. All these paragraphs are separated with blank lines. Typical expressions would be: This report aims to give feedback about the school canteen… or The aim of this report is to understand the advantages and disadvantages of computer-based exams... or This recent report tries to give suggestions about what type of leisure activities students of our college are interested in. The results are based on a questionnaire given to 100 students on the campus etc.
c) Be a good writer, but don’t try to be Hemingway: How good somebody really is at writing counts little in an exam. Even students who are not particularly talented at writing can get a high pass mark in the free writing part if they show their knowledge about the genre and the general rules of the language and the written communication in English. So the target is much lower than the sky. Moreover, being very keen on writing long and beautiful stories might result in running out of time and leaving a second task untouched. Extra words are not rewarded (although not penalized), and students should really stay in the given number of words for each writing task. As always, time is the lord over perfection.

Paper: Use of English

Exercise type: Sentence transformation or Key word transformation

This is the type of exercise where students are asked the read a first sentence and complete a second one so that it means exactly the same as the first one.
Example: You should see a doctor.
                     You ……………….. to see a doctor. (correct answer: ought)

Why is it a difficult exercise (maybe the most difficult one)?
1. It can test grammar and/or lexical knowledge. Sometimes it is a simple transformation from active to passive, other times it asks for a certain phrasal verb. While grammar can be recognized, lexical knowledge is a bit of a lottery: the student might know that particular idiom/phrasal verb, etc. or might not.
2. The distinction between meanings is very subtle. The question asks you to transform the first sentence WITHOUT changing its meaning. However, sometimes it’s not really clear whether must is the same as have to or an active and a passive sentence are really a hundred percent equivalent.
3. Students are forced to find one way of expressing the same content. They might know other ways, but are asked to complete the one given in the second sentence. Their options are limited often by a given preposition or particle, however, these are also clues.

How to prepare for this exercise?
a) The preparation for this exercise should start by teaching pairs both in grammar and lexis. Most books do this by comparing modals to each other or pairing up active and passive sentences, asking students to decide if simple past or present perfect is the right tense or teaching students to compare the different future forms. You can always add a list of phrasal verbs (take it from your coursebook) and match them with their latin-based meaning (e.g. participate and take part in, resemble and take after, etc.).
b) Give the first sentence to your students without the second one. Ask them to express the same idea in different ways. You might be surprised how many ideas they can come up with (and enjoy deciding if they have completely the same meaning as the one you have put onto the whiteboard). Then give them a word limit, for example, tell them that the correct answer consists of three words. A bit later give them another clue moving closer to the second sentence: e.g. transform the first sentence by changing the tense or by changing the verb with a phrasal verb or by using an idiom. This way you limit the possible options your students have listed before. Finally give them the second sentence with the gap (and the key word) and lead them to the final answer.

Exercise type: Gap-filling

In subject-related literature you will find the definition that gap-filling exercises are texts from which items at a regular interval (e.g. every seventh word) have been removed and students are asked to complete these gaps. In exams, these words are usually removed at an irregular interval, sometimes checking grammar knowledge (e.g. auxiliary missing), sometimes lexical knowledge (e.g. omitting prepositions for verbs or adjectives).
There are two types of gap-filling exercises: open and multiple choice clozes. The first one doesn’t give any clues to the student, who needs to complete the sentences drawing on their own knowledge, whereas the latter one gives 3-4 options to choose from. This doesn’t mean that this latter one is simpler, since it typically lists lexical items that are close in meaning (walk, stroll, gallop) or they test the student’s knowledge of collocations (fixed combinations of words, heavy traffic, for instance).

Why is this exercise challenging?
1) As explained above, it can check either grammar or lexical knowledge, the student needs to understand what type of gap he/she is dealing with.
2) The sentence might make sense even without the omitted word and the student usually needs to find an adverb that doesn’t only go well with the sentence, but leaves the whole text coherent.
3) Students might not be familiar with the lexical item (or grammar) tested in the gap.
4) Phrasal verbs are particularly tricky, as a non-native speaker might struggle with all the possible combinations of one verb and its different particles (get on/off/by/in/out of/along/away with/up etc.).

How to prepare for this exercise?
a) Ask your students to read the whole text first, quickly, without writing anything. This way they will not only get the gist of the text, but also understand the intention of the writer. This is essential when deciding about positive or negative adjectives or adverbs (e.g. do you need to fill in happy or unhappy, fortunately or unfortunately.
b) The good news is that there is often more than one correct answer, but they usually belong to the same part of speech. So students should be familiar with the parts of speech (verb, noun, adjective, adverb, preposition, connector, etc.) and they should be able to identify which of these is missing. This helps them focus their attention in the right direction (auxiliaries or adverbs for example). The position of the gap is also important. At the beginning of a sentence there is usually an adverb or the subject.
Finally, it’s essential to look at what is before or after the gap. If there is a particle after it, then a phrasal verb is very probably required. If there is an article before the gap, it is likely to be a noun or an adjective if there is noun after the gap. Give plenty of examples for all these cases in your preparation.
c) Listen to your reading. Ask your students to read the text with the gaps filled in and listen to their quiet reading. We often ‘hear’ that something sounds (or doesn’t sound) good and this might be the clue to the correct answer. If they don’t know which preposition is missing, instead of thinking, they might trust their instincts.

Paper: Listening

might be the most difficult challenge for your students, mainly due to incorrect learning habits. Traditional language teaching still puts emphasis on mechanical grammar exercises, reading, tests and, usually, speaking drills that don’t really involve listening skill training. Students should be exposed to native spoken English every day. By assigning homework which involves watching TV in English or even listening to short videos on YouTube, teachers will encourage students to practise their listening skills. Still, these types of homework assignments are exceptions rather than the rule. There might be some improvement in students using their CD-Rom included in their course pack, but these often provide subtitles which turns their practice into reading instead of listening.

Therefore, whether it is about completing a form based on an audio track or completing a summary, the main issue is, even in exam preparation courses, that students often have difficulties in understanding audio tracks. So here let me list some general exam skill tips for every listening exercise.

Why is listening difficult?
1. Students don’t have any visual input, they cannot see the speaker’s lips, face and his/her body language. So they have to trust their ears, while in real life we perceive 70-80% of the world surrounding us through our eyes.
2. Students tend to get stuck on a word they find familiar but cannot recall its meaning. Trying to remember what it means, they miss out a great deal of the audio and panic when they realize that they have to skip more than one question.
3. English is a language of homophones (eg. hear vs here) which easily confuse students.
4. Students tend to concentrate too much on the questions, waiting for the words they have just read and overlook synonyms or antonyms.
5. Students might not activate their common knowledge about the topic due to misinterpreting or not interpreting the title, etc.

So how can you prepare them for the listening exam?
a) Teach your students that in real life we usually have expectations what a person might (want to) say. In an exam situation, the topic (ergo the title) and some pictures or slogans can help to build up expectations. Analyze these quickly. The questions are the next step: in most cases students need to know in advance what type of answers are expected. For example, if it is a gap-fill exercise, students might recognize that in a sentence like He is a …, a noun is going to be the correct answer, (maybe following some adjectives), and in a sentence like His phone number is …, they are asked to understand numbers. This way they narrow down the possibilities and listen for specific details (key words).
b) Clarify how many times students can listen to the track. This will lower their affective filter, since they’ll know they have another chance to hear the text. Tell them to listen first without thinking about the questions, only concentrate on what is going on and leave the answers for the second listening (if there is a second time). Giving them a gist question for the first listening and then questions asking for details is a way to prepare your students for an exam. This is how textbooks work with audio texts. The first time, students should not deal with detail questions, they are motivated to listen to the general message or mood of the dialogue/text. They should work on the questions during the second listening.
c) The difficulty in listening exercises is the same as on the phone: there is no visual input; the listener cannot read from the speaker’s lips (which we often do even in our mother tongue). On the other hand, what we have visually in front of us is really stressful: scary questions waiting for an answer from us. So encourage your students to use their imagination. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine the situation with the speaker(s) in front of them. This way, they will be able to concentrate on what they hear and won’t stress whether they have missed the answer e.g. to question 2.
d) Good news: with listening exercises, at least at lower levels (up to B1), spelling doesn’t matter. So, even if they write down a homophone, (they understood the sound but they made a mistake with the spelling), they won’t be penalized and the answer will be accepted. What is important is that the completed sentence gives a meaningful answer. Needless to say, if a word is spelt in the track, then it must be written correctly.
e) Practise listening for gist as many times as possible. From the beginning of the course, try to convince your students that they can reconstruct a situation without understanding every single word in a dialogue. Play them pieces where they will definitely find unknown words and push them to figure out what the speaker intended to say without giving a translation for these words. Tell them that the main information is rarely at the beginning of a text and so they need to listen carefully until the last word. This way, they cannot stop listening after the first two sentences because they have found these too difficult.
f) Finally, ask them not to make any noise/comments/questions during listening. Even if they cannot understand a word, they should not disturb the other students.

Speaking/Oral exam

Last, but not least, I would like to discuss some details that might improve your students’ performance in the speaking exam. Remember that your students have only got used to speaking to you and their classmates, so the situation where they have to talk to a complete stranger about unexpected things might cause a high level of stress which might cause even the best student to stumble. So try to find enough time to talk about the examiner’s aim, about realistic expectations (an A2 student doesn’t have to be ‘fluent’ and not knowing a word is not a sin, etc.) and what candidates are supposed to do during the exam. This way, you will help your students face the oral part of their exam without (or at least with a lower level of) anxiety.

Exercise type: Introduction/Introduce yourself

A piece of cake?
Most oral exams start with the candidate introducing themselves. This part might not be accredited in the total score, since it often only helps students relax and get used to the examiner’s pronunciation.

Still, students are supposed to use the level of language they are at. If a candidate doesn’t make any mistakes, but uses only the grammar structures and vocabulary of lower levels, they might even fail the exam (or score very low). So spend half a lesson on their introductions and follow some advice:

a) First elicit questions. These are not only the typical ones about personal data, family and hobbies; examiners can also ask questions related to the topic areas of the given level. Open any exam preparation book, or just take a look at the course book of the level and you can find plenty of questions.

b) Ask your students to answer these questions. They can do it in pairs or even in written form at home. The really important step will be transforming their answers into the appropriate and correct answers for their level. So try to match grammar points to each question:

Example (Level B1+):
Teacher: What’s your job? (Present perfect continuous)
Student: I’m a doctor, I work in the city hospital. I’ve been working there for more than 10 years.
Teacher: Tell me about your work experience before this hospital job. (Past perfect)
Student: Before I got this job, I had worked in three other hospitals as a volunteer…,

c) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse: Talking about ourselves might seem simple, but if students stumble at this stage, they will probably get nervous and underachieve in the following tasks. So it’s essential that this first part goes well. Start every lesson with a 2+2 minute exercise, where students interview each other using a list of questions they have put together with you and after 2 minutes they swap roles (examiner, candidate).

d) Don’t forget simple things like how to spell their last names. It’s embarrassing when a student at B2 level mixes English vowels.

e) Ask your students to evaluate themselves and/or their partners. Every oral examiner has to follow a marking scheme, which is public and usually included in exam preparation books, so students can see what criteria examiners use when assessing them.

Exercise type: Describing pictures

Another typical exam exercise is where students have to describe pictures. Sometimes they have one picture in front of them, other times they can choose one from a collage or they may have to compare two pictures.

Why is it difficult?
1. The exercise is far from real life: you might have to describe a picture to a blind person or maybe a scene to somebody on the phone, but here you need to talk to an examiner who has the same picture in front of her/himself.
2. Describing pictures needs special language (see below).
3. Comparing pictures also needs some typical expressions that should be pre-taught.

How to prepare your students for picture description.

a) Have a selection of good pictures (pictures that show actions and have different layers: things in the background and the foreground). Choose one and elicit the necessary language from your students. To describe a picture you need the following structures:

– there is/are + articles/quantifiers with (un)countable nouns. E.g., ‘there are two men in the foreground, talking…

– prepositions like ‘in the foreground/background/middle, at the top/bottom, on the left/right, in the top right corner’, etc. (You can use your whiteboard and write the different expressions onto the different parts of it so that visual students can remember them better.)

– present continuous to describe actions, but explain to your students that we use ‘I see + objects’ (and not I’m seeing + object) in this situation.

b) Tell to your students to concentrate on the following questions: who/what, where, when, how and why. So:

Who/What can you see? What are they doing?
Where are they? When is all this happening?
How are they doing what they are doing? And why?

It’s important that students understand the difference between describing a picture (answering to the questions above) and commenting on it (which might be part of the task, but is not picture description).

c) Give plenty of opportunity to your students to practice. Do it also in open class (exam preparation is the moment when students need to get used to talking in front of other people).

d) Provide some useful language also to compare pictures. Important lexical items are:

– prepositions: in the first picture or in the picture on the left/right
– connectors: whereas, on the other hand, on the contrary.

e) Make it clear to your students if and when they have to express opinions. Sometimes students are asked to reach an agreement about pictures. All these functions have their own language.

Exercise type: any

In an oral exam, the first thing examiners look for is the candidates’ communicative skills. Flawless language usage is only a secondary consideration: if a candidate can express their ideas and play the game by the rules, even mistakes are forgiven.

What does ‘playing the game by the rules’ mean?
a) Turn taking: Candidates are usually tested in pairs. If one of the candidates dominates the conversation and speaks over the other candidate, he/she might lose marks for not taking turns. Candidates are supposed to show that they know how to interrupt somebody (if necessary), how to take the word back, how to engage the other student in the discussion, etc. In some exams, candidates are even expected to ask questions.

b) Expressing opinions, agreement/disagreement: Continuous use of ‘I think’ doesn’t prove a high level of lexical knowledge. Make sure your students have their favorite expressions for all major functions. They don’t need a long list, just one or two expressions they can use any time they are about to express the same content. Here is a short list of some functions:

Expressing opinion: As I see it…, From my point of view… In my opinion…
Agreeing: I couldn’t agree more. Exactly!
Disagreeing: I see your point but… You might want to consider that…
Apologizing: I’m really sorry but… I apologize for …
Paying compliments: Well done! You’re great! Good job!

c) Defining or clarifying words/utterances: Nobody expects a candidate (not even at higher levels) to know all the words they need. So teach your students that if they can’t recall a word, they should keep cool and describe it. Useful language might be: The word is on the tip of my tongue or It’s something you use to open a wine bottle (corkscrew).

Furthermore, they need to know how to ask for repetition (Could you repeat that please? Pardon?) and how to ask for clarification (I don’t really know what you mean. Could you explain yourself?), since candidates need to prove that they know how to communicate even if the understanding was not guaranteed the first time.

Computer-based oral exams

Finally, let me mention oral exams that are done on the computer. This type of exam is the farthest from real life, we usually speak to other human beings. However, Skype calls without the video might put you into the absurd situation of having to talk to a monitor without a face. TOEFL and other exams conduct their oral test on the PC as well. Students need to read and/or listen to a track and after a given preparation time (we speak about seconds), the candidates need to answer questions talking into their microphones. What they say is recorded and will be assessed at a later moment.
Don’t underestimate the importance of simulation if the oral exam is done on the computer. This situation is highly unnatural and candidates are also given tight time limits. So they are supposed to give a clear answer to questions while they stare at a huge ticking clock. They are sometimes given some time beforehand to prepare their answers, but they often just start writing down sentences (also, by the way, note-taking is a skill that is essential in exams, so spend some time teaching students how to take notes).

How can you prepare your students for computer-based oral exams?
a) The key word is simulation: make your students sit down in front of the computer and give them the opportunity to practise this type of examination. If you don’t have the possibility to use computers, then ask your students to answer questions orally facing the wall, the whiteboard or anything else, but not a classmate. This way they can get used to talking to an object.

b) Make your students use their imagination: the task is easier if students imagine a face on the screen. This face should smile and encourage them to speak clearly.

c) Practise with your students the different types of questions. Some questions simply ask for their opinion. Sometimes they need to give a summary, compare two utterances and often even express their point of view at the end. They often need to make a choice and express why they decided as they decided. So it’s essential that students understand quickly what they need to do and practise doing it.

d) Teach useful language. Linkers are important: Firstly, secondly, finally; on the one hand – on the other hand; however/whereas/while/instead, etc. are very useful. Some prepositions are also necessary: according to …, as opposed to.

e) Time your students. Give your students first easy then step by step harder and harder questions and give them very tight time limits: 45 seconds to prepare their answer, then only 30 seconds, etc. Teach them that they can take notes, but notes are not sentences, only keywords. Let’s pretend the question is: ‘Why is sharing an apartment a good opportunity for a university student and what drawbacks might it have?
Notes for a possible answer:

Pros: sharing costs, good atmosphere, studying together, social life
Cons: possible quarrels, too noisy flatmates, cleaning conflicts, boy/girlfriends

After timing them taking notes, continue timing them while formulating their answers. Give them one minute to answer the questions using their notes. At the beginning, repeat the same question-answer sections so that students get confident and more fluent in their answers.

f) The secret is speed. Students often need to read something which they need to summarize or compare to their own or other people’s opinion. Quick reading is therefore essential. Give your students enough practise to read through a text fast and filter the main message in that text.

g) No second chance. The really hard thing in a TOEFL speaking test is, for example, that students can listen to the tracks only once. So it is a question of pass or fail that they can trust their listening skills. Way before the exam preparation sessions assign regularly homework that involves listening tasks. Useful websites are Khan Academy, Ted-Ed, ESL Lab, BBC news videos with tape script, but you can find nearly endless resources on YouTube.


So far, I have discussed some typical exam exercises in every paper (Reading, Use of English, Writing, Listening and Speaking) and tried to provide guidelines how to prepare for these. In this last part, I would like to give you some final tips for your exam preparation course.

Simulate the exam: It won’t be enough to talk about exams, you need to set up the exam situation and throw your students in deep water. They need to feel the anxiety, formulate their answers for real, this is the way they can prepare to face the real exam without making a big deal of it.

Don’t overpractise: Practice makes perfect, but not in exam situations. You must give 2-3 opportunities to your students to simulate an exam and some exercise types need thorough practice. But you need to know when to stop. Students usually score higher in exam situations, because they are more concentrated. You will understand, when they know how to work with an exercise, but make silly mistakes due to lack of concentration or lack of interest. If you have the chance, insert some fun activities into your lesson plan and help your students stress less over the exam. You can find some useful tips in this BusyTeacher article.

Don’t let your students study in the last minute. Sitting a language test is about skills and not facts. Students often exaggerate and try to memorize words even the day before the exam. They run the risk to learn these lexical items only superficially, missing out articles or exchanging prepositions in case of idioms or misunderstanding connotations. In an exam, students need to show what they know, so it’s more practical to make good use of what they have already learnt. In emergency situations, teach them 10 useful phrasal verbs and 5 generally used idioms and ask them to insert these in their speaking and/or writing if possible. These might earn some extra points for them.

Always correct the exercise together with the class and then collect results.You might just want to put the correct answers onto the whiteboard (specially if it’s a multiple-choice exercise) and ask your students to quickly check their answers or if you have time, you might go through each question and correct the answers with the whole class. It’s important that they have the correct answers clear. This way students can also clarify why the other answers were incorrect. Once finished with the feedback session, ask your students how many questions they got correct. It makes your students take the tasks more seriously, gives you an idea at what point the class is in the preparation and makes it clear if they are over or under the required minimum, finally, it shows students in the long run if (and hopefully that) they are improving.

Make suggestions: Pieces of advice like ‘you must learn the vocabulary’ or ‘you should do better’ are empty words. Students need concrete suggestions what to do and how to do it. So make sure that you have some ideas what to say. If there is a workbook, that students might have neglected, assign some extra homework from this. If listening is a problem, direct your students onto sites that provide them with some extra practice. If the irregular verb forms were not properly memorized, show your students where to find a good list and assign the first 20 items for the following lesson, then the next 20 for the lesson after and so on. In a couple of weeks they will have memorized the complete list. Know your tools (course book, workbook, CD-Rom, online materials, learning platforms, readers, newspapers, apps, etc.) and make your students use them.

Repeat exercises: Especially if an exercise went very badly the first time, give it a second try a bit later. Tell your students what they can do to improve (see point 5), let them sleep on it and give the same exercise to them one or two lessons later. Hopefully, it will go much better (which will be really motivating). Take for example a gap-fil task: if your students work themselves through a test, they can good practice of collocations, verb + preposition pairs, etc. They learn vocabulary in context which guarantees a higher chance that students use these lexical items accurately in productive tasks. So ask your students to re-read the exercises done in class once in a while.

Train vocabulary: Always less and less, but we still live in the era where grammar is considered very important and also very difficult. But a language is not grammar. Knowing a language means, knowing its vocabulary, but not only in their primary meaning (denotation). The higher the students’ level, the more they need to know about a word. In addition to its denotation, spelling and pronunciation, its use, its connotation, its collocations, etc. are essential to be able to use it accurately and correctly. So take grammar teaching easier (at least in exam preparation) and concentrate on vocabulary. Select what is important to your students (they don’t need 5 synonyms at A2 level, but must know a lot at C2) and teach useful vocabulary to them.

Teach them to guess: In Italy, (especially university) students are afraid of being penalized if they give an incorrect answer, since this is what they are used to at Italian schools. But in an exam, they should never leave a question unanswered. If they make a mistake, they won’t be rewarded any points, but won’t lose any points either. So ask your students to guess the correct answer if they are not sure about it and give an answer to each question. If it is a multiple-choice question, they can simply pick a, b or c (see that they always have 33% chance to get it right), but even in a gap-filling exercise they need to try. If they don’t know an answer, their instinct might help. Our memory if full of expressions we heard unconsciously, so this so-called instinct is often a vague memory of an expression we perceived at some point in our life. If we are lucky, it’s a correct utterance. So teach your students to listen to their inner ears and look for an answer in any case.

Clarify what is the minimum overall score to pass the exam. Some exams require a minimum total of 60% to be rewarded with a pass, others even 70%. There are exams, that set a minimum in every skill (none of the parts can be under 40%, even if the total score is over the minimum). Consider also what universities and employers might ask for. Very often they don’t only ask for a certificate, but also for a grade or score (eg. TOEFL iBT minimum 86 or FCE Grade A or B). Remember that this means, your student might not achieve their goal even if they pass the exam. They should be able to get the score they need.

Finally, make some research when the candidates get the exam results and the certificate. In the era of computer-based exams, the results are usually accessible after 10-15 days (mostly on a platform where students can see their results by using their personal username and password). But certificates often take months (even 3-4 months) to arrive. So spend some time finding out if your students need only the result (and can prove it with a simple statement of results) or need the final and official certificate. Explain this time issue to your students.

Well, this is what I had to say about exam preparation.
Mind that everything in these posts is based on my teaching experience: these are examples of what I would tell my students before I send them to the real exam. The list is not complete and considers only the types of exams we in Italy usually prepare for. If you have any ideas or comments, I’ll be very happy to read them.


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