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Teaching tips - Teaching exam classes

Teaching tips
As busy teachers it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips are aimed at those of you who are teaching and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes or for those who would like to develop professionally by expanding your content knowledge. 
If you have any teaching tips or ideas that you would like to share with us, or questions please send them to Anne at
anne-louise.dewit@wits.ac.za

Teaching Exam Classes

This article addresses the reasons for taking an English-language exam, the types of exams, using motivation in the exam classroom, keeping it fun and real, teaching exam techniques, what is tested and tips for improving the learners’ English.

By Natalie van de Water June, 2015

“All around the world, students of all ages are learning to speak English, but their reasons for wanting to study can differ greatly.” (Harmer, 2007:11) 

People study English for diverse reasons; some simply because they want to be able to speak the language (General English), a great many for Business purposes in order to communicate and function within an International framework (Business English). Many others with the aim of passing an English Language exam (English for Exam or Academic Purposes).

Reasons for taking an English language exam

Students usually take an English-language exam for a specific reason or purpose. This purpose might be imposed on them by their environmental surrounding (e.g. by parents of younger learners). The majority of older learners typically take an exam for one of the following ends:

  • For visa requirements in order to move to an English-speaking country
  • As part of the application process to an English-speaking university
  • To work as an English teacher in their home country
  • To add on to their CV as proof of their English-language level

Types of exams

There are many English language exams available to students, some examples are:


  • IELTS – a British exam for access to an English university. The score students need to achieve in the exam will be dependent on which university they are applying to.

  • TOEFL – generally considered the American equivalent of the IELTS, although the format of the 2 exams differs considerably. The main purpose of TOEFL is to gain entrance to an American university.

  • The University of Cambridge Suite of exams; particularly the FCE (First Certificate in English), CAE (Cambridge Advanced Certificate in English)and CPE (Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency) may be taken as the “passport to an English teaching job in some European countries”. (Burgess & Head, 2005:1)

The type of exam students take may depend on their age, ability and level of English, but it is often dictated by their reason for taking it.

Motivation in the exam classroom

Learners in exam classes tend to approach the course with very high motivation, at least initially, as they are goal-driven; they have an ultimate objective in which they want to succeed.  However Burgess and Head do warn that although Motivation levels may be high at the beginning of the course it is difficult to sustain without some conscious effort to get the students to take personal responsibility for their own success (Burgess & Head, 2005:5). Scrivener agrees with this and adds that “As a teacher I cannot learn for my students. Only they can do that. What I can do is help create the conditions in which they might be able to learn. This could be by responding to some of the student complaints – perhaps by involving them, by enabling them to work at their own speed, by not giving long explanations, by encouraging them to participate, talk, interact, do things etc.” (Scrivener, 2005:18) 

Putting the emphasis of motivation on the shoulders of the student does not mean that the teacher is absconded of all responsibility. It is still essential that the teacher monitors motivation and continuously encourages students in order to create the best possible learning environment in which the students can learn, achieve and hopefully attain their goals. An aware and sensitive teacher according to Scrivener  “who respects and listens to her students, and who concentrates on finding ways of enabling learning rather than on performing as a teacher, goes a long way to creating conditions in which a great deal of learning is likely to take place” (Scrivener,  2005: 22)

Keeping it fun and real

One notable means of keeping motivation high is to create fun and engaging lessons. Teaching for exams does not by any means equate to dull, boring, dry lessons. In fact quite the opposite; “It is as important to build variety and fun in to an exam class as it is to drive students towards the goal of passing their exam.” (Burgess & Head, 2005:1). I highly recommend that lessons are to be kept communicative and fun as engaged learners are motivated learners. Humour in the classroom is likewise an essential tool that lightens the mood and helps to create good rapport with the learners. According to Banās, Dunbar, Rodriguez & Liu “Using humour in a lesson can improve recall, build community, reduce stress and boost student learning” (Banās, Dunbar, Rodriguez & Liu 2010 Edutopia) all of which are essential for a class preparing for an examination.

Teaching exam techniques

While keeping the lessons as communicative and interactive as possible, it is imperative not to overlook the importance of teaching examination techniques.  It is highly likely that the students will arrive with the expectation of reviewing past examination papers and may envisage this to be the most substantial part of the course.  Although students clearly need to be very familiar with the form the exam takes, “doing practice tests alone will not in itself help the students to learn very much and can easily lead to “burn-out” (Scrivener, 2005:327).

Nevertheless, it is essential that the teacher is fully aware of the exam structure as their students will expect them to have an in-depth knowledge of what the exam comprises of – both academically and administratively. “Teachers cannot afford to skimp on knowledge of an exam; students need to feel confident that they are in the hands of an authoritative source of information” (Burgess & Head, 4).  Therefore going through past exam papers is a very useful tool as well as to ascertain strengths and weaknesses but should be used when necessary and not as the foremost teaching tool.

Teachers rather need to help students acquire a thorough insight of what is expected of them in the test as a whole and what they need to be able to do in order to pass and consequently support students in the fields in which they are struggling as well as provide tips on how to better succeed even in the spheres in which they are already doing well. Many course books provide exercises and techniques to assist both the teacher and the learners in improving overall skill.

What is tested?

Most exams cover all four skills, being the two receptive skills; reading and listening, as well as the two productive skills; writing and speaking. Some exams also include a specific grammar and vocabulary component such as Use of English in the Cambridge Suite of exams. Other exams such, as IELTS don’t have a dedicated grammar section. This does not of course mean that grammar can be neglected as it will be tested indirectly throughout the exam, accurate grammar knowledge and use is thus essential. 

Burgess and Head make the observation that by the time “learners begin to seriously prepare for an exam, there should be no significant areas of grammar and vocabulary, relevant to the level of the exam, that they have not already been taught.”(Burgess & Head, 2005:65). Whilst being a sound viewpoint, I have found from experience, in particular with regards to multilingual classes, this not always to be the case. Students come with their English that they have learnt from various backgrounds which doesn’t always sufficiently arm them with all the correct grammar required for a particular level in order to succeed in the exam. It is therefore essential that the teacher ensures that the students have sufficient grammar to enable them to cope with the level of the exam. A student without grammar is like a construction site without an architect; they may have all the bricks they need to build the building but they don’t have a plan on how to get there. 

Tips for improving the learners’ English

The teacher needs to be able to recognise each learner’s ability and as an extension of this enable the students to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses; in order to suggest strategies for building up their skills and knowledge which might otherwise let the student down in the exam. 

One very valuable way of encouraging learners to foster their skills is getting them to keep up to speed with current affairs. Although not directly tested in most exams, current affairs often form the basis of some of the context of the exam. Hence a solid understanding of what is happening in the world is extremely beneficial. A fabulous “side-effect” of keeping up to speed with such is the exposure to the language that it will engender. I always encourage students to read quality news articles, either it online or in a newspaper which inevitably has a direct and positive effect on the level of the language they are subsequently able to understand and very often produce.

Students need to be empowered how to use English correctly and not only be taught exam techniques on how to pass the exam. I think a combination of both is essential in order for the students to attain the best mark possible. An in-depth knowledge and understanding of the way in which English functions will help students to be better able to use their language and ultimately attain a better mark in their exam. 

Ultimately passing the exam is only the first step towards attaining an even bigger goal, whether that goal be entrance to an English speaking university or to teach English in a European school, the end result is that in all likelihood they will need to be using English on a daily basis. Therefore if we only empower our students to pass the exam, we are ultimately setting them up for failure at a latter point. An intertwined and inseparable combination of Exam skills and English skills is therefore essential for ongoing success.

Burgess, S & Head, K (2005). How to Teach for Exams. Pearson Education Limited
Harmer, J (2007). How to Teach English. Pearson Education Limited
Scrivener, J (2005). Learning Teaching. 3rd Ed MacMillan
Thornbury, S (1997).  About Language. Cambridge Teacher Training and Development. Cambridge University Press
www.edutopia.org