Thoughts on Preparing Candidates for the Cambridge English Exams Speaking and Writing Papers

(Reading time: 7 - 13 minutes)

We are three months from the next exam and nine months from the one after that. I am often asked by teachers given the proximity of exam day what the right balance between exam practice and general language and skills development work should be. What I suspect lies behind this question is that teachers know that learners will keenly set about anything in this period given an exam practice label – keen as they are to see how close they are to getting over the line or achieving their target goal – but teachers know for sound pedagogic reasons and probably from years of experience that slavish exam practice does not make perfect and, that there must be more effective ways to optimise learning before taking the test.  In this article, we will outline a broader framework for channelling teacher and learner energies in exam preparation classes.

Bob Obee, Professional Support Leader Cambridge Exams SE Europe

Our focus here too is the productive papers: Speaking and Writing -which more than the receptive papers- when ready on-the-page processes and means of managing outcomes seem at hand, give teachers pause to think about effective preparation strategies. There are practical and time constraints in giving individual pairs of learners, quality Speaking test practice time, and similar limitations to the extent that teachers can set individual writing task plans and provide qualitative feedback for individual learners on their writing. These practical obstacles can make quick-fix solutions such as giving ‘useful phrases’ lists for candidates to use in the different parts of the Speaking Test or for different task types in the Writing paper seem attractive. Again, however, making optimum use of learning time available involves taking a broader strategic view and one that embraces the range of assessment criteria relating to each paper.
So, how can we envision an exam preparation teaching framework that makes the most of the limited time available to us? Well, for me, it involves three distinct types of activity:
- purposeful and well-targeted exam practice
- exam training
- exam awareness- raising  
with the middle category [exam training] giving us the most scope to engage with more generic language and skills development work too. Below, we will sketch what each distinct type of classroom activity looks like, giving practical suggestions for Cambridge English: First for Schools and Cambridge English: Proficiency – with reference to Cambridge English: Advanced - along the way and hope to highlight that keeping the distinction between the three types of target lesson activity clearly in mind is vital for teachers to ensure the right blend and prioritisation of focuses in readying learners with different needs for the exam.  

Exam Practice

When selecting exam practice material to use in class, teachers are keenly aware of a need to choose exam practice material that is authentic and  rightly so. They require that test material reflect the full specification of the test in terms of target skill focus, task or question focus, range of item difficulty as well as more prosaic features such as exact rubrics, text lengths and timings. Authenticity in this sense is important. But just because material is presented like it is in the test does not mean that doing it like a test is the best way to prepare candidates or nurture the skills for success in the relevant exam. Let’s take, for example, the First for schools Speaking Test. This is a test made up of four parts, each one involving a different type of interaction pattern and designed to elicit different types of discourse. Practising all four parts of the test together all the time, does not allow teachers and learners to focus in depth on particular strategies for performing successfully in the different parts of the test. Strategies that learners need to work on, for example, to do well in Part 1 include:
giving effective short answers
consider how much more learners set themselves up to ‘expand’,  if rather than answer with a perfunctory ‘yes’ or ‘no’ their opening take on a question is something like: ‘it depends’ or ‘not as much as I’d like’..  
expanding effectively on short answers
Consider how much more candidates give themselves to say if they give an answer both from their perspective  and the perspective of someone else e.g. their parents, sibling, teacher etc…
      ‘My parents would probably say ….. but I …
- referring to your partner’s answers in your own answers..
consider how much more effective it is to answer a question taking into account what has been heard before in the discourse rather than  ignoring it…
I’m not as keen as Georgios but ….
Practising even just one of such strategies could easily take up a whole lesson so teachers need to use authentic exam material to focus on and practice something in a targeted way. 
We should also consider the interaction frameworks we use for practising in class. While with a task like Part 2 of the Cambridge English First for Schools Speaking Test [the long turn] it seems a bit pointless not to practise this in pairs or small groups [perhaps with listening learners completing feedback forms or notes], all other Parts of the test can be usefully practised in a whole group framework.  For example, with FCEfs Speaking Part 4, when we open up the question activity to a guided whole class framework, everyone can learn from observing how other learners answer questions and from comments made about these answers. A teacher – a bit like the conductor of an orchestra – can direct attention to different members of the group and with a look, a gesture or a follow-up prompt [just as an examiner would do in the exam] elicit responses to what has been said from actively listening to learners. To structure such activity even more tightly, the teacher can introduce a range of turn-linking prompts - placed either on the board, held up by the teacher or given to groups of learners – so that the task can come to focus on the strategy of expanding on and developing a partner’s answer.  
For example, where one candidate is asked a question like: 
Why  do some people prefer using the internet to shop? 
and answers:   I think to save time. Someone sits at home and just chooses what they want on their screen  …
listening learners are then prompted to use/choose a prompt like … 
but that’s not always true .. for example …
Using such classroom management techniques skilfully, a teacher can get a number of learners [making a different point each time] to practise connecting what they say to the initial comment with the prompt and the whole class gets to observe and comment on the effectiveness of the strategy in action.
As with Speaking, so with Writing :
Why have learners just working on exam practice tasks in isolation. One of the four criteria in assessing learners’ writing, for example, is Organisation. For Cambridge English Proficiency Writing Tasks 1 and Task 2, what is particularly important in scoring well in this category is that an answer exhibits a good overall level of organisation and developmental flow. Why not use class time to plan both tasks [the plan to exhibit sophisticated organisation] in class and then have learners write the two pieces within a time limit at home? The aim in class would be for groups to come up with a plan and the opening line of each section.  Groups could then swap their sets of opening lines and comment to each other on what they think is going to be developed in each section and how this might be made more sophisticated organisationally. What is being practised here is the need to come up quickly with an effective organisational map before writing: a key exam skill.

Exam Training

What typically distinguishes Exam Training from Exam Practice is that the exam task at hand will usually be modified in some way so as to better enable teachers to focus learners on a particular discreet skill implied by a test task and provide a class platform that allows current learner strategies in dealing with tasks to be explored and improved on. With a skill like Writing, it is possible to conceive of exam training tasks both in pre-writing and post-writing lesson phases. Let’s consider the guided essay Writing FCEfs Part 1 task.  A pre-task focus might isolate one paragraph which would relate to one of the two main content points to be covered. To the board the teacher can elicit a range of topic sentence ideas and add a few pre- prepared ones.  Groups of learners around the room are then tasked with writing an exemplification of some of the ideas and an explanation of others. This modified writing task focuses learners on the key skill of development of ideas [Organisation] and gives scope for teachers to look at the quality of learner language produced in terms of task register [Communicative Achievement] or range of complexity [Language]. Similarly, at a post-writing feedback task, a teacher can isolate to the board a range of sentences from learners’ written answers and suggest an alternative way of beginning each sentence – perhaps more in sympathy with essay register – for learners to rewrite. Again this modified checking task gives teachers opportunities to focus learners on a key discrete skill implied by the test.
A way to work in a similar exam training vein with parts of the Speaking Test is to project the photographs {Part 2] or the written prompts [Part 3] to the board.  With the Cambridge English First for Schools Part 2 task, for example, one of the key skills in keeping going in talking about the photographs is not just to describe observable details but to situate these details in terms of the wider context of the situation i.e. speculating as to what lies behind the picture. With the photographs projected to the board ask one learner to mention something the images clearly show e.g. in the first picture there is a large group of children waiting for a ski-lift, then indicate another learner who has to make some kind of speculation about this detail e.g. it’s probably a school skiing trip because they all look the same age. Then move around the room and indicate another learner to mention an observable detail and the next a speculation about this detail …and so on. After five or six goes of this ask one student to put everything they have heard together and speak for a minute. Exam training: modifying actual tasks to focus learners in on task sub-skills and effective task strategies 

Exam Awareness-Raising

Exam awareness-raising targets developing in learners’ deeper awareness of the test and test day processes which could considerably impact on a candidate’s success. Things such as: completing mark sheets, using/ allocating time, assessment and weighting, awareness of question shape, awareness of question focus and effective and less effective on-the-day strategies for questions.  While the first is not an issue for candidates in the Speaking and Writing papers, all the others are.  
In the Writing papers of Cambridge English First for Schools, Advanced  and Proficiency, for example,  – three tests in which there is now much clearer overlap in  skills progression through the setting of similar tasks -  CONTENT is one of the four assessment criteria. As a key exam awareness task, take a number of candidate scripts downloadable from Cambridge English Handbooks and ask learners to assess what mark they think they were awarded in terms of CONTENT.  Learners should realise from this activity that obtaining a Band 5 [top mark] is pretty straight-forward provided they cover the points in the question and do not deviate. It should also become clear that marks are easily given away in this respect where learners avoid covering the question.
Another way in which teachers can raise learner awareness in terms of what is required by the Writing Papers in these exams is to constantly give feedback to learners in terms of Cambridge English assessment criteria.  Consider adding pens of three other colours to your stock of red pens and rather than just underlining things to be considered in terms of accuracy [errors], highlight [in different colours]  points in learners’ writing both positive and negative in terms of the four assessment criteria; that is to say, points of : Content, Communicative Achievement, Organisation and Language . At the end of each piece of writing you could also consider adding a comments box related to each criteria that summarised your views. This technique used consistently will inculcate learners into a broader conversation with you and amongst themselves about what they are aiming to achieve in their exam writing.
In terms of the Speaking Paper, the area where candidate awareness perhaps needs raising to the greatest extent is in the tasks that require candidates to negotiate around prompts (First for SchoolsPart 3 / Proficiency Part 2) .  Candidates particularly need to think about strategies that allow them to comment flexibly on what their partner says rather than rushing in to agree or disagree at every turn and dashing off to deal with another prompt e.g. strategies like extending a partner’s point with something like  …. and  [expanding on a partner’s point] ….  or but  [adding a cautionary note to a partner’s point]. Avoiding the rush to consensus or conclusion is particularly important so that candidates give themselves plenty to say in the time and because the second phase of the task will ask them to reach consensus/a conclusion in some way and they do not want to pre-empt this part of the task by having agreed on everything already. A type of awareness-raising task that is useful in this respect is to have one group of learners given a task and told to agree/disagree on/with everything the other person says and another group given a task where they are told they can’t explicitly agree/disagree. Learners gain a lot of useful insight here as to how to comment and respond more flexibly.

Final Thoughts

Learners generally come to exam classes with clear goals in mind and high levels of instrumental motivation to succeed. As teachers we have a clear responsibility to frame expectations and sketch the roadmap – warning of      the dangers of imagined short-cuts - of the work ahead.  One part of this responsibility should be to help learners frame realistic goals given their  other commitments and in this, I am always surprised that more learners are not directed in 18-month or two-year post-B2 programmes towards Cambridge Advanced given its high level of recognition for higher education study purposes and by international companies and organisations around the world. Our broader responsibility though is a pedagogic one and will involve nurturing learner motivation and bringing learners to the point of readiness  for the exam -  a much more sophisticated, multi-dimensional and strategy development-oriented process than a term like exam practice can hope to cover.
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