Exams & Preparation

Find useful exam information and teaching ideas for your students.

Teaching to the Test?

How many times have you taught students in Exam Prep classes and felt that your teaching has not actually improved their communication ability or their general command of the language but still they’ve passed their exams with flying colors?

What I have known since the very early years of my career is that the specific tests do not fit perfectly with a teaching approach that is based on holistic, active learning and communication. Yet, my teaching focused mainly on exposing students to exam-oriented exercises and tests rather than the language itself.

I felt that I desperately needed to change and start teaching beyond the Test, expose my students to the real language, and stop spending time teaching strategies and ‘tricks’ that would lead to higher scores in the exams which is a waste of time as far as language acquisition is concerned. I needed to feel more like an educator, so I dared.

Text by: Pepy Skaloni

All certificates consist typically of four parts Reading, Listening, Speaking, and Writing. So, how can we teach students these skills and at the same time get them engaged in the learning process, achieve real progress and enjoy the beauty of the language?

What we only have to do is to capture their attention, create an environment conducive to learning and let them take responsibility for their studies. No student will ever feel engaged unless they are free to express themselves, feel creative and active, accepted, respected, and praised. Teenage students are motivated by inquiry. Just imagine what happens when they are given the chance to choose what to learn. By letting your students be free to opt on what to learn, you are cultivating their interest which is a great motivator. Students of B2 level can communicate almost fluently, they start feeling independent and the freedom to choose what to learn gives them a sense of control, purpose, and achievement.

In our school, we let them decide on a topic, search and analyze it. We always address real-world problems.  Our students get obsessed and never complain about the amount of work they have to do. They are given articles to read on the topic and talk about when we work on Reading Comprehension. Each team is assigned a different article/text. They have to elaborate on and create some exercises depending on what we need to practice. Then they exchange the articles, answer the questions and check them together.

When we work on Listening each team is assigned a different podcast related to the question as homework. Then in class, they exchange information and a discussion follows.

After we have worked on a lot of articles, literary extracts, podcasts, talks and speeches, videos and documentaries even films we come to discuss what we have learned, and then the writing part starts. Their writing can take many forms but it is free writing in the first place and then takes the form of the writing that needs to be taught. Then a presentation or a debate completes the topic. All four skills are taught that way which imparts knowledge to the students in the most interesting fashion.

For the most challenging part of teaching which is vocabulary, the new words are presented in chunks e.g. conduct a survey, read a lengthy article, confess to theft, etc. to strengthen their memory paths and are usually practiced in Word Games and activities which make their learning challenging and fun. One of the activities that they enjoy and helps them to enrich their vocabulary is paraphrasing. They try to communicate the same message using new vocabulary for example: “Can you tell me more about that” will be rephrased as “Can you expand on that?” or “Can you elaborate on that?”  Besides, they use this new vocabulary to work on the question they have chosen either by talking, reading, listening, or writing which makes them eager to use it.

A couple of months before the exams their simulations start but so far they have practiced all four skills a lot so exam tests come more as self-assessment.

In my opinion, practicing these four skills of the language exclusively in real exam tasks add a lot of stress. Every time students are asked to read or listen for comprehension their brain makes the connection between language and testing. I will never forget one of my students telling me that whenever she listened to an English recording, her heart rate increased, her palms felt sweaty and of course, she couldn`t understand a word. Only by exposing her to real-life English listening (films, songs, podcasts, etc.) was she able to get rid of the stress that blocked her understanding and the pleasure she could get.

Exams are here to stay and nobody can doubt that they can enhance learning no matter how stressful they are. However, we can use tests to our advantage and put them to work for us.

So, should we as educators encourage our students to adapt their learning and thinking to Tests? Or should we teach them skills that they will need to “travel” beyond the Exams, prepare them for life, impart knowledge and reduce their anxiety?