Exams are big business and a great number of students work towards one of the major English exams; many more work towards local exams. This means that preparing students for exams is also big business and many teachers either take this on with classes approaching and exam or specialize entirely in the subject.
This article looks at the ideas behind Exam Preparation classes and how they differ from most English classes.
Note, for a list of common student examinations, search our site for more information and details.
Preparation for Exam Preparation
The first thing you should do as a teacher is get hold of some past papers for the exam to find out exactly what it is all about. Bearing in mind that exam formats do change over time, you should make sure you have recent papers and know precisely how the exam is structured.
In general there are usually 4 main components to an exam corresponding to the 4 main language skills. Often there will be 4 separate papers to the exam: speaking, writing, reading , listening.
You will need to go through these past papers and make sure you understand how each paper is presented and the kind of questions which are asked. Check the timings and what exactly the student needs to do. And ideally here you should do at least one exam yourself!
Note that there are some books which analyze exams for you, but we recommend doing it yourself in order to gain a real understanding of what the students need to know and do.
You can then break down each exam into its parts. Here is what a typical breakdown might look like (this is for a fictitious but typical exam format):
Task Description Time
Reading Paper: 40 minutes
1 Read text of 500 words & answer 8 multiple choice reading comprehension questions 15 mins
2 Gap fill exercise 10 mins
3 Reading Comprehension 15 mins
Use of English Paper: 40 minutes
4 Gap fill vocabulary 15 mins
5 Sentence Transformation 15 mins
6 Multiple Choice Gap Fill 10 mins
Listening: 30 minutes
7 Listen to extract 1 & answer multiple choice 10 mins
8 Listen to extract 2 & answer multiple choice 10 mins
9 Listen to extract 3 & answer multiple choice 10 mins
Speaking: 15 minutes
10 Interview (including 5 min prepared speech) 15 mins
Writing: 60 minutes
11 Free writing on a topic given 35 mins
12 Structured writing (letter/memo, etc…) 25 mins
Once you have a good understanding of the exam you will be an good position to help your students.
EFL Exam Practice
The key to exam preparation is practice. This means that the more your students are used to taking papers in exam like conditions the better they will become. Exams are not just about the knowledge you might possess, but also being able to put that knowledge down on paper when you are limited by time and in a stressful environment.
Practice helps a great deal here. Thus you might like to break your lessons down into looking at a particular aspect of the exam, for example how to handle the listening exercises. Make sure your class are fully aware of the best strategies here and what to expect. Then give them a practice test under exam conditions.
This applies to all parts of the paper!
The ESL Exam Interview
Whilst in a typical classroom situation you can simulate different exam papers, the one part which often gives students most stress is the speaking paper where they will typically have to sit down with a stranger for 15 minutes or so to talk.
To begin with you can do this with them (or they break into groups to do it). Here they are obviously not under exam conditions but they are learning the format of this part of the exam and becoming familiar with how it will work (and usefully this is taking place in a ‘safe’ environment).
Later you can interview students yourself under exam-type conditions. Again, though, this is not ideal as the hardest part for many students here is the fact they will be talking in a foreign language with complete stranger. To help here you may well be able to borrow another English teacher in town who can come in and interview each of the students in turn under more realistic conditions; you will probably end up interviewing the other teacher’s students in return and this is very useful as it will give you a chance to see the kind of errors their students are making and make sure your students don’t make them!
ESL Exam Tips
Timing is crucial and this needs to be drummed into your students. Make sure they understand that they must know how long they can spend on each question and once they reach that limit they move on, finished or not!
Suppose each question should take 10 minutes and is worth 10 points. It is far easier to get a reasonable grade of, say, 7/10 in 10 minutes than spend longer and perhaps get 1 or 2 extra points. if a student spends too much time on the first few questions then they will suddenly realize that they have a couple of questions left and just a couple of minutes to complete them. Disaster: they get a couple of points for each one!
It’s not always the best idea to go through the questions in sequence. In some cases (depending on the format of the exam) you may be able to change the order you answer questions. If this is the case then do the easiest question first: it builds confidence and allows you to get into the stride of things and lose a few nerves.
And on the subject of nerves, see the main article, Exam Nerves.