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February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Tips for Cambridge Exam Preparation: How to Keep the Focus on Learning and Learners

Ethan Mansur holds the Delta and an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.  He currently teaches at International House Madrid, where he takes an active interest in professional development. He also does material development for the Spanish Ministry of Education.

Matt Adams has been a TEFL teacher since 2006, working mostly in Indonesia and Madrid. He currently teaches at the British Council in Madrid. Interested in teaching all levels and ages, he is particularly concerned with approaches that maximize student participation.



As the Cambridge main suite has come to dominate certification of English language proficiency in Europe, year-long courses combining exam preparation and general English have become increasingly common in private language schools.  For the confident and prepared teacher, this type of course can have several advantages over a standard General English course: the aims are crystal clear, students are often well-motivated and there is a significant amount of support material available for free.  However, these self-same advantages can become something of a trap, as teachers can find themselves – often led by student wishes – teaching an increasingly thin gruel of exam tasks and exam strategies that, however well intentioned, pall over time.  Here, we provide some practical tips to make sure the learners are improving their English as much as possible while preparing for the exam.


Tip one: do a proper needs analysis

Take the time to find out what students are good at or not. Do a needs analysis at the beginning of the course, both asking students to self-assess and then balancing this with an abbreviated objective test.  As the course progresses, take note of the parts of the exam that are consistently challenging.  Students should also be keeping track of strengths and weaknesses, perhaps with a specific page set aside in their notebooks.  This is particularly important as the official exam date looms.  With a needs analysis mindset, you won’t waste valuable class time doing something the students are already good at, saving time to work on what  they really need help with.

A word of warning: once you have identified weaknesses, don’t just practise those particular exam tasks to death.  Doing lots of something that is hard will not necessarily make learners better at it. You need to try to discover why a certain task is difficult and address the underlying issues.  Maybe key word transformations are hard because the students are not familiar enough with common phrasal verbs or lexical items, or they haven’t quite mastered conditional sentences; perhaps they simply struggle to grasp the logic behind them.  Whichever is the case, just doing more of them is unlikely to solve these central problems.


Tip two: don't bite off more than your students can chew

If students find a particular task very challenging, then don't expect them to deal with it all in one go; extra scaffolding may be necessary.  This can be done in a variety of ways: simplifying the task by eliminating a few wrong answers; identifying distracters before students do a task, or simply correcting part of a task halfway through, then allowing students to finish.  Further options for the Use of English section in particular might include telling students the type of word/part of speech required (parts 2 and 3); giving them the correct answers out of order (part 2); or giving the first word or two of a transformation, the precise number of words required, or the type of transformation required (part 4).  At higher levels, the Cambridge exams don’t change drastically from one level to the next, so if students are having trouble with a particular task, you can (in most cases) start by giving them the same task from the test of a level lower.


Tip three: teach the skill; don’t just test it

Every task done in class (or for homework) is a learning opportunity, not just exam practice.  Don’t just check the answers and move on.  With a listening task, get them to scan the tape script before providing the answers.   For both reading and listening tasks, ask the students to justify their responses.  All too often, the right answer is got for the wrong reason.  With incorrect answers, start with those.  Why did the students think it was correct? Why isn’t it?  This process often reveals questions not carefully read or key lexical items misunderstood/misheard.  This can also be a great opportunity to examine elements of paraphrase or exemplification, which helps expand students’ lexical range.  If you just do tasks, check the answers and move on, you are giving the students a mini-test they either pass or fail.  If they keep failing, they are probably not getting any closer to passing.  And if they keep passing, that might mean they are ready for the exam already and wasting their time in your class—unless of course you take the time to exploit the text.  In general, students will not go home and research all the questions they got wrong and find out why.  That work needs to be done in class with the teacher.


Tip four: don’t rely on the teacher’s book; do the tasks yourself

There is no substitute for actually doing the task yourself, either before the lesson or at the same time the students are completing it in class.  This will give you a better sense of possible problems or ambiguities in the task, and help you understand why students might have made the mistakes they have.  It may even also give you a deeper understanding of the approach to the task itself, perhaps causing you to reassess the exam strategies you suggest, rather than simply relying on the advice given in the coursebook. 

For example, our own approach to teaching the gapped text, especially at the CPE level, changed radically when we realised that we rarely followed the textbook strategies we had been espousing.  Teacher’s books tend to promote a kind of close reading for reference that can be incredibly time consuming. We have found that in the process of trying getting the answers as quickly as possible in order to be well ahead of our students, we followed a simple process of elimination based on answering the question ‘Could this possibly fit?’  In general, the exam strategies in exam prep coursebooks aren’t bad per se, but it is worth taking the time to see how well they actually work for your students.  If they don’t seem to help, work together with your students to explore other options.


Tip five: learner training

To improve accuracy, get students to keep a record of their mistakes.  For instance, have them make a page in their notebooks where they keep track of any new forms of words, collocations, dependent prepositions or spelling mistakes that come up in Use of English tasks.  As a teacher, it’s valuable in any type of second language course to note down recurring fossilized errors and revisit them from time to time.  Sometimes it’s important to remind students (and ourselves) that just as we learn languages bit by bit, learning one new word or phrase at a time, we are also in the process of filling small gaps in our interlanguage bit by bit.  Helping students not make the same mistakes again is always time well spent.


Tip six: step away from the exam

One strong washback effect from exams in general is to make teachers and students feel they should not use class time for anything not directly related to the exam.  As teachers, we need to fight back against this for many reasons, not least that doing the same type of task again and again and again in a year-long course is deeply repetitive and boring for both teachers and students.  This is particularly true when not all of the students in the group are actively planning to take the exam.  To break up the monotony, include activities and tasks completely unrelated to the exam that are based on the students’ interests/needs.  If you get any pushback, stress the fact that Cambridge exams test general English proficiency, so anything that improves students’ level is valuable in and of itself.  If need be, elicit from the students themselves how the language or skills practised in a non-exam lesson might end up being helpful on the exam.  In our experience, it’s not hard for students to make these kinds of connections if specifically asked to do so.


Tip seven: focus on speaking functions, not just on tasks

The underlying knowledge needed to do well on a Cambridge exam can be practised in many ways that don’t exactly mirror the exam; this is particularly the case for speaking.  Speculating, comparing, negotiating towards an outcome, expressing opinions or agreement/disagreement—these are all common functions in discussion activities, whether or not the actual activity follows the Cambridge exam format.  If you raise students’ awareness of this, they will be more likely to accept a wider range of task types.

In addition, a stronger focus on meaningful discussion rather than exam practice will also help avoid the common issue of candidates purposely inserting memorized turn taking phrases on the day of the exam, but using them incorrectly or in the wrong context.  For Cambridge oral examiners, one pet peeve is candidates using nice phrases like “I couldn’t agree more” when it’s obvious from the rest of their turn that they in fact disagree with what their partners have said. 

In a related issue, it’s also common during the exam for candidates to produce monologues and not develop a meaningful response to their partner’s contribution. In class, it is crucial to get students to really listen and respond to each other.  In particular, practise disagreement because it generates more language and requires a closer understanding of your partner's contribution than simply agreeing. 

In general, the more students engage in meaningful communication in class, exam focused or not, the higher their mark will likely be for interaction on the day of the test, which represents an important part of the candidate’s overall speaking score.


Tip eight: don't leave writing for homework

Writing tends be something students need to work on more in Cambridge exam prep courses, for the simple reason that they naturally practise it less than other skills tested on the exam, such as reading or listening.  What’s more, many students are not particularly strong writers in their own language, so they will need extra help to gain control of the structure and conventions of written English.

Unfortunately, this is also the part of the exam that learners are often least interested in practising, perhaps reasoning, with some justice, that they are unlikely to have to write in English other than for the exam.  Due to this lack of interest on the part of students (and sometimes on the part of teachers), there is a tendency to set all written tasks as homework, with class time limited to brainstorming and producing a plan.  Resist this.  Instead, develop writing lessons that address the specific issues that your students face, such as text organisation, or the development of an argument through a text. 

For example, do mini-writings in pairs or small groups. This could include writing a topic sentence and supporting examples for a single paragraph.  If you also address the kind of linking words and phrases likely to crop up in Use of English, this will help make writing in class more desirable to students. Other in-class writing activities could be students proofreading each other’s writing, or even marking each other’s writing using the Cambridge writing scales, though it’s perhaps better to wait until the requisite level of trust and respect has built up before trying this.



Students who take year-long Cambridge exam prep courses have two complementary goals: to improve their English and to earn their exam certificate.  As teachers, it’s important to ensure that the second goal does not completely overtake the first.  After all, to pass a Cambridge exam you actually need to have the level required, be it A2 or C2.  Therefore, improving students' general English is exam preparation.  All the more reason to make sure there is as much teaching—and above all learning—as possible in these courses.


Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

  • Tips for Cambridge Exam Preparation: How to Keep the Focus on Learning and Learners
    Matt Adams, Spain;Ethan Mansur, Spain