Teaching Exam Classes – #eltchinwag summary – 8/09/2014

An #eltchinwag summary written by Gareth Sears of Centro de Idiomas Macarena, Seville.


Gareth Sears

Gareth started EFL teaching when he moved to Spain  and is currently working for the Centro de Idiomas Macarena in Seville. His background in sound technology fuels his interest in the creation and use of audio tools for ELT and he is equally fascinated second language identity and pronunciation. 


He is @GarethSears on Twitter

A warm welcome back to you all! We’ve gone full cycle and Monday 8th of September saw in the first #eltchinwag of the new academic year. The atmosphere was wonderfully warm and as inviting as ever, with a great mix of new faces as well as some long standing veterans ready to enthusiastically wag chins over the hot topics of ELT. The votes were counted and this week we decided to jump straight into the deep end by discussing exam classes…

Preparation for exam classes

Being a new academic year, preparation was the obvious choice to get things started and the group was unanimous in the importance of getting to grips with the exam format. Colourful metaphors abounded, with students being likened to “pack hounds” in their hunger for details (@ChristineMulla) and it was said teachers needed “oracle”-like knowledge of the format (@KateLloyd05) to sate this hunger. Unfortunately, no quick fixes exist although there’re a lot of great resources to help us. @Jane_Seely stressed that there’s no substitute for doing the tasks yourself (especially for higher levels like CAE and CPE). She also said that it’s worth getting acquainted with a local assessor to ask for information, although as @annamalikmorris pointed out, this should never be at the expense of learning for yourself. @ChristineMulla was quick to add that there’s no shame in having an exam synopsis to hand as the devilish details can escape even the most thorough teachers, especially when changes are taking place, such as in the Cambridge FCE and CAE exams next year (as kindly mentioned by @KateLloyd05, thanks!).

At this point it shouldn’t go without saying…

…don’t make things up if you don’t know – @KateLloyd05

As @Jane_Seely said, this “can be tempting if you’re flustered but resist or it could be disastrous!” and we all agreed. It takes an awful lot of time to rebuild student-teacher confidence if you get caught out, which could otherwise be saved by a quick “let me check”.

First Classes

Following preparation, @ELTIreland asked the group how we could best approach the first class. @Jane_Seely recommended outlining the exam and giving students an idea what’s in store via sample questions. @bealer81 went further by suggesting demonstrations:

Showing sts videos of other candidates taking that exam is something I always try to do. Great for analysis.

There are a host of these on YouTube, such this one, and I strongly recommend having a hunt for yourself. I chipped in at this point in the #eltchinwag stating the importance of doing a needs analysis to establish what @ChristineMulla termed the “Who, why, done before, score, skills etc.” of each student. Some said that rolling intakes (where there’s no fixed first class and students change regularly) can make this tricky, although @annamalikmorris said this can be overcome by “coming back to it often”. I think this applies in general as much as with rolling intakes, be it in the form of exam format quizzes or simply revisiting a video and analysing it from a different angle. More exposure never hurts.

What do you say if it just isn’t doable? – @KateLloyd05

A terrifying prospect, especially early on in the year, but there’s a real chance that a particular student might not be ready for an exam that they’d like to take, especially if it’s in the near future. What do you say? Two schools of thought emerged. Firstly, as difficult as it may be, you can be direct and honest with the student.

Be upfront if they’re not going to get the score they need at this stage – @Jane_Seely

Better to be honest with them about their possibilities. – @MicaelaCarey

The second was a more hands off approach:

Ss need to learn it for themselves I think. We can advise, then show Ss doing exams, for example, and get Ss to compare themselves. – @ChristineMulla

By exposing students to enough information and models they’ll probably develop an understanding of their abilities, empowering them to make their own decision which may be better for their confidence. You can suggest options to students in both of these cases, such as different exams or trying to delay the date (@Jane_Seely).

Exams vs real life

I tend to treat my exam classes like they’re in a little bubble! – @Jane_Seely

It’s a habit we can all fall into, especially when there’s pressure to pass and tunnel vision sets in. Yet how do we relate exam based learning to real life? That was the next question posed by @ELTIreland. Fleshing out questions by topics certainly breaks the monotony and is essential on extensive courses such as those taken by @KateLloyd05, where it “all can’t be exam”. Luckily, some real life tasks were mentioned by our chinwaggers that develop real life skills in tandem with the important exam stuff:

Forums where Ss share experiences are helpful, esp for time management tips – @MihaelaOlariu

speakings are interview situations where you ‘sell-yourself’. Roleplays? – @GarethSears

Totally: interview for a school/competition/job/visa/volunteering post…endless list. – @ChristineMulla

Get teens to hashtag instagram photos + odd exam pics. Relevant pic vocab revision. – @GarethSears

Also language skills in general should not be overlooked. For example, receptive strategies such as scanning and skimming texts when reading or listening for specific information are universally applicable and it’s worth highlighting them as worthy skills in their own right to students.

Expanding on Course books

Exam focused books were also mentioned as being a great resource as they are often organised by topic, giving a strong platform to build materials from. Thus the conversation steered toward techniques to developing the book materials, using the following example:

4 person conversation planning a trip – exam task done. How do you expand and make real life? – @ELTIreland

Role plays were mentioned as a great start, especially if they involve constraints such as getting students to argue a particular case:

Ss can role-play a mishap e.g. hotel they want is closed, no tickets for a trip and they have to solve the problem. Could get them to decide personal trip preferences before the conversation, so have to disagree/change minds. – @ChristineMulla

Tell them which POV they have so they have to argue the other side – @GarethSears

Great for Pearson exams where they have to argue the opposite to examiner – @KateLloyd05

Or even introducing different roles based on awkward exam speaking partners, such as the quiet/indecisive/rude one!

Assign roles; nominate the indecisive/rude one; they always ask how to deal if speaking partners are horrible! – @Jane_Seely

Don’t forget register! Not only how to shut someone up, but politely! – @Jane_Seely

Supplementing them with authentic materials can also add a bit of spice:

Bring in realia? Real leaflets for Irish bus tours, sts negotiate where they can go on a “class trip”? @Jane_Seely

Get them to gather some & bring it in for other grps as well. all material comes from them – @McLaughlinLou

The final suggestion mentioned was to develop the book’s listening materials or find others to focus on native speaker strategies for fluency, such as fillers and discourse markers in addition to the questions themselves:

listen to the radio talk show “Steve Wright in the afternoon” for agreement and disagreement opinion markers – @MihaelaOlariu

Make their own show afterwards! – @ChristineMulla

Fun to get them to listen to recorded native speakers & count amount of fillers used. – @McLaughlinLou

Making writing more engaging

Following course books, we moved on to discussing writing tasks. Writing can often be overlooked against communicative skills, particularly as it tends to be quite an individual process. As such, the next question posed to the group was how can we make it more engaging with our classes?

@MicaelaCarey put forward the idea of empowering students with choice, allowing them to pick from a selection of tasks to find something more in tune with their interests. Focussing on process rather than product, as mentioned by @KateLloyd05,  is another great way to provide creative opportunities as well as to get the class talking. Finally, a number of our #eltchinwag-gers mentioned writing in groups, either as pairs or in jigsaw based tasks (where a student writes the first part of a writing and passes it on for another student to write the second part, etc.). These again are fantastic ways to surprise students with ideas that aren’t their own:

e.g. Opinion essay – 1 group for, 1 against, write 1st paragraph, swap, write second, repeat, read final essay. – @ChristineMulla

IELTS – presenting on a process, then writing the process for someone’s presentation. Engaging + all skills. – @ChristineMulla

I’m a big fan of jigsaw writing, can produce really interesting and sometimes hilarious results! –  @Jane_Seely

Making feedback more engaging 

By this point time was almost up, although there was just enough left to have a quick-fire brainstorm on how to make feedback more engaging. @McLaughlinLou jumped in first, suggesting turning the tables and having students play the examiner using a rubric or otherwise justifying their results and comments. This was seconded by @KateLloyd05, who said how teens especially loved the role reversal. @Jane_Seely had a number of fine suggestions to add as well. Firstly, she suggested displaying the bigger picture to students by presenting their scores in relation to their previous marks so they can see their progress. Then she put forward the idea of having them self assess as much as possible, allowing students to take charge of their own feedback process. Her final idea was to set up an in-class peer mentoring scheme so students could have a clear support network amongst themselves. All great ideas! A more activity styled task was given by @ChristineMulla, where common speaking errors are cut up and distributed around the class so students can correct or enhance them as an alternative to using the board for delayed error correction.

It’s also worth remembering that feedback doesn’t just apply to students:

Get regular feedback about your classes, see how you can help sts, make classes more interesting for them. – @annamalikmorris

Seek advice, have your lessons observed and ask the students themselves for feedback on a regular basis. This will inevitably help you to make your classes more engaging as a whole and to become a better teacher.

Well, that’s all for this summary. I’m sure the next #eltchinwag will be just as engaging and I hope you can all swing by. Many thanks to our moderators @ELTIreland and @Jane_Seely and a big hello to all the new faces. Looking forward to hearing more from you in the weeks to come! Here are some links I’ve thrown together, hope you all find them useful!

Teacher Resources 

Websites by exam: Cambridge exam teacher resources / Pearson PTE / Trinity / GESE / IELTS


Cambridge exam resources: Flo-Joe Students Website







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