Exam preparation: exam info and tips


Find info about popular exams and tips for exam courses.

Apart from preparing for exams designed in their own country, students sometimes plan to take internationally recognised exams, either for university entry, career advancement or personal ambition. Most students will be planning to take their exam in their own country after their course here. Typically these exams test all skills ie speaking, listening, reading and writing. However students usually want help with speaking and writing as these skills require more input from a teacher. Usually teachers will need to use some exam-specific materials, as well as other materials.

How to Prepare Students

Before your student arrives, it is extremely helpful to know which elements of an exam they want to focus on. This will provide you with the backbone of your course syllabus. In practice, most students will want help with their speaking and writing. 


In addition to your normal materials, you may need to use or refer to special exam preparation or exam practice materials. Exam exercises are ideal for the student to do outside lesson time ie in the late afternoon or evening. This can be discussed when a student is placed with you. Homelingua will normally provide such materials for your use. Depending on the material it is either returned to Homelingua at the end of the course, or the student takes it with them.

Possible lesson content

Some students will have a clear idea about what they want to study. Others will want you to provide more advice. One way to put together a syllabus is to assess your student after they have attempted some exam questions (as homework) by breaking down English language skills into some of their components. Looking at the table below you can see how writing can be assessed by considering not simply grammar but the range and appropriacy of vocabulary and how ideas are connected and organised.

For students who like precision, you can give a grade from 1 to 5 for each component of each relevant skill.

Speaking: Individual sounds, Intonation, Fluency and linking, Silence-filling hesitation sounds, Choice and range of vocabulary

Writing: Use of vocabulary and appropriate register, Use of structures and grammar, Linking sentences with suitable adverbs etc, Planning and organisation, Answering the question

Listening: Catching the general idea, Picking out particular info, Understanding what the speaker really means or intends, Appreciating moods and attitudes, Guessing vocabulary

Reading: Overall meaning, Skim reading for the gist, Scanning for particular information, Understanding of detail, Appreciating the tone of the writing

Vocabulary: Range, style, accuracy etc

Grammar: Use and formation of tenses, questions, punctuation, phrasal verbs, irregular verbs, conditionals, clauses, verbs, passives etc etc

After discussing your assessment with your student, you can set about focussing on key areas.

Example Activities (depending on level and exam type) 

  • Interview. Simulating these is very helpful for students. Record such interviews on tape and play back to student for self-assessment. Do remedial work on weak components and repeat interview.
  • Planning writing. Student spends 5 minutes planning an introduction and paragraphs.
  • Skim reading. Student spends 2 minutes looking for the main points of a text
  • Correct homework together. Use errors to teach correct usage
  • Note taking. Student takes notes on 5-minute talk you give. Notes can be in mother tongue. Student then summarises.
  • Building vocabulary. Help student to extend vocabulary with near synonyms and word maps   

Common Exams

Cambridge Exams http://www.cambridgeesol.org

UK based but with test centres worldwide. Test all four skills. Five levels of general English exam from elementary to very advanced:

  • Key English Test (KET) – level A2 (elementary)
  • Preliminary English Test (PET) – level B1 (intermediate)
  • First Certificate in English (FCE) – level B2 (upper intermediate)
  • Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) – C1 (advanced)
  • Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) – C2 (very advanced)

IELTS (International English Language Testing System). http://www.ielts.org/default.aspx

Cambridge, British Council and Australian production. This is becoming a very important global exam. Tests 4 skills. There are General Training or Academic versions (most popular for Homelingua students) for the reading and writing elements of the exam. You cannot fail this exam but rather get a score between 1 and 9. Most students achieve levels 4 to 7. Students wanting to go start a higher education course will usually need a score of 6 to 7.5 (depending on course and institution)

IELTS score:

1 Non user
2 Intermittent user (beginner)
3 Extremely limited user (approx Common European Framework of Reference Level = A1)
4 Limited user (A2)
5 Modest user (B1)
6 Competent user (B2 at 5.5)
7 Good user (C1 at 6.5)
8 Very good user (C2 at 7.5)
9 Expert user

TOEFL http://www.ets.org/toefl

Paper-based version is 3 skills (no speaking). Scores range from 310 to 677.

Internet-based version is a four-skill test. Scores range from 0 to 120.
Consult website for more information.

TOEIC http://www.ets.org/toeic

Listening and reading test or speaking and writing test.
Consult website for more information

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