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Teaching Exam Prep Courses: Some Tips

Sharon de Hinojosa, Korea

Sharon holds a BA in Liberal Arts from the USA and an MA in TEFL from Spain. She started teaching while in
university and since then she has taught in Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Sharon is currently an assistant
professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon. E-mail:


International exams
In the beginning
Get parents involved
Giving homework
Exam tips
Testing/Assessing Students


Teaching exam classes are different than regular English courses as all students have a common goal, passing
the exam. Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that exam courses can't be fun. In fact, exam prep students are often
some of the most highly motivated students you will work with. It’s also easy to add a humanistic touch to the
classroom as students’ are usually at about the same level and can understand the teacher and jokes more easily.
Warmers, debates, games, and songs can also be used to make learning fun. Besides having fun, students need
to learn exam tricks and review grammar and vocabulary in order to increase their chances for passing.

The teacher's book often has invaluable resources that can help you out. In addition, the internet has a couple of
sites that can help you as well. If you have access to a library, the book "How to Teach Exams" has many tips
and tricks that can help you out.

English Test TOEFL

One Stop English Exams
Cambridge ESOL Exams

International Exams

TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge (PET, FCE, CAE are the most common) and Michigan are some of the most
popular international exams that students are taking. If you're asked to teach an exam class, go for it. Students
are often highly motivated and very interested in learning English. Below you will find some general guidelines
for teaching exam classes. There are five sections: In the Beginning, Getting Parents Involved, Giving
Homework, Exam Tips, and Testing your Students.
In the beginning

Know their level

Once you get the class list, you might want to see if the students studied before at your institute. If they have,
then you should be able to access their grades. This will give you a basic idea of their English level. The first
couple of classes, you'll want to try to get a better idea of their level. This can be done directly or indirectly.
Direct observation is done through pre-tests or talking with the students. Indirect observation can be done
through observation.

Make changes if necessary

This isn't always that popular, especially if you're moving a student down a level. But if you find that a student
is too low for the level, they should be moved down. If the student stays in the class, they will feel frustrated at
the fast pace/high level, and the other students will feel that the student is dragging them down.

Understanding their strengths and weaknesses will help

Many exams take an average of the grades from the reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, and
vocabulary. This is good news. That means that if a student does poorly in one area, if they do well in another
they can still pass the exam.

Get parents involved

If you teach children, then you should try to get their parents involved as well. Parents often pay for the exam,
so you want them to be well-informed.

How to Make Parents a Part of Their Child's Learning Experience

With our busy lifestyle, being overworked, and the fact that many children who study English do so because
their parents can afford it, means that parents aren't as involved as they should be. Many times they don't even
know the names of their child's teacher. With internet, email, and cell phones, there's no excuse that a parent
shouldn't know about their child's progress, after all, they are paying for it. Below you will find a couple of tips
on how to let parents know what's happening in their child's class.

Hold a general meeting

Pick a time that will be convenient for most parents to attend. It might be later at night, or on a Saturday, or
maybe both. At the meeting tell the parents about the books that you use, the syllabus that you follow, and show
them some of their child's work. If you don't speak the parent's native language, make sure you have someone
available who does.
You should also have another meeting at the end of the course, after the students have taken the practice test.
You should show the parents the results and make a final suggestion as to whether the student should take the
exam or not. Or possibly take a lower or higher exam. Remember exams are not cheap, so if students take them,
they want to be sure that they can pass

Parent-teacher conferences

Although they can take a toll on the teacher, they are beneficial to both the teacher and the parent. By meeting
together, they can talk about the child's strengths, weaknesses, and goals to be achieved. Just as in the general
meeting, make sure that you have the child's work, grades, and tests available for the parent to see. These can be
held once a semester or once a year.

Communicate regularly

I would argue about sending bulletins or newsletters home. There are a couple of reasons, first off, it's bad for
the environment. And second, many of the parents may not even get them. Children lose them or simply forget
to give them to their parents. The good news is that with email, communication is easy. And if your email
system allows it, you can tag the emails and be notified when the parents read the email. If your school has its
own intranet, you could try posting the information there as well.

There are a couple of things that you should keep in mind. First, be consistent. Whether you're going to
communicate once a week or once a month, make sure you keep to your word. Second, avoid sending notes on
Mondays and Fridays, those are usually the busiest. Aim for the middle of the weeks. Third, summarise what
has been done in class and what will be done in the future.

Be available

If parents have questions, they should be able to reach you. I'd advise against giving them your personal email
or phone number. However, they should know your work email and phone number and times when you can be

Giving homework

Mention homework and you're sure to elicit a couple of groans from your students. The problem is that often
teachers assign long, unnecessary, useless exercises for homework. Look at the suggestions below and you'll
find that although your students won't be bouncing off the walls when you give them a homework assignment,
they will stop complaining.


Homework should be given daily. Here's why: chances are that if you don't assign homework the majority of the
students aren't going to review what you did it class.

Keep it short and simple. Homework doesn't have to last 30 minutes or an hour. It can be a short assignment that
only takes up ten minutes. Your students could easily do that while waiting for the bus.

Make it relevant

Fill in the gap/blank grammar exercises are a necessary evil. But let's face it, when will your students be faced
with a task like that in real life? Probably never. So make the homework assignment relevant to their lives.
Creating schedule (present), describing people (present), explaining about how they met their partner (past),
talking about their favorite teacher (past), naming goals (future) or making predictions about their country
(future) are all relevant issues that can be used to practise grammar. But don't forget there's more to learning
than just grammar, for example reading.

Comprehension questions are the norm in EFL classes, but again, not very relevant to real life. Opinion and T/F
questions are good. In fact, I would try asking your students to simply read an (online, newspaper, magazine)
article, tell the class about it and give their opinion on what they read. Students would enjoy doing that more
than simply answering questions.

Listening is a bit harder to do. But can be done. Especially with the internet or cable TV. Ask students to listen
to something (news, movies, interviews, even youtube), though I would probably be against having them listen
to music. Lyrics being what they are, they're probably too difficult to understand due to all the noise, or
grammatically incorrect. Then, like the reading, explain a couple of things they learnt/remembered, or what the
segment was about. Then have them give their opinion if applicable.

Speaking can be a challenge and for some students embarrassing. If students have friends or family members
that speak English, then it might be easier. If they don't, they might be able to speak to English speakers
studying or working at the school where they are. The problem is that often this is an artificial environment.
Students usually ask set questions or do a survey, which is something that they might not have to do outside of
the classroom. Even so you should try to assign speaking homework.

Don't assign homework at the end of class

Typical classes are often wrapped up by the teacher saying, "Ok class, do exercises A and B on page 27." This is
bad, very bad. Students might not have heard what the homework was, they will probably forget because they
are rushing out of class, and nothing was explained. Give homework at the beginning or middle of class. If for
example, you correct homework at the beginning, you could assign the new homework right after that. Write the
assignment down on the board and go over the exercise to make sure the students know what is expected.
Another idea is to assign homework after you deal with the particular teaching point you were practising.

Acknowledge it

Obviously if you have many classes and you assign daily homework, it'll be nearly impossible for you to correct
it all. And don't even try. While there are many reasons for homework: to practise, to show you what the student
knows, so the student knows what their weak areas are, etc, correcting every homework assignment will just
leave you bitter and exhausted. You should go over the assignment and correct it as a class. Students can check
their own or exchange papers. The biggest advantage to grading in class is that if a student has a question, he
can ask you then and there and you can answer it. Chances are other students will have questions about the
same issue. While you shouldn't grade every assignment, you should mark down who has their homework and
who doesn't. Then at the end of the term, you can give points for each completed assignment.

Do grade some homework. Whether you tell your students ahead of time which pieces of homework will be
graded or simply randomly choose, you will need grades for your students. I'd suggest trying to get a grade a
week. And as mentioned above, you can easily have your students grade their assignments during class.

Exam tips

General Exam/Test Taking Tips

● Read and follow all the instructions. It only takes a minute or two and can save you a lot of time if you look at
the instructions. Completing the task is an integral part of the exam and you can't do that if you don't follow the

● Forget cramming. It wouldn't work. If you don't know the information a couple of days before the test, you
simply don't know it. You should study a little every day rather than trying to learn everything the night before.

● Eat breakfast. It's the most important meal of the day and is necessary to help you think.

● Bring your materials. Have your pencils, erasers, watch, and ID ready the night before.

● Go early. Traffic, rain, or a flat tire can happen on test days. Make sure you leave your house ahead of time so
that you get to the class a few minutes before the test begins.

● Pace yourself. Don't work too slowly or too quickly. Keep an eye on your watch so you know how much time
you have left. If you've finished early, go back and check your answers.

● Check your answers. Make sure you haven't made any simple mistakes. And if you have, change them.

● Don't panic. It's just a test. The worst you can do is fail

Specific Tips for Reading

● First and last. Read the first and last sentences of each paragraph. They usually contain the most important
● Exact wording doesn't mean it's correct. Often in exams you will find exact words of phrases from the text in
the answers. That doesn't mean that it makes it correct. Exam writers will often make one negative and the other
positive. Make sure you read carefully.

● They're in order. Questions are usually taken from the text in order. The answer to the first question can be
found in the beginning of the text. And the answer to the last can be found at the end.

● You don't have to understand it all. Don't spend your time trying to figure out every word. There are going to
be words that you don't understand. That's ok, just try to understand the main idea.

● Use visuals. Use the title and photos to help you.

Specific Tips for Writing

● Keep to the word limit if there is one. 250 words means that your target should be around there. Too much
and you're beating around the bush. Too little and it means you don't know enough grammar or vocabulary. Let
your students know that they shouldn't waste their time counting every single word. It's highly unlikely that the
teacher will. Instead, they should count how many words are on one line then multiple it by the number of lines
they've written.

● Answer all the questions. There are usually a few questions that need to be answered in each writing task.
Make sure you answer all of them and allocate enough words for each section.

● Make an outline. Time is limited for writing exams, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take the time to
plan. Creating a basic plan or outline is necessary for you to organise your ideas. It doesn't have to be complex,
just some notes that will help you.

● Write legibly. Your handwriting doesn't have to be perfect, but the teacher needs to be able to read it.

● Proof-read and edit. Mistakes are made by everyone, even native speakers. Words are spelt wrong or omitted,
or the grammar is wrong. For this reason, you should always re-read what you have written and fix the
mistakes. If there are no mistakes, see if you can make some simple changes (often to vocabulary words) to
make your paper better.

Specific Tips for Listening

● Skim the questions beforehand. This way you'll know what you should be listening for. Figure out if you'll
need dates, times, names, verbs, etc.
● Beware of false answers. Often in the listenings, the speaker will mention all the opinions. But only one of
them is correct. The correct one is often said last, so don't just pick the first answer you hear.

● Don't tune out. You have to listen to the entire thing.

● Be ready. The first answer to the first question might be in the first sentence. So start listening right from the

● Synonyms and antonyms. Sometimes none of the answers look correct. This might because of synonyms and
antonyms. For example if the speaker say, "My friend's not tall." the answer might be "short".

● 100% or nothing. Your answer should be 100% correct.

Specific Tips for Speaking

● Keep talking. While 30 seconds or 2 minutes may not seem like a long time, it does drag on if you're not
doing anything, so talk. When the examiner asks you a question, you should continue talking until they say
"thank you". Make sure that what you say make sense. Don't just talk to fill up the time.

● Take turns. When speaking with another student, make sure you take turns. If the other student seems shy, ask
them questions to get them involved in the conversation. Don't dominate the conversation.

● Ask for clarification. If you don't understand what is being asked, ask the examiner to repeat or rephrase the

● Don't memorise. Don't think that you can memorise answers. There are many questions that the examiner can
ask you.

● Variety is the spice of life. When using grammar, make sure you use a variety of the past, present, and future

● General and specific. If asked to describe a photo, talk about the general as well as the specific details. You
can imagine what just happened, what will happen, or how the people feel in the photo. There are no correct
answers, the examiner wants to see how well you speak English.

● Using your five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch will help you describe photos.

Specific Tips for Grammar

● Look at the subject. Make sure the verb agrees with the subject of the sentence.
● Watch the tense. If the sentence is in past, the verb should be in past too.

● Don't make simple mistakes. Remember the 3rd person singular "s"!

● Know parts of speech. This will help you figure out what information is missing from fill in the blank/gap

● Take notes. When you get the exam/test, write the forms and function at the top so you have something to
refer back to.

Specific Tips for Vocabulary

● No blanks. Guess if you have to, but don't leave any blanks on a test.

● Eliminate answers. If there are four and you can eliminate two, then you have a 50-50 chance of guessing the
right answer.

● Move on. If you don't know the answer, don't spend too much time on it. Either guess and go to the next one.
Or leave it blank and come back to it at the end.

● Go with your first answer. It's usually the correct one. Unless you're absolutely sure that it's wrong, don't
change it.

● Same letter. Sometimes you may find the same letter repeating itself. For example, the last five answers may
have all been A. That's ok. Don't second guess yourself.

Testing/Assessing Students

Although tests and an exam are a necessary evil of classes, there are things that you can do to make them easier
for both you and your students.

● Only test what you have taught. This includes the content and the structure of the exam. Content refers to the
specific grammar or vocabulary points. And structure refers to the layout of the exam. For example, if you've
only given them exercises where they've had to circle the correct answer, it wouldn't be fair to give them fill in
the blank/gap exercises.
● Buy an exam book. Often the teacher's book will have a test section. You'll make your life a lot easier if you
use some of the exercises from the teacher's book. I'm not saying to copy the whole thing, but you could use
some and then supplement the rest with your own ideas.

● Be strict. As far as talking, borrowing pencils, erasers, etc, don't allow it. Tell students ahead of time and be
sure that your coordinator or director backs you up. If they need a pencil or eraser, make sure that you have
some extras on hand.

● Check answers together. There are a couple benefits of checking exams together. First, it's less work for you.
Second, students get their results back faster. If you're going to check the exam during class, make sure that the
students only have a pen on their desk. Writing is the one exception, you're going to have to check that by
yourself. However, if you use rubrics, it'll make checking writing a whole lot faster.

● Stagger your tests. If you teach different levels, have tests on different days so you don't have to do all the
grading at once. For example, test the intermediate students on Monday and the advanced students on Tuesday.

● Save your tests. While you probably can't use them right away, you might be able to use the same exercises
for different levels. This is especially true for grammar. And for reading, you could copy the text and simply
write different questions.

● Proof-read. You're bound to make a typo or two, so before you sent your exam to be printed, proof-read it. Or
better yet, have someone else proof-read it.

● Do your tests ahead of time. It might not be fun, but sitting down one day and getting all your tests done for a
class will save you from getting stressed later on.

● Make an answer key. This is especially necessary if other teachers are going to use your test. Or if you save
your tests.

● Vary the exercises. Fill in the blank/gap, True/False, Fix the mistake, Matching, Multiple choice, are all
possible exercises that can be used on exams.

● Make them easy to grade. Don't overuse fill in the blank/gap exercises, they're harder to grade and students
might ask for partial credit if they have part of it correct.

● Do a practice test. A practice test needs to cover the entire exam. Therefore you're going to have to coordinate
times and dates for when it can be done. Follow the schedule of the exam your students will be taking. For
example, if the actual exam takes two days, then so should the practice exam. Get help from other teachers if
needed. Ideally another teacher should give your students the speaking part of the exam. Make sure you
reproduce exam conditions. When you've finished grading, give feedback to your students.

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