I’ve been preparing students for EFL exams for 10 years now, and sadly there is still the perception that exam prep should consist of (frankly) mind-numbing ‘fill the gap’ or ‘read/listen to the text and answer the questions’ exam practice activities. More often than not learners end up staring at or hearing texts written by some unknown entity, rather than interacting with each other, or with the language itself. Adding insult to injury, these materials often have very little personal relevance to our students.
On top of that, it’s debatable whether using testing materials for teaching does any good at all. The name ‘practice activity’ should speak for itself. Surely if it’s ‘practice’, then the skill in question has already been developed. How is it possible to practise something you haven’t learned yet?
So why is it that we don’t practise (!) what we preach when it comes to exam classes? In my experience, most informed teachers are aware that this approach is flawed, but are unsure how to remedy it.
‘But what about if they’re already at the right level?’ I hear you cry. Agreed, this is often true, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the right set of sub-skills to perform successfully in all parts of the exam. If that IS the case, then maybe they don’t need to be doing an exam prep course in the first place.
In terms of what to teach, I’ve learnt a lot from noticing what the learners are NOT able to do. Let’s take the FCE speaking test part 3. Performance in the collaborative task is often unbalanced and disorganised. They talk too much or too little. They don’t link their ideas to those of the other speaker. To overcome this they would need:
- exponents for agreeing and disagreeing
- discourse markers for contrast, cause and effect, adding points
- exponents for interrupting
- effective turn-taking
- initiating and concluding
- encouraging contributions from other speakers
We know that developing automaticity requires repeated input and opportunity for focused output, so expecting students to perform such multiple skills simultaneously by thrusting a test book at them is clearly not going to work. I would therefore argue that the solution is to first use activities which develop these skills and language in isolation.
In my next post I will outline some tried and tested speaking activities related to Cambridge English: First, speaking part 3. What’s more, in this series I plan to debunk the myth that exam preparation is boring. Long live exam prep!