Long Live Exam Prep!- Part Minus One: The First Lesson.


Whoops! I really should have started at the beginning. So here’s part ‘Minus One’.

The majority of exam classes (at least in Italy) take place in secondary schools. This post is mainly aimed at teachers of these courses, but could be applied to any exam prep class.

Usually Italian kids who have chosen to do PET / FCE / CAE / IELTS stay on at school after their normal lessons for another couple of hours. You often have a 20 hour course to prepare them for PET, 30 hours for FCE or CAE or IELTS. The students tend not to be from the same class or year group. So some of them know each other and some of them don’t. Sometimes they’ve done a test to establish their level before being accepted on the course…sometimes they haven’t.

What can occur as a result is the stuff of TEFL nightmares.

A scenario

  • You get lost driving to the school because your GPS sent you through a field half way up a mountain. You arrive late.
  • You get to the room and there are no students. You realise you’re in the wrong building (nobody told you there were two buildings!) you run to the other building and you’re even more late.
  • You walk into the building and the caretaker doesn’t know who you are or what course you’re talking about.
  • The caretaker speaks to you in the local dialect and you have no idea what she is talking about
  • The students stand up as you walk in and you look at them blankly because you wonder if they’re going somewhere.
  • You have to give out books and collect money and you forget how many books you have and who’s given you the money and this is all eating away at your lesson time.
  • There’s no IWB.
  • There’s no WiFi.
  • There’s no CD player.
  • There’s only a blackboard and there’s no chalk.
  • You have to try to remember the names of 25 kids, and 5 of them are called Marco.
  • Students come and ask you if they can change classes/how much the course/exam is and you really don’t have a clue (or care! you’re desperately trying to get on with the lesson you’ve planned).
  • You realise you can’t do the Reading part 1 you’d spent hours planning because 10 of them forgot to bring the money for the book.
  • Now you’ve got their attention. They’re sitting in front of you in rows. Nobody says anything in English. There’s a deathly silence that’s making you sweat.
  • A kid at the back says something in a dialect that you don’t understand and everyone laughs. You go the colour of a beetroot and yearn for the green pastures of home.
  • A person (you have no idea who it is, they don’t bother to introduce themselves) walks in and starts talking to the class. They all stand up again. You wonder if it’s a fire drill or something.
  • You ask them to ‘work in pairs’ and they look at you blankly.
  • You realise that two of the students you thought were reading are actually asleep.

A conclusion

After living this scenario (or parts of it) for several years I came to the conclusion that to have a successful first lesson in a state school you should:

  • get there really early
  • move the desks
  • use little or no resources.
  • not rely on any technology
  • get them talking immediately
  • establish appropriate classroom behaviour immediately (working in pairs, speaking in English, level of formality between teacher and student)
  • learn their names as soon as possible
  • make it student focused not book focused
  • not let the pace drop for too long (or they will literally fall asleep)



In Part Minus Two I’ll suggest a handy lesson plan that can be applied to all mainstream exam prep courses B1-C2.



Long Live Exam Prep! (part 2)

WP_20160205_14_15_21_ProLong Live Exam Prep! Part 2

In part one I outlined some of the problems students and teachers alike have with EFL exam preparation. As promised, here are some speaking activities that aim to help build and develop the sub-skills needed for the Cambridge English: First (FCE) speaking part 3 collaborative task.

Activity A- agreeing and disagreeing

  1. Ask your students what they want to talk about, tell them they can choose any topic they like, and board the topics they suggest.  You’ll probably end up with something like this:

music, food, films, sport, fashion, travel

  1. Ask students in pairs to quickly give each other an opinion on each of the topics, saying for example who their favourite actor/football team/singer is and why. This gets them thinking about the topics and ‘scaffolds’ the main activity. As they’re talking, monitor and give support.
  1. Cut up and distribute the following expressions so that they have one each. You can add your own to this collection as you think of them.
You’ve got a point. I’m not so sure
I’m with you there. No way!
I see where you’re coming from.  I can’t agree, I’m afraid.
You might be right there Actually, I’m not convinced.

Ask students when these expressions would be used (to agree and disagree). Elicit which ones are which and help anyone who isn’t sure. If you make multiple sets, you could have them sort the expressions into two categories. Drill them as necessary for intonation and word stress. I use finger clicking to highlight the stress patterns.

  1. Now they stand up, mingle and find a partner. You shout out one of the topics.  They give their opinion on the topic in pairs, agreeing or disagreeing with one another regardless of their real opinion, using the expression on the card.  Monitor and collect examples of accurate and inaccurate learner language, but don’t interrupt the activity.
  1. After a few minutes, stop the discussion and ask them to exchange cards so they have a different expression. Then tell them to find a new partner. Call out a different topic and repeat. Keep going until they start to lose momentum.
  1. Deal with any language issues that came up and give some positive feedback too.

Activity B- contrasting (to be used after activity A)

Repeat the above activity, only this time student B has to add another contrasting piece of information after the agree/disagree phrase using ‘Having said that.…’ . For example:

Student A- I’d say that fashion is a waste of time.

Student B- You’ve got a point.  Having said that, I do appreciate good quality.

Remember to drill the stress: ‘Having SAID that…’.

Why (I think!) it works

  • Meeting the Exam Criteria

Discourse Management

To achieve B2 in this marking category a speaker must be able to use ‘a range of cohesive devices’ (multiple authors, 82:2015). Using the contrasting expression ‘Having said that…’ helps achieve this. It also gives them a useful tool to weigh different arguments and produce long developed answers.

Communicative Achievement

Being able to agree and disagree in a variety of ways would come under ‘initiates and responds appropriately’ (ibid.). While activity B helps them to ‘maintain and develop the interaction and negotiate towards an outcome’ (ibid.).

  • Repetition without being boring

Students get to talk about different topics and use different expressions, but are learning/developing/practising the same skill(s). The repeated use of only one linking expression means that it is more likely to be remembered. How many times have we expected our students to memorise endless lists of linkers? Very rarely are they able to reproduce this vocabulary in spontaneous speech.

  • Personalisation and focus on the learner

Learners get to choose the subjects that they’re interested in instead of being forced into an unnatural discussion about an imposed topic. Using a mingle activity means this discussion takes on the characteristics of an informal chat with one of their peers, rather than formally practising (yawn!) for an exam.

  • Focused on specific skills

The performance load is limited and therefore more realistic, giving the students a higher chance of success, resulting in (we hope) a higher level of motivation.

  • Similarity to L1

I chose having said that because my students were all Italian and their language has a similar parallel equivalent (detto questo- literally said this). As a result, I found that after this short activity the students were immediately (yes, immediately!) able to use the expression spontaneously in both written and spoken production. Success! It certainly seems like a monolingual group benefits if you adapt the target language as necessary.


Would this approach work with your students?

How could you adapt it for your teaching situation?


In part three I’ll suggest some writing activities for Cambridge English:First (FCE) and Preliminary (PET).



Multiple authors (2015). Cambridge English First:Handbook for Teachers. Cambridge:UCLES

Retrieved from: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/cambridge-english-first-handbook-2015.pdf

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 2)

In part 1 of this article I explained how you can start of encouraging learner autonomy in the classroom from the first day’s homework assignment.

It’s part of a four-step procedure in which students can independently select, read and prepare texts for homework (step 1) and do a carrousel activity (step 2) to share what they’d read and learned.

Now I’m going to describe steps 3 and 4, including how to lead a follow-up discussion and help students overcome difficulties they may have had sourcing authentic texts.

3. Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis (day 2, part 2)

Once you’ve wrapped up the carousel, it’s now time to focus on discussion of the task itself. This is the kind of meta-analysis that also helps encourage autonomy, as you’re asking students to make judgments about their own learning processes and study techniques, as well as classroom activity.

When monitoring the carousel or the small-group discussion that followed, you may notice that some students confess to having had difficulty with the task, some even coming to class saying, “Here’s my text! But I barely understood anything!” I regularly observe that a few students:

  • Can’t discern whether their text is fact or opinion
  • Choose texts written in non-proficient English
  • Don’t self-select for difficulty (usually choosing impossibly difficult texts)

The result can be frustrating for some students. But as a teacher trying to encourage learner autonomy I want these difficulties and frustrations to come out immediately, and not further on down the course.

It’s a teaching moment, and we can start a discussion about what’s difficult about sourcing authentic texts (including topic unfamiliarity, grammatical and lexical complexity, density, relative lack of other clues, text length) which leads to discussing important criteria in text selection: motivation (choosing texts interest them enough to overcome some of the difficulties inherent in authentic texts) and self-grading (choosing texts that represent a linguistically manageable challenge). You can also board and discuss the sources students used (the specific online newspapers, academic journals, blogs, etc.) and discuss the pros and cons of using each one.

Remember, these are all things they consider (however unconsciously) when surfing the internet in L1. You just need to make it clear that they should apply transfer the same skills to L2 reading.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Write a guide: After discussing and boarding ideas about the challenges of authentic texts, have groups write a guide for the class with tips for next time (e.g. Choose a 1-2 page text. Choose a L2 text on a familiar topic.). They can write their guide in the form of a magazine article, letter or simply bullet points. Next time you assign a similar homework task, ask them to pull out their guide, follow their own instructions and see if it works ― or what they would revise.


4. Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

For homework (or, if you teach 4-hour blocks like I used to in Istanbul, in class), you can bring the class back to focus collectively on a single text. This will reassure those who struggled with the text they found or with the unrestricted nature of the task.

Have the class vote on the text they found the most interesting (it can be one they heard about from the “source” ― i.e. the original presenter ― or from a small group member in the wrap-up discussion) and assign it for homework.

You can assign the original reader a different task, like creating comprehension questions (to be sent by email to the others) or identifying and creating a quiz on the key grammar and vocabulary for the following week. If you’ve got a grammar syllabus, find some key grammar point contained in the text and jump to that section of the coursebook or grammar reference (if you don’t want to do it on the spot, tell the students you’ll assign a grammar point within 48 hours and email them the homework).


Conclusion: Where to go from there

By starting with an activity like this, you’re not just paying lip service to learner autonomy, you’re actually putting it into practice. And more importantly, you’re laying the foundations for an in-class culture of learner autonomy that will (I believe) help contribute to a richer learning experience for both your students and you.

In future articles, I’ll explore more activities and procedures for encouraging learner autonomy in the ELT classroom.
In the meantime, how do you promote a culture of learner autonomy in your classroom?

Promoting learner autonomy from day one: individual selection of reading texts in the ELT classroom (Part 1)

I believe that promoting learner autonomy is essential for both success and enjoyment in classroom language learning.

What is learner autonomy in the EFL classroom? In terms of the classes I teach I broadly define it as learners making decisions about what we do during the course.

This simple definition includes the idea that they are part of a class (“we”) gathered for a specific duration, and that decisions can be made both individually and collectively, in relation to classroom activity and out-of-class homework.

One of most straightforward ways to encourage this is giving students choice over the texts and topics we study in class and for homework.

Here is one activity for promoting autonomous choice of texts and topics that I’ve used with upper-intermediate and advanced EFL classes, adults and high school kids (but could conceivably be used in many other contexts).

Autonomy in text choice: day 1 reading homework

The first day of a new course is not only for introductions and getting to know each other, but also for establishing expectations about the rest of the term. If you plan to promote learner autonomy, there’s no better time to start.

At the end of day one of the course, I give the following homework assignment:

For homework, find something interesting to read on the internet. Print it out, read it and bring it. Be prepared to talk about it with your classmates.

That means everybody will come to class with a different reading text. Sounds like a recipe for classroom chaos, right? What do you do with all those texts?

Actually, this is part of a multi-step procedure which I’m going to explain in-depth below (steps 1 and 2) and in the next post (steps 3 and 4).

  • Independent text selection/reading
  • Student interaction/peer sharing
  • Teacher-led discussion and task-analysis
  • Whole class single-text intensive reading (optional)

Just to be clear up-front, this isn’t a warmer, or something you squeeze in between other activities. The in-class portions (Part 2 & 3) could easily run 1½ ― 2 hours. In other words, this is your class.

As you’ll see, this process gives students autonomous choice within the group (perhaps their first in a language class), offers maximum speaking practice (while putting new lexis into use), addresses problems of and offers support for developing learner autonomy and opens new doors to future lessons and the course as a whole.

1. Independent text selection/reading

As stated above, the task asks students to find a text for reading and study, and be prepared to share it with their classmates.

When I assign the homework I emphasize that they’ve got total control over topic, source and text genre (it could be an article, a blog post, a letter to the editor, an advertisement, anything as long as it’s written).

I don’t usually front-load this first homework assignment with extra tasks, but depending on your teaching style or context, you could add the following tweaks to the assignment:

  • Write a 100-word summary
  • Write down, define and write an example sentence for 10 keywords/phrases essential for understanding the text

2. Student interaction/peer sharing (day 2, part 1)

In the next lesson, students share what they’ve read. You could put students in pairs, but the best thing about this situation is that everybody’s got something interesting and different, and I don’t like to limit them to a 1-1 exchange.

It’s also good to remember that at this point you’ve got no idea what they’ve actually brought in. There is no central text, but many different texts, and you’ll want to see and hear about as many as possible.

So instead of pairwork what I like to do instead is have students do a carousel, an activity that I picked up long ago from Scott Thornbury’s invaluable How to Teach Speaking (called “The Poster Carousel” there, on p. 87). Here’s my applied (and modified) version:

The carousel

Have everybody tape their texts to the wall. Half the class stands by their articles, the other half circulates. Students can stop and ask about any articles that look interesting (based on the headlines). They can stay and chat or move on. Then the groups switch. This allows everyone to get to hear from multiple people about different topics, while also giving “presenters” repetition practice as they explain their article to different audiences. Encourage students to ask questions ― it’s a discussion, not a real presentation.

Tweaks and interventions

  • Rehearsal: Before taping up their articles, have everybody take a few minutes to review their text again. If you haven’t asked them to do it as part of the homework, ask them to now write down 10 key words/phrases from the text which will help them explain it from memory. This gives them essential rehearsal time so they don’t simply read from their text on the wall.
  • Constraints: To manage circulation, give students limits, e.g. 15 minutes to hear from 3 presenters (but it doesn’t have to be 5 minutes at each ― encourage them to invest time relative to their interest level).
  • Lexis collection: Students have to collect a set number of key phrases from each presenter.
  • Monitor for language related to explaining, summarizing, asking and answering questions, etc. You can intervene to help students individually, or stop the group mid-task and model/board essential language.

One of the best things about the carrousel activity is that rather than obtrusively looming over (or crouching next to) students as they discuss their texts, you can mingle with them, monitor and note-take much less obtrusively, and have a peek at their articles. And as with any student good activity, your lack of information about article content actually gives you a genuine need to listen and find out more.

But if you’re not used to not having control over the text, don’t panic. Step 4 will give you the opportunity to (optionally) have a more traditional single-text whole-class focus (and give you time to prepare for it).


When both groups have finished, get into small groups to share which article they found most interesting, and why. Groups can then share their favorites with the class. You can also ask for (and board) 10 useful words or expressions they learned. You (or a delegated secretary) should take note of which topics seemed the most popular, key vocabulary, etc. for future reference.

That’s the end of the activity (but not the end of the class, or the process). In the next post, I’ll describe steps 3 and 4, and how you can use individual text selection and the carousel activity as a springboard to helping students better equip themselves for practicing learner autonomy in the EFL/ESL classroom.

EFL Teacher Talk: 5 essential statements for better classroom teaching

Sometimes the best thing about watching a great teacher run a workshop is not the activities or theories they teach you, but the things they say in between the key takeaways. How they give instructions, organize the class, or deal with participation.

When I had the fortune to attend a weekend workshop last year led by EFL/ESL teachers and authors Adrian Underhill, Jim Scrivener and Chaz Pugliese, I took note of ― and began to say ― five statements that continue to make me a better teacher.

1. “Could you just take 31 seconds to look back at your notes and ask me if there was anything you don’t understand?”

You’re a lucky teacher indeed if “Any questions?” returns more than just blank stares. No one wants to expose their ignorance, and students have the doubly face-threatening risk of exposing their ignorance ungrammatically.

We give students silent rehearsal time before performing a speaking task. Why not, as Chaz Pugliese does, give them time to both reflect on and formulate their lack of comprehension? It might just get you some questions (or at least a moment for everyone to breathe before plowing into the next activity).

2. “Say it faster.”

As Adrian Underhill has written in Demand High, whether you’re checking an activity or getting an answer to a question, the idea is not to simply settle for a learner just managing to stumble through a sentence and get to the end. As a teacher what you’re after is better, more fluent production. If it’s the first time the student has vocalized what’s on the page, then think of it as just a rehearsal.

And better than simply “say it again”, say it faster is a goal and a challenge. Every student aspires to be more fluent, and this simple command gives every student somewhere to grow.

3. “You don’t have to get it right.”

Everybody’s afraid of getting it wrong. But when you’re analyzing a text or structure, the beauty of Jim Scrivener’s statement is that it works to instantly defuse the tension and let people off the hook. And it lets everybody know ― both the struggling and the self-assured ― that error is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged, particularly when in the phase of exploration, hypothesizing and discovery.

4. “Do you believe her (or him)?”

Intonation is often fundamental to conveying meaning in speech, but so often our students respond to questions about likes, preferences and opinions with the sort of robotic monotone that might be puzzling, or even disturbing if we were outside the language classroom.

So forget about accuracy for a moment and shift the focus to believable intonation with a sly appeal to the class. Even without being explicit about it, you can encourage students (like Adrian Underhill does) to arrive at their own conclusions about what might make that utterance believable or not. And then model and practice correct intonation.

5. “Do you agree?”

While this is standard practice in paired language assessment, it’s not necessarily par for the course when it comes to teaching a group class. As the teacher it’s unavoidable that you have more rights in class ― the right to mediate the conversation, end it and initiate a new one. So if you want to generate discussion between students in whole-class setting, refrain from weighing in with a comment.

Rather, as Adrian Underhill does, simply lob it back to another student. It’s a way of encouraging the members of the class to listen and participate. Say it enough and you probably won’t have to anymore, because you’ll have established a classroom culture in which students don’t have to seek out the teacher’s permission to comment during class discussions.


Development as a classroom teacher often involves boiling down a lot of teacher talk ― as in these five statements ― to the powerful essentials.

What else would you add to this list?

The Bus Stop Conversation: A versatile no-prep EFL/ESL speaking activity

If you’ve ever spent an hour cutting up strips of paper for some dinky five-minute EFL/ESL classroom activity (and found the strips ripped, crumpled, un-reusable confetti at lesson’s end) you’ll know one of the yardsticks for measuring the worth of a classroom activity is the return-on-investment of your time. By this logic, the best activities are no-prep activities you can extend to run all day. Here’s one such activity I picked up from a speaker at a one-day IH Milan conference a few years back, and it’s remained of my favorites. It’s called a Bus Stop Conversation.

What’s so great about it? As you’ll see, the Bus Stop Conversation

  • involves no prep and set-up time is as little as 30 seconds
  • is adaptable to fit any point in the lesson
  • works with any age group (kids, adults) or context (General English, EAP, Business English)
  • gives students choice of input
  • can be used for developing speaking skills
  • can also be used for recycling and repetition of lexis

Set it up

Board a stick figure of a guy. Elicit a name for the guy, e.g. Marco. Board a girl. Elicit a name for the girl, e.g. Maria. Draw a bus stop sign. What are they doing? Waiting for a bus. Now say, What are they talking about? Board two or three conversation topics in a speech bubble. You’ll find the topics tend to vary with the age of the group but there are few surprises: boys/girls, husbands/wives, a party, the weekend, school, work, etc. Now, pair off the students. You’re Maria, you’re Marco. Have a conversation about these topics. Give them a time limit.

Bus Stop Coversation: A versatile no-prep EFL/ESL speaking activity
Standing on the corner, waiting for the bus

Round it off

Depending on your time or intention you can go through the usual cycle of monitor-feedback-task repetition. You can use the feedback period to focus on speaking skills like how to keep a conversation going, turn-taking, etc.

Use it as a warmer

What’s great about this activity is its versatility: you can use it at virtually any point in the lesson. For high school kids, try it as a warmer (as I first learned it at the IH conference). Why? When the high school kids I teach arrive in after-school classes they’re invariably chatty and excited. They want to catch up with their classmates, recap the day, tell a friend about some text message they got a second before walking in the door, complain about a test or teacher or gossip about somebody’s latest crush. In other words they’re talking about all sorts of things, just not necessarily whatever you’ve got planned and not necessarily in English.

Encourage students to pick these same things for Marco and Maria to talk about in English and you’ll provide a natural bridge from the world outside the classroom to that within. And what’s more you’ll be encouraging them to talk about the things they actually want to talk about, giving them a reason to speak.

Use it to practice or recycle lexis

You can also employ the simple framework of the Bus Stop Conversation (or Coffee Machine Conversation, or Water Cooler Conversation, whatever) with any age group or context for practicing lexis from from that or a previous day. Before you set up the activity, have students take out their notes, find 5 items of lexis (i.e. words, phrases, expressions, sentence frames) they want to remember and practice, and have them write these expressions on a piece of paper or separate small slips of paper. Then set up the activity. After you’ve named the participants and told them what to do, add one final instruction: While talking, you must use all 5 of your expressions. After you use the expression, turn the piece of paper face down (or cross out the expressions).

Of course, some instantly regret their choice of lexical items (it’s not always easy to work less common words like heighten into small talk about the weather), but part of the fun (for student and teacher) is going into verbal contortions to find a context for your chosen lexical items. And the very lack of appropriateness in a specific conversation is meat for the reflection that follows.

Encourage reflection

When they’ve finished their conversation, ask the pairs to go back and re-visit what they said. Can they remember how they used each expression? Did it make sense? Was it a bit forced? Which expressions were difficult to fit into the conversation? What kind of conversation would they fit better in? Students are usually both insightful and honest about what worked and what didn’t. In my experience as both a language teacher and learner I’ve seen that learners sometimes fixate on more obscure, less-useful lexis, and this review is also a great way for students to hone their own ability to filter out more common lexis (and therefore more useful) from less.

Adapt the activity to specialized lexis

If some less-common lexis is useful for a specific student or specific to context/topic you’ve talked about in class, you can still make it fit. Simply steer the students toward picking topic-relevant conversations by the choice of location. So rather than an anonymous bus stop you can have the bus stop in front of the science lab or standing in line at a soccer stadium. Or a bar in a holiday resort. Or a water-cooler in a prison. You get the idea.

Like many such activities the Bus Stop Conversation only gets better with practice. It’s a quick, easy, no-prep activity that can be exploited in a number of ways. And best of all is that you won’t waste a minute cutting up slips of paper.

Long Live Exam Prep!



Sound familiar?

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.

An example…

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!