Following on from the extensive revision of the Proficiency(CPE) exam in March this year, Cambridge have just released a revised handbook for the changes they’ll be making to the First exam (FCE) from the start of 2015.  Similar changes are also likely to take place to the Advanced exam (CAE), though details on this aren’t available yet.

The big news is that the Reading and Use of English papers are being squeezed into a single paper.  The combined version weighs in at 1 hour 15 minutes (half an hour shorter than the current combined lengths) and contains exactly the same tasks as the current versions, though each section contains fewer questions (about 20 fewer questions overall).  From a practical point of view the skills, sub-skills and strategies learners might need for the tasks won’t change, and other than changing the frame of reference for the tasks, it appears little else does either.  That said, the descriptions of task focus in the handbook have improved – rather than referring to “lexical / lexico-grammatical” as with the current handbook, the 2015 version offers a bit more detail:  “The main focus is on vocabulary, e.g. idioms, collocations, fixed phrases, complementation, phrasal verbs, semantic precision.”

There doesn’t appear to be any difference in the new listening paper, though the number of possible text types has been reduced – this is, I suspect, simply acknowledging the reality of what is actually used rather than providing a list of possible sources.

A few minor alterations crop up in the speaking.  In part one the timings are reduced from 3 minutes to 2 minutes, but in practice I doubt this will have much effect.  In part three, currently candidates are asked to “talk together about how _________ might be.  Then decide which two would _______” and have three minutes to do this.  The new version separates these two tasks out.  Candidates are given two minutes to discuss the pros and cons of the options and are then interrupted and asked to come to a decision about which option is best in one further minute of discussion.  It isn’t clear whether candidates are required to actually reach a decision – the assessment scales for interactive communication describes “negotiation towards an outcome” but not necessarily reaching it…

Finally, changes to the writing paper.  Possibly to make the exam more marketable to academic institutions, possibly because a change is as good as a rest, but the mandatory Part One task is switching from the letter / email to an essay providing and justifying an opinion.  A title (and therefore topic) is given, along with two ideas to write about, but the candidate is also required to provide one idea of their own.  The possible text types for the Part Two task have also therefore changed and are given as:  article / email or letter / report / review.  So no more stories and also – no more book questions!  At least the Part Two I’ve seen makes no mention of set texts and there are only three questions in the sample tasks provided, but this, it seems, has been quietly dropped.  Which I have mixed emotions about – I’m glad because there’s nothing worse than reading someone’s opinion of a book they’ve clearly not read and because there’s always someone who tries to blag it; but at the same time it seems to reflect a trend away from extensive reading or the inclusion of reading for any purpose other than information gathering – whether this leads the trend or is simply reflective of it, I’m not sure.

Other important changes to the writing paper include word lengths, which are now the same for both tasks:  140 – 190 words.  This represents an increase for both tasks, while the length of the writing paper hasn’t changed – so more writing required in the same amount of time.

To download your own copy of the Cambridge English: First handbook – just click the link.  (PDF opens in new window).  If that doesn’t work, try accessing the handbook from their Exam update web page.