Dear Student,

You probably know why I’m writing this letter.  You probably know, deep down, what I’m about to tell you.  But I’m going to tell you anyway and that’s why I’m writing.

You are going to fail your exam.  Sorry.

I mean I hope I’m wrong.  I hope that on the day, the gods of language learning smile upon you and every word you need arrives at the front of your brain with the minimum of effort.  Or that the invigilator accidentally gives you a PET paper instead of and FCE paper and nobody notices.  Or that you have a great day and all that preparation and training pays off.  Or that a falling star dips past your window the night before the exam and that you make the right wish.

But in all honesty?  I can’t see any other way that you are going to pass.

And this is a huge shame.  I’ve taught a lot of people preparing for language exams over the years and most of them have been fairly average at best, with a few super talented individuals who just annoyingly learn languages just by being in the same room as a teacher.  If any of these had put half the time and effort into learning English that you have, they would have all got A grades.  In Proficiency.

I really can’t fault you for effort.  You have been sending me extra homework for the last four months and doing all the extra exercises in the book that we don’t have time for in class.  You have been writing down everything that goes on the board, everything that I say, that your classmates say.  You have not only taken in all of the strategies, structures, hints, tips and frameworks that we’ve looked at – you’ve taken them away, processed them and you are using them where you can.  The report you wrote for homework the other week was a masterpiece of organisation and genre features.  In our speaking exam practice, you extend appropriately and invite discussion with the best of them.

But you are still going to fail.

And the reason is simple.  Your English just isn’t good enough.  There’s no other way to put it.

But let’s think about what that means.  As I said, from an exam perspective, you’re doing all the right things.  Your micro-skills and strategies are well developed.  The problem, as far as I can tell, is wholly situated in your knowledge of the language system.

Now, I’m not sure why this might be.  I estimate that you’ve probably had about 450 hours of tuition in the last 4 years, which should have been more than enough (according to Common European Framework guidelines) to help you across the intermediate plateau and to start you up the climb into the foothills of the advanced range.  I don’t expect that all of those 450 hours were completely focused on language input, and nor should they have been, but I wonder how many words, phrases and chunks did you write down over the years?  How many language input stages did you sit through?  I really, really want to know what it is you did – or didn’t do – to cause so little impact for so much effort.

Here are my theories, or rather my questions:

  • Do you view the language atomistically, rather than holistically?  Do you look at it as though it’s isolated grammar points to be learnt, rather than components of a whole?
  • Do you think of language knowledge in the same way as language ability?  Are you now finding that bringing it all together to do something with the language is more difficult than basic manipulation exercises?
  • Is it all too much?  Are you trying desperately to remember too many different things, like when to use the present perfect and not the past simple, whether “addiction” is the same thing as “addition”, or which of the possibilities is the correct dependent preposition to use?  Is all this cluttering your mind when you try to produce language that you just give up on it all and go with the simplest thing you can remember, in the hope that you’ve got a better chance of getting it right?


Look, I predicted at the start of this letter that you were going to fail your exam.  To be fair, we did tell you that you weren’t ready for it yet and three months ago I said I thought you probably needed another year’s worth of learning (not lessons necessarily, just learning), though I’m not sure if anyone actually said that to you in those words.  I stand by my prediction, though I really, really, really hope I’m wrong.  I’m just not sure what we can do to help anymore.  I want there to be a simple switch we can flick, a quick fix to solve the problem, I want you to be in class this week and have one of those light-bulb moments where everything comes together for you.  And we’ll keep working in the hope that it happens.

All the best,

Your teacher.