Tag Archives: CAE

PechaFlickr – exam speaking practice

4 Jun

One of the common complaints students have about exam speaking is that they never know what to say.  In practice sessions, I’ve had students dry up completely and embarrassedly freeze half way through a sentence, I’ve had other students refuse to talk about the topic saying that they know nothing about it!

About a month ago, Richard Byrne shared a post about PechaFlickr that I think can help with this.


PechaFlickr is a web based app that displays 20 random images for 20 seconds each.  As the name suggests, the images all come from Flickr and are selected based on how they’ve been tagged – this adds the element of randomness that makes it such a great tool as you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get.  I tried it with the topic “school” and got a a child crying in front of some ruins, a grinning child staring at the camera, what looked like a teachers meeting, a somewhat inappropriately dressed Japanese lady (but dressed enough for the sake of propriety), and some people holding a candlelit vigil.  I gave up at that point…!

In the advanced settings you can change the number of slides shown and the length of time they are displayed for, so you could easily adapt it to practice Cambridge English: First & Advanced speaking tasks, though it doesn’t practice the exam tasks in the sense that the tasks require comparison and contrast of two photos.

What it does help practice is thinking about what pictures represent and what they could represent, finding connections between images and topics and perhaps more importantly . quick thinking.

I think this could be a great warmer for any class with an interactive whiteboard and it could also be a great tool for students to practice at home – especially if they record and review their own performance.

Another alternative is to play a “Just a Minute” type game, possibly setting timing on each photo to slightly longer and adding more  pictures (depending on how long you want things to take), where as soon as the speaker falters or fails, they stop and another one has to take their place.

Any other suggestions?

Try it out here:



The Colour Coded Essay – #IHTOC7

13 May

With the introduction of a compulsory essay task in the Cambridge English: First & Advanced exams, it’s become quite important for learners to understand essay structure and organisation.

Here’s a ten minute talk I did for the International House Teacher’s Online conference:


And here are the slides for the presentation:




Check out all the other great talks in the IHTOC7 conference here:



Cambridge Advanced writing – learning to answer the question

28 May

Keeping writing relevant to the question is something that learners often have difficulty with.  Sometimes this is because they mis-identify the key content points, sometimes it’s because they write their answer for the wrong purpose.

This is the outline of a lesson I did with my CAE class the other day – I used tasks from the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English 1 practice test book – but this would be adaptable to other levels and your own materials.

The aims are:

  • to familiarize learners with the language and style of exam writing questions
  • to provide learners with a strategy to access key question content


Lead in:

A quick discussion among the learners – which writing tasks they like, which ones they don’t and why.


Give the learners a sample Writing Part 2 question (either question 2, 3 or 4) and ask them to work in pairs to identify (a) what they have to write about; (b) why they are writing.

Feedback & input:  draw a line down the middle of the board and either nominate people to come up and write their ideas in the right side of the board, or ask them to tell you and write their ideas up yourself.

On the left side of the board, write the acronym:

  • T
  • I
  • P

Ask the learners what the acronym stands for:  tell them it represents:

  • Theme (or Topic)
  • Idea(s)
  • Purpose

The TIP is a tool to help them analyse the question and make sure they are including the relevant information in their answers.

Using the sample question you gave them earlier, lead them through an analysis.  As an example, see the question below, which is reproduced here without official permission from Cambridge ESOL and which comes from the 2008 version of the handbook:

CAE writing sample task

Here I would suggest that the Topic  is “a famous scientist”, the Ideas are “their achievements” and the Purpose is “to convince someone to make a TV programme about them”.

The TIP tool also functions as a way of determining the organisation of the text, in the above case, the introduction of the competition entry relates to the topic, while the main body would contain a description of the ideas and the conclusion would be the essential justification to include the chosen scientist, in other words, fulfilling purpose.


Ask the learners to form three groups (group A, group B, group C) and give them additional part two questions to work with.  Ask them to identify the TIP for each question.

Regroup the learners so that they are working in groups of three, with each group comprising one student from the former groups A, B & C.  The learners can then share and compare their analyses and you as the teacher can monitor and clarify any concerns.

Further Practice & Production:

In their groups of three from the previous stage, ask the learners to write their own “CAE Writing Part 2 question”.  Monitor this stage and if necessary feedback on whether the questions are too broad (e.g. write a proposal for world peace), too specific or requiring specialist knowledge (e.g. what are the advantages and disadvantages of Samsung as compared to Apple) or too personal (e.g. write a letter introducing your partner to your parents) – none of which candidates need to write about in a Cambridge exam!

When they’ve drafted suitable questions, they swap their questions with a different group, who must (a) identify the TIP for the question they’ve just been given; (b) draft a suitable plan for an answer and (c) write a strong introduction for their answer.  (this last one can be dropped if time is an issue).

These can then go back to the group that wrote the question for feedback, or the groups can come together to compare outcomes.

The End.

Except of course, for homework, you may want to ask them to complete a Part 2 writing task….

This lesson (post)  is also available as a downloadable pdf here: teflgeek – Accessing Exam Writing Questions


The Cheating Art

24 Jan

If you teach, you will have encountered cheating.  And if you’re honest, you’ve probably cheated yourself at some point in the past – I don’t remember specific incidences of cheating from when I was at school, but I do remember attempting to ask my classmates for answers, little slips of paper in pencil cases and writing the answers out onto rulers and the insides of pencil cases, hands, wrists and arms.  I also remember that hunched over posture, arm wrapped all the way round the test paper, to guard against someone cheating off you…

Ann Loseva has just written a great post on the impact the accusation of cheating can have.  This prompted Graham Stanley to reflect on encounters with plagiarism and cheating he has had as a teacher and to investigate the cheating culture.  Both of which have inspired this post and a lesson that I ran with some CAE (Advanced) classes yesterday.  The lesson outline follows at the bottom of this post.

One of the things I tried to do in the lesson was to gather some informal data on how prevalent cheating is.  In percentage terms, it makes interesting reading, though as I occasionally asked for a show of hands the validity and reliability of the study is questionable!

  • 100% of my students said they had cheated on a test.
  • 53% said they thought it was OK to cheat on a class test.
  • 0% said it was OK to cheat on a formal exam
  • 60% said they thought cheating was culturally acceptable in their country

I’ve heard different theories for this last statistic.  One is that Catholic countries are more tolerant of cheating because these are minor sins that can be absolved and penance performed for following confession.  Another is that people who live or have lived under more authoritarian regimes have a greater need to understand how to “game the system”, in other words, cheating is a necessary life skill.

My students thought both these ideas were rubbish, though one student did point out you are more likely to break the rules if you think the rules are wrong and where you have absolutely no respect for your national leaders and politicians, this lack of respect may extend to the rules the government enforces.  This also filters down to the classroom – when the students have little or no respect for the teacher, they do not value the lesson content as much and equally see no point in attempting to perform well on their tests.  My little survey certainly seemed to suggest that the more seriously they view a test, the more effort they put into preparing for it and the less likely they are to cheat in it.

The seriousness with which they view their tests also comes from how much value they perceive the test to have.  There are tests they are given because the system demands it – neither the students nor the teacher value them and they are treated as a formality.  Students told me stories about their teachers “monitoring” during the tests and pointing out incorrect answers, telling students the answers under the cover of fake cough.  One student told me “I cheat when, it’s like I understand the topic or something and I know it but the test wants answers I don’t know.” – essentially, when the test is testing the reproduction of knowledge rather than any deeper level of understanding.

What worries me most, though, and which sums up the cheating issue in a nutshell is the feeling that they all agreed with:  “it’s easier than thinking.”  How do you combat that?  Seriously – any and all answers gratefully received!

Two ways that suggest themselves:  (1) Zero Tolerance and (2) Better Invigilation.

There does have to be a policy decision somewhere near the top of the academic tree about what is acceptable and what is not within school walls.  Personally it annoys me when I see students frantically copying each others’ homework right before class because it defeats the purpose of setting the homework in the first place – I’d rather they were late with it – but that’s the sort of thing I let slide.  But I have struggled to impose any kind of test discipline (for example, no talking during tests – there’s always someone who makes some kind of comment!) – mostly because it simply isn’t considered part of test protocol here.  There’s a sort of “don’t ask / don’t tell” situation – the policy against cheating is theoretically zero tolerance, but only as long as you don’t have to put it into practice…

Better invigilation:  in theory I’m sure we all agree that no teacher should invigilate their own students (or subjects) and that invigilators should be doing absolutely nothing other than monitoring the exam room for the duration of the test.  In practice however, this is unlikely to happen in all testing situations.  But a teacher who is marking, lesson planning or doing the crossword is not invigilating – they are increasing the opportunity for students to cheat.  If schools and institutions are serious about reducing or stamping out cheating – invigilation policy is certainly a good starting point.

References (my lesson plan follows below the picture):

The Lesson I did with my classes:

(1) A letters circle ( A C E H T) on the board – students make as many words from the letters as they can in a minute.  Feedback: did you get the five letter words TEACH / CHEAT?

(2) Quick Poll:  (This was done quite conversationally and involved some definition of terms on both sides – what constitutes cheating / the difference between a test and an exam etc)

  • Have you ever cheated on a test?
  • Do you think it’s OK to cheat in a class test?
  • Do you think it’s OK to cheat in a formal exam?
  • Is cheating culturally acceptable in your country?

(3) Split reading:  I divided the class into two groups:  Group A got Ann’s article and Group B got Graham’s article.  They read their article and in their groups had to come up with a comment they would write under the blog article.

Then I paired one student from group A with one from group B and they summarised what they’d read for each other and discussed whether having read the articles would change their views or behaviour as regards cheating.

(4) Lexical mining:  Each pair had to find two or three words / collocations / expressions that they either (a) thought would be useful, or (b) liked the sound of, or (c) didn’t know.  These were collected on the board (each pair had a board pen) and in small groups they peer taught what they could, working it out from context.  I then filled in any gaps.

(5) I then gave student a handout with the following questions from The Internet TESL Journal:  (you may wish to edit these for your cultural context).

  • What is your definition of cheating?
  • Have you ever cheated?
  • Why do you think that people cheat?
  • Have you ever cheated in an exam?
  • Have you ever been caught cheating on an exam?
  • If you had a chance to cheat now, would you take it?
  • In what situations do people usually cheat?
  • Have you ever been cheated on by somebody else?
  • Describe a time when you cheated and it helped you.
  • Do you think if people stopped cheating the world would be a better place?
  • What do you think of people who cheat in their relationships?
  • What do you think can be done to prevent cheating?
  • What are some things you can do to prevent cheating?
  • What would you do it you saw someone cheating at something.

The students made notes individually on their own answers and then came together into two larger groups to share and discuss their responses.

That took pretty much the whole lesson (75 minutes) – with more time I would have done some reactive language feedback on correction following that final discussion, but we can do that next time!

Keep Calm and Write On – #IHTOC3

5 Nov

For those that may have missed it, here are the slides (as pdf) from the webinar I gave at the IH Teachers’ Online Conference on 3rd November.

The session was a look at common problems learners have with writing for exam classes, particularly Cambridge exams (FCE etc), but also, I think, applicable to other exams and writing in general.  It then goes on to suggest a range of activities you can do with those learners to help them with these problem areas.  There’s about 36 different activities suggested – so there should be something in there for everyone!

The webinar was recorded, and if you have the time and the patience to sit through the 60 minute session, you can do so here:

Adobe Connect – Keep Calm & Write On

That should open up in a new window.  I don’t know how long that’s going to be up for, so apologies if you can’t access it.  I found the Adobe Connect software worked better in Firefox than Chrome, though that might just be me!

It’s worth taking a look at the video if you can, not just because you get an explanation of the activities, but also because there were loads of great ideas coming up in the chatbox – additions, extensions and adaptations to alternative contexts – so thanks to everyone who took part for the contributions!

Any problems, questions or queries – let me know!

Do learners know what they need?

27 Jan

There is a lot of talk about learner needs, needs analysis and learner centred lesson planning and course planning.  But do learners really know what they need?  Or do they just tell us what they want?

The difference between “wants” and “needs” is neatly illustrated by the image on the right – a want is something that is desirable but unnecessary.  A need is something you have to have no matter what!  And do we always know the difference?  I know that I often say I need to go and buy something, when the truth is, I can probably do without it!

In education the reliance on needs analysis worries me, as I fear it might be misplaced.  After all, we go to our doctors and describe our symptoms but we don’t tell the doctor what to do next – why should we as language teachers rely on the input our learners give us?  Surely as a professional I am capable of spotting the problems a learner is having, communicating those problems to the learner and working out a set of solutions.

But we don’t always notice and the doctor analogy is perhaps right – the learners come to us and say “I’m having problems” before we then think about what the causes and solutions might be.  So learner input is valid – but can it be trusted?

Continue reading

The Twelve Days of Geekmas: eleven tips for writing

2 Dec

On the eleventh day of Geekmas, teflgeek gave to me:  11 tips for writing

Welcome to the teflgeek Christmas celebration!  Themed around the classic Christmas carol – but going backwards, mostly because it’s more like a countdown that way:

12 blogs worth clutching

11 tips for writing

Although to be more accurate this should be called “11 tips to give your students to help them develop their writing (for exam classes)”, but again, that just wouldn’t scan properly…

Teachers – feel free to cut and paste and print out (some editing may be required!)

  1. Read the question!  It shouldn’t need saying and I’d be willing to bet this is a constant cri-de-coeur for many a teacher, but failure to read the question – or more importantly failure to respond to the required aspects of the question – is what costs learners the most marks.  Cambridge exams are lovely and kind.  They tell you what to write about – massive amounts of thought not required – just good identification technique….. (see below)
  2. What’s important here?  Every question has “content points”.  If you miss one you fail.  But on the plus side they’re easy to spot – they usually appear in sentences that read:  “You should write about….”  /  “Include information on”.  Or sometimes they have little arrows pointing to them (only in part one).  Teachers – give your learners a copy of the sample writing paper from the handbook and a highlighter pen – take the time to go through it step by step.  It won’t be wasted time.
  3. Don’t get word fear!  Word fear is when learners worry too much about how many words they need to write.  Key symptoms include:  (a)  obsessively counting the number of words they’ve written to make sure they have enough.  (b)  Using a lengthy and inappropriate style to try and increase the number of words in a sentence.  (c) adding additional random sentences and paragraphs to the end of your text upon realising they don’t have enough content.  There is a simple cure:  relax.  No-one’s going to count the number of words.  Examiners have lives too!  Besides – the only true way to eradicate word fear is in proper planning.
  4. PPPPP – PROPER PLANNING PREVENTS POOR PERFORMANCE.  Very very few learners actually plan their writing.  This also explains why very very few learners get top grades for exam writing.  Having insisted all my learners submit a plan along with their compositions, I was once accosted by a worried student before class:  “I’m really sorry I haven’t finished it all.  I can give you the essay now, but can I give you the plan next lesson?”  I don’t insist anymore.  If you can’t be bothered, then fine.  It doesn’t work for everybody, and I hope you’re happy with your “c” grade.
  5. Know your genre.  Again, it seems silly to state it so obviously, but learners need to know what the different texts types (a) look like, (b) feature stylistically.  If learners have a clear visual representation of the text type, it makes the planning process easier.  I tend to do block diagrams of the different text types as a labelling task, so that learners get a clear idea of what all the different sections involve.  This then leads into a language matching task, with key phrases matched to the relevant sections.
  6. Who’s the reader?  A mistake that many writers make is in mis-imagining the reader.  A letter for publication in a newspaper or magazine is written as personal correspondence between the writer and the editor – but not written for the wider audience who’ll read the published letter.  Another common fault is writing for the Examiner, not for the target reader.  Knowledge of who the reader is also affects register choice (as well as genre does).
  7. Leave a blank line.  This is possibly a personal bugbear of mine, but I speak as someone who’s sat down and gone slightly insane whilst attempting to mark over a 150 FCE writing scripts in a single afternoon (with some help).  The blank line is a psychological trick.  Learners need to leave one blank line between each section of their writing text as it is more pleasing to the eye, clearly indicates attempted paragraphing (and hence organisation, even if the organisation doesn’t actually exist) and basically puts the examiner in a much better frame of mind.  Generally, you want a better disposed examiner marking your paper – they tend to give higher marks!  (Apparently research bears this out, but I don’t know whose.)
  8. Don’t draft – plan.  It’s not unknown for learners to write out an entire first draft of a text and then copy it out again neatly.  Fine, if you can get away with it and not run out of time, but why go to all the trouble of doing twice the work?  Couldn’t you just do the work once, but twice as well?  If you plan, you don’t need to draft (at least not in an exam situation).  Also, planning gets rid of all those unsightly crossing outs and substitutions and insertions.  If you know what you want to say before you start writing…..
  9. A brief note on paragraphs.  Earlier, I may have given the impression that a paragraph is a collection of words separated from a similar collection of words by one blank line.  Psychological trickery will only get you so far – there does also need to be some substance behind the style.  In an attempt to help with paragraph structure, I’ve been talking to my learners about TARS – Topic Sentence / Argument / Reason / Specific Example.  As a basic paragraph structure it works quite neatly, though obviously there are variations…
  10. It’s the way you tell ’em.  With some answers, you feel really engaged, as though the writer really cares about the topic and wants to share that with you.  With others, you feel as though the writer is going through the motions.  And let’s face it – why shouldn’t they?  It’s an artificial situation that wouldn’t occur to them in the real world.   But to get the top marks, the writing needs to make the reader feel loved.
  11. Role play it then write it.  Which is why, I like converting writing tasks into role plays.  If, for example, a task asks the learners to write a report for the principal on the use of technology in the college, it can be nice to put half the class in the position of the principal and half in the position of the writer and ask them to converse on the topic.  It can give both parties a new appreciation of the roles and requirements of the task!

Say that again? avoiding repetition & developing paraphrase

25 Nov

Trying to come up with new and interesting ways of saying the same old thing is a skill that taxes most of us on a daily basis:  “I like your hair.”  “Your hair looks nice.”  “Wow!  Have you had your hair done?”  “That new style really suits you!”

For language learners, it’s obviously even more difficult.  For learners preparing for exam classes, where displaying a wide ranging linguistic resource helps garner improved scores – it’s an essential skill.  It’s useful for all those writing tasks (avoid using words or phrases from the questions) and particularly useful for CPE comprehension and summary tasks where the questions state “in your own words”.  But it’s also a handy skill to have for those speaking tasks, where demonstrating “range” is almost as important as actually having range.  After all, there’s no point learning all those different words and structures if you don’t actually use them?  Right?

So here’s an activity which needs no (only a very small amount) of preparation, but which helps extend and develop the paraphrase skill.  I call it “Say that again?”

Materials:  As much scrap A4 paper as you can find chopped down into either A6 or A7 sized slips – ideally it’d be about six bits of paper per student.

Students write a single (short) sentence on each bit of paper – ideally something they might say in everyday life.  You can model this with “I like your hair.”  or “Local football team played well/badly at the weekend.”  Students can work together in pairs during the sentence creation phase.

Collect all the slips of paper up and ask the learners to form small groups (three or four people per group).  re-distribute the slips of paper with the sentences on evenly between the groups, placed face down (i.e. sentences not visible) in a pile in the middle.

One learner takes a slip and turns it face up and reads the sentence.  They then have to produce a paraphrase of the sentence, as does the next person and the next etc, until someone can’t come up with something that hasn’t already been said.  So if we go back to our example:  Learner A turns over the slip of paper and reads out “I like your hair.”  Learner A paraphrases thusly:  “Your hair looks nice.”   Learner B comes up with “Wow!  Have you had your hair done?”  and Learner C with “That new style really suits you!”.  Learner D however can’t think of anything new, so gets to keep the slip of paper.

The winner is the person in each group with the fewest slips of paper at the end of the activity.

Feedback can be given on any errors that were overheard during the game, but also content feedback on any sentences they found particularly difficult to paraphrase.

As an extension, for those classes preparing for an exam, the teacher could take the input from one of the writing paper questions and divide it up into sentences on separate bits of paper and ask learners to come up with alternative phrasings.

“The candidate demonstrated an impressive range.”

(Bonus points for anyone who can identify the “impressive range” featured!  Post your answers below!)

From Riddle to Twittersphere: David Crystal tells the story of English in 100 words

22 Nov

Following on from the success of the recent Radio 4 series “A History of the World in 100 objects“, linguist and novelist David Crystal attempts to do the same for the English language.  An interesting read for any and all language teachers and language historians out there!

From Riddle to Twittersphere: David Crystal tells the story of English in 100 words – Telegraph.

If you were looking for a particularly challenging lesson for one of your advanced classes…..   you could give them a selection of these words as a spelling test!  And then divide the list and the class into four or five groups and set them off to discover what their words mean (and provide contextual sentences!).

Or they could just choose their favourites.  Mine are numbers 43 and 49 – BODGERY and FOPDOODLE respectively.



(Thanks to Cherry M Philipose for sharing this via facebook)

Online Teaching Resource: Idioms Videos

29 Sep

I just came across, during a further exploration of the Pearson ELT Community site, their idioms discussions space.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of discussion, but they have posted a set of mini-videos which purport to explain English idioms and expressions.  The videos are very short (about a minute) and are followed with a dictionary definition.  One of the tasks they give is “Can you guess the idiom before the definition comes up?”  If you had learners in teams with different coloured board pens, and they raced to write the expression on the board before it came up, it could work….

The videos are also available via the Pearson You Tube channel (I’ve tried to embed one of them below, but don’t think it’s worked – so click the link instead).


Here’s the original page again:  ELTCommunity.com: Space: Idioms Discussions.