Tag Archives: FCE

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:



Coursebook Review: Complete First

26 Jun

Complete First

Guy Brook-Hart

Cambridge University Press,  2014.

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The version of the book I looked at was the 2nd Edition, with 2015 exam specifications.


Unsurprisingly for a Cambridge English: First exam preparation book, this is a B2 level coursebook, though it seems aimed at a university age market, somewhere between 18-24.  I say that because some of the recurring characters in the book are student age and while some of the content is aimed at older adult students, the feel of the book is definitely young adult.  I’m honestly not sure how much material there is in there.  The structure is quite bitty – lots of smaller self-contained sections – and obviously it depends how you teach the material as to how long it takes you to cover it.  If you just pushed on through, with a bit of bookending to give the lessons a beginning and ending, then I expect it would be about 5 lessons a unit.  If you extended out and made some of the smaller sections a lesson focus and supplemented to that effect, then maybe 8 lessons a unit?  So somewhere between about 80 hours and 140 hours of material, but then that upper figure does require additional material from elsewhere.


I only had access to the student’s book and the workbook.  There is also a teacher’s book and resource CDROM available.  And the “Presentation Plus” pack, which seems to be the digital version of the book and teacher’s book, adaptable to projector or IWB.  Which I haven’t seen.

Skills Work:

The criticism here is one that can be leveled at many exam books:  much of the skills work is skills practice, not skills development.  Receptive tasks are dealt with in the standard “pre-task prediction / task / one question discussion” model.  Productive tasks are dealt with from a model / language input perspective.  Which is, again, quite common and not necessarily a bad thing – learners do need the relevant language to perform the relevant tasks after all!  The writing sections are quite detailed and mostly seem to use a model for learners to analyse and do lead learners through all the different things they need to consider for exam success, though I’m not sure about the integration of language input work into these sections, it seems a bit split focus to me.

Language Work:

Language input is mostly text based in what I think of as attempted noticing – the examples are often drawn from the text and then analysed, or at least the learners are given the chance to think about which rules apply to what.  Followed of course by lots of practice activities.  One nice feature is that the language practice is often contextualised into an exam type task, giving practice of the task types without an overt focus, though these do also appear elsewhere in the units.


Not too bad – there’s enough white space on the page so that it doesn’t come across as too crowded or overbearing, though it does get a little bit dense in places.  Lots of sunny blue sky pictures with carefully multi-cultural smiling faces….

Overall Comment:

6.5/10.  I think the book has everything it needs, and which learners need, for some fairly thorough preparation.  Despite the young adult focus, it feels like quite an old book and just looks a bit dry in places.  I think for an adult group it would be fine.  My main concern is how easy it would be to work with – I suspect it would need quite a lot of adaptation.  Obviously all books need a certain amount of adaptation to fit the needs of their classes, but I feel that Complete needs a bit more work than most – not because the materials are poor quality, they are not – but because this is a book where you need to make constant decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out and what to focus on in class and I think that makes it harder work to use effectively than some of it’s competitors.


Complete First


Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 



Coursebook review: Objective First

26 Jun

Objective First

Annette Capel & Wendy Sharp

Cambridge University Press 2012 (3rd Ed.) / 2014 (4th Ed.)


As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the 3rd Edition, which is based around the 2008 exam specifications and NOT the revised 2015 specifications, however the links on the page are to the 4th edition, which does contain the revised specifications.  I’m assuming that there aren’t significant changes to content or approach – but will revise and update this review when I finally get to see the new edition!


This title seems aimed at the adult / young adult section of the B2 market, the themes and questions aimed at the students look like they require a bit more life experience than the average teenager possesses.  It looks eminently teachable though – three very neatly self contained double page spreads per unit that I think parcel up into lessons quite effectively.  With 24 units, this makes about 72 lessons in the book or about 90 hours of material (obviously depending on your lesson length, you may need to drop some bits or add a few more bits in!)


I only had access to the student’s book and the workbook, though there is also a teacher’s book with a teacher resources CD ROM available (not sure what those resources are…); and something called a Presentation Plus DVDROM, which appears to contain a digital version of the book that allows you to manipulate the content in  a variety of interesting ways.  Sounds expensive though…

Skills Work:

Skills are predictably exam focused and within the units the receptive skills are largely practice based.  Some of the task set up may help build skills but the impression is that rote practice is enough for the exam.  Each unit invariably contains a small speaking section, which may or may not be exam focused and a receptive skills task.  Writing is only dealt with in the “writing folders”, which alternate with the “exam folders” to provide specific exam segment development and strategy guides.

Language Work:

There is quite extensive language input – at least one double page spread per unit is dedicated to grammatical input and practice and I think the fact that they are laid out across two pages (mostly) helps make the input sizeable enough to form the key component of a lesson and consequently a lot more teachable than in some books.  There is a nod to guided discovery approaches in that learners are often asked to consider the evidence and figure out the rule (or choose from some rule possibilities), but for the most part the language input is rule based instruction, application and practice.


The double page spread system makes the book very easy on the eye and very accessible – despite the fact that there’s often quite a lot of content on the page, it doesn’t feel overwhelming and from a teacher’s perspective it looks easy to figure out where to start and stop.  The graphics are fairly standard – the typically bright, colourful and inoffensive coursebook fare.  The smaller unit size means there are more of them in the book, 24 in total, which I think would probably add to a learner’s sense of perceived progress as they motor through, and which also allows for a bit more variety in the range of topics.  It is an adult focused book though, so teenagers may have some issues in responding to discussion questions that assume more experience than they have.

Overall Comment:

9/10.  I really like the way this book is organised and I think it gives exam learners exactly what they need to prepare effectively for the exam – with the caveat that this preparation takes place over an extensive 100 hour course!  I think the structure makes it relatively easy to teach with and the clear focus that each section of each unit has makes it easy to decide where the focus of each lesson lies.  The exam folders and writing folders, when used effectively (and I think some adaptation is needed here), should give the learners a very thorough overview of what is required of them and what they need to do to be successful.


Objective First


Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 


Coursebook Review: Ready for First

25 Jun

Ready for FCE

Roy Norris

Macmillan Education 2013

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the version containing the 2015 exam specifications.


Aimed at B2 level students, it comes across as quite an adult orientated book, though young adults would also no doubt be able to access the content.  There is also quite a lot in there – depending on how you teach the book I would say there are about 5-8 lessons per unit, or somewhere between 80 and 120 hours of material, not including any supplementary resources.


I only had access to the coursebook and the workbook.  There is also a teacher’s book with a DVDROM and each coursebook comes with an access code to the Macmillan online practice site.

Skills Work:

All of the skills work is, as you might expect, contextualised towards exam structure and content.  Reading tasks have a very clear “pre-task / task / post task” structure and one of the little touches I particularly liked was that the post reading task requires a personal reaction from the student towards the text or the content of the text.  They also do this with some of the listenings.  Writing seems to be dealt with mostly through a process of model analysis.

Language Work:

There are some nice review activities in the post-unit revision sections and I quite liked the organisation of the language input which seems to be more categorised by use than by specific language point (e.g. “talking about habits” rather than “the present simple”).  That said, the language input is mostly rule based derivation and application.  PPP without the final P – I fail to see why it is not possible to include open  productive tasks in these sections.  As it is they contain quite a lot of input & practice and I don’t know how “teachable” they would be.


Generally quite good – it looks nice and engaging, there’s not too much on the page.  At least as far as the skills and exam focus sections are concerned.  As soon as you hit a language input section however, the text tightens up, becomes denser and more impenetrable.  The topics are, as you might expect, the same old faces, but are dealt with as well as can be expected.  More adult than teen.

Overall Comment:

6/10.  This was the first book I looked at and originally I was quite impressed – I still think it is a good book, but I would not like to teach from it in my context.  There is too much in there to deal with effectively within the time frame (100 hours) I have available and unless the book expects me to simply motor through the language sections without worrying about learner take up of the target language, I really wouldn’t like to have to teach them.  The rest of it’s good though.

Ready for FCE


Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 

Coursebook Review: Gold First

25 Jun

Gold First

Jan Bell and Amanda Thomas

Pearson Education 2014

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.

Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the version containing the 2015 exam specifications.


Aimed at B2 level students, the book looks as though it would be best suited to teenage / young adult classes.  Depending on how you teach the book, there’s probably five or six lessons per unit, or about 70 lessons in the book, so somewhere between 80 -100 hours of material.  Not including the progress tests and review sections.  It is a graded book, starting off a bit easier and building up in difficulty as the book goes on.


I only had access to the coursebook and the exam maximiser, which is precisely what you would expect – lots of practice activities.  Though the blurb promises there is interactive whiteboard software and online material for the teacher, as well as the standard teacher’s book.  Plus additional online resources for the student.

Skills Work:

One of the things I like about the book is the way in which all the skills work seems to be based on the principle of development, rather than simply practice.  The focus is on training for the exam rather than just exam skills.  While I completely agree with the ethos behind this choice, I also feel that Gold First lacks the bite that it needs for learners to be aware of the reality of the exam.

Language Work:

Lexis is mostly dealt with in chunks, collocations and phrasal verbs, though with some topic based match and gap sections as well.  Structures are pulled out of key texts and analysed – a sort of GDPP (guided discovery, practice and production) – and I like that there are productive activities linked to the language input


It seems very approachable, not at all daunting or scary.  There’s enough space around the text and exercises to give learners space to jot down notes and answers.  The images are all very standard – soft focus, bright and colourful – but there aren’t many on the page, so they don’t distract.  The topics are all the usual suspects – no doubt chosen according to some exam past paper meta-analysis.

Overall Comment:

7/10.  I think the course has enough to work with for an extensive year round course and I think it is appropriate for my local context, where most of the students are in their mid-teens.  I am wary about two things though:  the graded nature of the book and the lack of explicit modelling of exam tasks and strategies.

Gold First

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee.  

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


Changes to FCE in 2015

15 May

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.


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!

Cambridge English Teachers’ Competition 2012

24 Feb

If you help learners prepare for one of the Cambridge exams, then you might be interested in their new competition: Cambridge English Teachers’ Competition 2012.

All they want is one practical exam preparation idea, succinctly expressed in 300 words, for one of the following exams:

BEC (Preliminary, Vantage or Higher), ILEC, ICFE, YLE (Starters, Movers or Flyers), KET, PET, FCE.

Deadline for entries is April 16th 2012.

More details (including prizes!) from their website:  Cambridge English Teachers’ Competition 2012.