When I teach FCE again…

From September to December I taught an intensive Cambridge First Certificate (FCE) course, ready for the exam on December 10th. I had all 11 students for 15 hours a week, and 6 of them had an extra 10 hours. We didn’t use a coursebook, though I drew lots of activities from books like Complete First Certificate, FCE Result and First Certificate Expert.

Throughout the course I adapted the way I was teaching, and I have lots of ideas for how I might change it if I taught it again. I thought these might be useful for other teachers preparing students for the FCE exam, so I’ll share them with you here.


Far and away the most useful thing I did with the students was introduce them to the flo-joe website, which is specifically designed for students preparing for Cambridge exams. I told the group about the site right at the beginning of the course, but they virtually never used it until I started going through the word bank with them every day, which took about 20 minutes. I showed them the page (we were lucky enough to have an IWB, but you could print it or just write it on the board). They had one piece of paper/page in their notebook each for:

  • phrasal verbs
    Here they wrote the verb, a definition and an example sentence which I elicited from the students.
  • word formation
    The page was divided into four columns: noun/verb/adjective/adverb. As well as the four forms given on the flo-joe page, we added as many other forms as the students/I could think of.
  • collocations
    This included an example sentence, again elicited from the students.

We did this as a whole class activity and I wrote everything on the whiteboard for them to copy. On each page of notes, I encouraged students to highlight the phrasal verb, the key word for word formation, and anything which surprised them in the collocation (for example, a preposition which they didn’t expect).

Here is an excellent example of the notes taken by one of the students. She also added to her list from other Use of English exercises.

Maria’s notebook (pdf document – click to open)

Some of the students also took advantage of other sections of the site, such as practice tests and the writing class.

In the future, I would work with the flo-joe word bank from day one of the course, and I would also show students how to add to their list from U of E exercises done in class. Finally, I would build in a lot more revision of the words. We did some towards the end of the course, but this was not enough.

As one of my students said:

I think it is one of the best website we can use to improve our English.


Quizlet is designed to help students learn vocabulary in a fun way. It is very easy to create flashcards and share them with the students, and they can create their own if they want to. I set up a private group on the site for my class, which I have now made public so any FCE students can join it. Once students join, they can choose to receive an email notification every time a set of flashcards is added to the group.

By the end of the course we had 50 sets, some covering specific lexical groups, while others contained random vocabulary from the lessons that week. I encouraged students to access quizlet outside class, and printed flashcards directly from the site if students requested them. We also occasionally played games on it in sessions.

Quizlet screenshot

In future courses, I would create more clear lexical sets, covering as many areas as possible that could come up in the exam. I would also revise the vocabulary more often in class, as only a few of the students used the site as much as I thought they would. It would also probably be a good idea to have more smaller sets, as some of them put students off by their size.

In Class/Homework

We ended up spending a lot of time going over grammar rules in class, and when we weren’t doing that we were normally looking at lexical sets. For the first two months this left very little time for freer practice and exam-type tasks. I think it would benefit students more if they study the grammar and vocabulary at home, then practice it in class.

For vocabulary, the teacher could record the pronunciation of words/phrases/example sentences, to be used in addition to an online dictionary like the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. A recording would give the students all of the vocabulary in one place, and they could put it on an mp3 player/phone to listen to outside class.

It would be better for students to do more exam-type tasks earlier in the course, and spend a lot more time reflecting on them. This might be hard to manage, but is something to experiment with.


Many students’ least favourite part of the exam (if it’s not writing, it’s Use of English!) After I had introduced each text type in class, I gave the students a set of sample texts from First Certificate Expert. Rather than doing it this way, it would have been more effective to look at one text type a week, and give students as many examples as possible from writing banks as they are introduced. This should help students to get a much better idea of the differences between the genres, which was the most difficult thing for them to grasp. It would also give them lots of tasks to do if they want to. Over a twelve-week course, I would expect students to produce two or three pieces of writing every week. This may seem a lot, but they have seven text types to practice, and this would only give them about three attempts at each text type.

Revision, revision, revision

I’ve already said it a couple of times, but it bears repeating. My course didn’t include anywhere near enough revision, as I often felt I was running to keep up! By encouraging students to look at grammar and vocabulary at home, class time could be used for recycling, instead of introducing language. Creating an overall course plan at the beginning would also have helped me to build in time for revision (I only managed to do this about a month after the course began).


I really enjoyed the experience of intensively teaching this FCE group, though it did take over my life somewhat! I learnt a lot, and hope these lessons will be useful to others teaching FCE, regardless of their contexts.

27 thoughts on “When I teach FCE again…

  1. Hi Sandy. This is really useful, thanks. I’ve just started teaching FCE to a private student and i’ve already bookmarked Flo-Joe and set up a Quizlet account for us to use. Some great ideas, thanks. I don’t like to be a slave to coursebook either, but which of the following that you mentioned would you recommend the most? Thanks 🙂


  2. Dear Sandy,

    This is brilliant, thank you so much!

    I’ve been teaching FCE for two years now, year long courses with 3 hr lessons per week and, like you, I have been reflecting on the course and what I could/should have done differently to help prepare the students better. Revision is the key, but I had the nagging pressure of ‘finishing the book’ so kept the pace quite fast which has been good to challenge the students, but some lessons have been really full on and input-based rather than practice based. When you teach evening lessons to adults who have been working all day, giving them 3 hours of input and a bit of vocab and speaking revision thrown in to balance it out is quite demanding!

    I have done a lot of writing practice throughout the course and have been encouraging them to re-write pieces after corrections. Sometimes I also only only highlighted their mistakes rather than correcting them, which I then asked them to use as guided peer and individual correction tasks. This has worked really well and I have seen improvement in the written work.

    I’m definitely going to take on board your ideas about incorporating more revision into the classes and do more grammar as homework with practice in the classes. I have one more week with these students, so the addition of the Quizlet website is a nice way to end the course and give them more self-study tools they can use before their exam in a month.

    Thanks once again, and I hope to be adding my own material next academic year.

    Debbie Burghard


    1. Thanks a lot for sharing your ideas. I’ve been teaching an FCE course for the whole academic year, with the same ‘finishing the book’ problem, but a lot less time – 2 x 90 minutes a week, which feels very rushed, and I often feel I’m not giving my students enough actual practice. Feels a lot like I’m just feeding them grammar and vocabulary. A couple of them are motivated enough to do extra work, and that’s increasing as the exam creeps closer. I hope I can learn from this to structure the course better next year. It’s a constant learning process, and perspectives and ideas from other people really help.
      Good luck to all of your students!


  3. Dear Sandy,

    Thank you for sharing your activities and experience. I am currently preparing students for the FCE and I have this feeling that I need to improve my classes or make them more interesting, or diverse. We are working with GOLD book from Pearson. But following just the book and its activities can turn monotonous. But, what I think I need more help with is writing. Teenagers hate writing. Is there any advice you can give me on how to teach effective writing? Thank you!


    1. Dear Mica,
      Thank you for the comment and apologies for the delay in replying. Writing is certainly a challenging area to focus on. One thing I’ve found which helps students to enjoy writing more is to use journals: https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/writing-journals-with-students/ and https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/iatefl15/ Though it’s not directly an FCE task, it does have the benefit of giving students practice of handwriting, something they don’t do often. It takes time to respond to, but I’ve always found it repays that effort many times over for both the teacher and the student.
      This is more directly related to FCE, but I’m not sure if it’s necessarily any more fun! https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/essaywriting/
      You may also find some helpful ideas in this webinar, called ‘FCE: the musical: 🙂 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDnEK4Fpdl0&t=3157s
      Good luck!


  4. Dear Sandy,

    Thank you so much for your advice. I’m also about to start teaching a FCE course. Your advice is precious. Just wondering how would you structure the revision part?
    Thank you


      1. When you said that it’s important to revise and recycle, I was wondering how do you actually do that? How do you structure it into the lesson? Do you revise with questions at the beginning of the lesson, for example? Thanks


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