Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Posts tagged ‘exams’

Conversation shapes

Have you ever watched in despair as students have a ‘conversation’ which is actually just two monologues? Or tried in vain to interact with a student who only gives one-word answers, however encouraging you are?

I know when I’m B1 or below, it’s difficult for me to pull my weight in a conversation and I need a lot of support from whoever I’m talking to. In the classroom we can provide this support in a variety of ways. We can supply sentence stems that students can complete, we can show them the first two or three turns of a conversation, or we can provide them with a whole range of questions or other functional language which might be useful in the conversation they are having.

These are all interventions we can make before or during students speak in class. But what about after the conversation? How can you help students to reflect on the success of that conversation? Here’s one idea I haven’t tried yet but it would like to: show students the conversation shapes below and ask them these questions:

  • Which shape is like a conversation you might have in your own language?
  • How would you feel in each of these conversations if you were a person A or person B? How actively would you participate in the conversation in each example?
  • Which shape is like the conversation you just had? Do you think you were person A or person B?
  • How successful do you think it was as a conversation?
  • What could you change in the conversation you just had to make it more like shape 3? What help do you need from the teacher to do this?

Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with A talking a lot, and B saying almost nothing Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with both A and B producing a single long monologue Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with A and B taking turns of varying lengths, sometimes overlapping

You can download a PowerPoint of all of the images at Conversation shapes if you want to adapt them for your own lessons, though please retain the credit.

I think this activity is an example of metacognition, which is the act of monitoring and making changes to learning strategies you use. The reflection helps learners to become aware of the processes they use when they are having a conversation, and what they can do to have more successful conversations in the future. Here’s a beginner’s guide to metacognition from Cambridge.

What other strategies do you use to help learners have more successful conversations?

Some things from the IH Torun Teacher Training Day 2018

Torun - Copernicus

A wise man in Torun

Saturday 21st April 2018 was the annual teacher training day at our sister school, International House Torun. I attended sessions by Lisko MacMillan, Matthew Siegal, Rachel Hunter and John Hughes, and presented on Making the most of blogs. Here are few of the things I got out of the day:

  • Although I hated drama at school, and did my best to avoid it, I really ought to embrace activities borrowed from improvisation. They make great warmers and energisers, and there are lots of opportunities for revision there.
  • I wish I’d been relaxed enough to enjoy drama at school, because it’s a lot more fun now that I don’t care about appearances as much!
  • It might be a good idea to swap your writing with another teacher and mark each other’s when possible to avoid the bias you get when you know your students.
  • One way to make feedback on Cambridge writing much faster is to give students a copy of the mark scheme with the relevant sentences for their work highlighted. Obviously you need to explain what it means, but the more they see it, the more they know what is expected of them.
  • gw = good word, ag = advanced grammar, are possible additions to a writing code that focus on positives. Although I haven’t used a writing code for a long time, this was a useful reminder.
  • To encourage students to engage with writing criteria and to kill two birds with one stone, turn the criteria into a Use of English open cloze exercise.
  • An activity to make students plan before writing: you plan your partner’s answer. They only get to see the plan, not the question, and write the answer. Then show the question and they get rid of what they didn’t need.
  • Give students a list of things they can when proofreading their text. They should do as many as they have time for. For example:
    • Task completion and paragraphs
    • Spelling and vocabulary repetition
    • Grammar accuracy
    • Grammar range
    • Linking words
  • Art is an interesting alternative to photos, and lends itself to a lot of the same classroom activities.
  • There are loads of activities you could do with a single picture, like The Bedroom by Van Gogh. Try asking ‘If you lived in a room like this, what would you change?’ Show the picture, then hide it and ask students to remember as much detail as possible. What isn’t in the picture? Whose room is it? Be art critics. Give them half a picture each and make it an information gap.
  • With pictures of people, make the person the subject of an interview. If there are a lot of people, recreate the image by making a tableau vivante. Imagine the relationships between the people or describe their personalities.
  • If you want students to describe and draw, why not given them something like a Picasso or a Dali, and do it as a head drawing exercise (with their paper on their heads)? It’s already an odd picture, so they won’t feel as bad if they can’t reproduce it!
  • There is a blog by a Polish teacher in Polish about teaching English written by Beata Topolska. If you can recommend any other good blogs which are about teaching English but not written in English, please let me know!
  • Problems with teenage students are often due to rapport. Get to class early and get chatting to find out more about them.
  • Watch out for being too shallow or deep with personalisation – it’s a fine line. Try using Speak/Pass/Nominate, so students can choose whether they want to answer (Speak), don’t answer (Pass) or choose somebody else (Nominate).
  • To help students engage with a word bank of photos (e.g. types of food), try getting them to engage using sentences like:
    • I really like ______, but I don’t like _______.
    • I often eat ______ for breakfast, but I never eat _______.
    • I’ve never tried to cook _______ but one day I’d like to.
  • When you give students a list of topics, encourage them to find things in common. This is more authentic, as it’s what we try to do during small talk. You could give them a simple Venn diagram (you/both/me) to frame the discussion. For example, see ‘making connections’ in John Hughes’ post about personalisation.
  • With teens, try asking ‘What do you really hate/dislike?’ rather than ‘Which do you prefer?’ They’re more likely to respond.

All in all, this was a great local conference, and I walked away with loads of ideas for my classes. Thanks to Glenn Standish and IH Torun for organising it!

IATEFL 2018: The talks I missed

Here’s a selection of nuggets of information from talks which I didn’t manage to attend during this year’s conference but did get bits out of via Twitter. They are loosely categorised to help you find your way around. Thanks to everyone who shared what they were watching! I’ve included videos if they’re available, as I hope to watch them at some point myself.

Looking after ourselves and our students

The talk I most wanted to go and see unfortunately clashed with a meeting I had, but I’m happy to say it was recorded. This tweet says it all:

Phil Longwell used his talk to describe the findings of research he has done over the past year about the mental health of English language teachers. You can read about his findings here. The recording is here:

He also did a 10-minute interview for the IATEFL YouTube channel:

I’ve now added both of these links to my collection of Useful links on Mental Health in ELT. Here’s one of my favourite pictures from the conference too 🙂

James Taylor, Sandy Millin, Phil Longwell

Me with James and Phil

Jen Dobson spoke about online safety for primary learners. As part of it, she shared this advert which should promote a lot of discussion:

Teacher training

Jason Anderson asked what impact CELTA has on the classroom practice of experienced teachers. The full talk is available here:

Jason’s CAP framework was referred to in (I think!) Judith G Hudson’s talk ‘Helping teachers understand and use different lesson frameworks:

It is explained in more detail in this article and this handout.

Karin Krummenacher suggested an alternative way of approaching CELTA input sessions, starting with a needs analysis and encouraging trainees to go to the sessions they need, creating a flexible timetable. This is an interesting idea, though another person pointed out it could prove quite challenging if some trainees feel like they are made to go to more sessions than others.

Video in Language Teacher Education is a project I’d like to explore further, particularly since we’ve been introducing video observation into our school this year. You can get a taster by watching the videos on their website.

As a polyglot myself (I think I can say that!), Scott Thornbury‘s talk on hyperpolyglots and what we can learn from them would have been interesting. Here are three tweets from it:

This slide from Simon Brewster’s talk made me smile:

Here are some other tweets from the same talk:

Alastair Douglas spoke on why observation is such a key part of teacher training and on how we should rethink observation tasks. You can watch Alastair’s full talk on the Teaching English British Council page.

Silvana Richardson and Gabriel Diaz Maggioli described ‘Inspired professional development’. You can watch their full talk here:

Here’s one tweet from the talk as a taster:

Katherine Martinkovich summarized their talk here, along with a selection of other related ones she saw. You can read their full whitepaper on the Cambridge website. Having now watched the talk, I’m going to look at the CPD I’m involved in and see how we can make it more sustained, as this seemed to be the glaring omission from most of what I’m doing.

In the classroom

If you’d like to examine your use of Teacher Talking Time, here are some aspects you might consider, courtesy of Stephen Reilly:

Thanks to Liam for clarifying that PPBP is Pose, Pause, Bounce and Pounce – there seem to be two alternatives: PPPB or PPBP.

Here’s an idea for Use of English activities from Stuart Vinnie’s talk…

…and another for cloze answers…

There are lots more ideas like this on the Cambridge Practice Makes Perfect site.

Gareth Davies, a.k.a. Gareth the Storyteller, asked whether English lessons are fairytales in disguise. You can get a taste of his storytelling here, in a 1-minute clip which is perfect for the classroom.

You can watch Zoltan Dornyei’s talk on how to create safe speaking environments here. You can also read a summary of his talk here, written by Jessica Mackay. It also seems silly not to advertise my ebook, Richer Speaking, at this point, since it includes lots of ways to extend and adapt speaking activities. 🙂

Edmund Dudley was talking about motivating teenagers to write, and promoting the new ETpedia Teenagers book [Amazon affiliate link] which was recently published.

His slides are available here – I’m already thinking about which teachers I can pass them on to at school!

Another talk connected to writing includes the phrase ‘sentence energy’, which sounds intriguing. That was Sarah Blair’s presentation on ‘Teaching writing visually, which you can watch on the TeachingEnglish IATEFL 2018 page, or get to directly here.

Working with language

Jade Blue had some interesting ideas for using learner-generated visuals to conceptualise language. I know this image isn’t perfect, but it gives you the idea I think. Definitely something I’d like to find out more about, and nicely complementing David Connolly‘s presentation.

Kerstin Okubo described how to help academic English students build their vocabulary for spoken production, not just for comprehension:

I’m not sure exactly which talk this was from, apart from that it was part of the Materials Writing SIG showcase on Wednesday 11th April, but it looks like it could be useful for working out how good a particular vocabulary activity is:

Being critical

Here’s one way to promote inclusivity and a critical approach to materials use by students. I think it was from the talk entitled ‘Incorporating diversity: best practices for materials and/or the classroom’ by Ana Carolina Lopes:

John Hughes discussed critical thinking and higher order thinking skills for lower levels.

Finally, Brita Fernandez Schmidt gave a plenary called ‘Knowledge is power: access to education for marginalised women’ which generated a lot of conversation. You can watch it here.


What else do you think I missed?

An accidental discovery

When I was looking through my diaries yesterday to write my post about starting different teaching jobs, I opened a diary at random and came across a folded handout:

Speaking games handout

What was so confusing was that it was from 16th June 2005, so two years before I started CELTA, and I had no memory of it at all. At that point I was coming to the end of my first year at Durham University, and it was just after our exam period had finished.

When I opened it up, it said:

Thank you for helping us out today! We hope that your participation will be fun and helpful to the students. This worksheet will give you some background information and ideas for activities to help the students with their speaking on Saturday.

The exam

The students are sitting the Cambridge KET exam. The oral paper lasts about twelve minutes. [The exam was then described.]

Today’s Exercise

To prepare for the test, it is important that they gain confidence in speaking to and understanding people they have never met before, perhaps with accents to which they are not accustomed. It is also important for them to have practice with the exam tasks in a ‘real’ situation outside the classroom. […]

We will start by dividing the students into groups with an even number of volunteers in each group. You can then take your group into another classroom or area where you can do a number of icebreaker games, followed by some more formal conversation practice, for about 90 minutes. Then we would like you to take your groups into Durham to give them practice in making questions and finding and relaying information as they will in section 2 of the exam.

Overleaf are a number of activity ideas for you to try. You don’t have to do them all, and you can use your own judgement about which activities will work, and if you have your own ideas please feel free to try them.

Most importantly – have fun!

On reading my diary entry, it turned out that this was for Japanese students who studied at Teikyo University’s Durham campus.

I really like this way of helping the students to meet people outside their campus, and to make exam practice more realistic for them. It’s also a great example of how you can show non-teachers what to do to help them to interact with and assist learners, without it being too much of a strain for either of them.

Sadly I didn’t write anything about how I felt about participating, but I’m assuming it wasn’t that traumatic or dramatic as it had completely disappeared from my memory. I wonder if there are any other teaching connections hidden in my diaries? 🙂

IH Bydgoszcz and IH Toruń Cambridge Day 2017

Each year IH Bydgoszcz holds a Cambridge Day to give ideas to teachers in the local area to help them teach Main Suite exams. Recently, our sister school, IH Toruń, has become an exam centre too, so to celebrate, we held events in both cities this year. My session was designed to share some (perhaps) less well-known online resources which can be used by teachers who are preparing students for both exams. These are the sites which I shared:

Cambridge Phrasal Verbs apps

Amusing cartoons and a matching game designed to help students remember 100 phrasal verbs. As far as I know they’re a different hundred in each!

The Phrasal Verbs Machine (cartoons in a historic style)

Phrasalstein (cartoons with a comedy horror inflection)

Alex Case

A one-man activity-writing/worksheet-producing machine, and everything I’ve tried so far has been good quality!

Key word sentence transformations advice and activities (including TEFL Reversi, which you can try by printing this Quizlet set: click ‘more’>’print’>’small’ and ‘double-sided printing’ and you’ll get cards you just need to cut up

All of Alex’s FCE worksheets

My blog

A collection of FCE resources for students and teachers which I recommend, including among other things a link to FCE: The Musical!, a 60-minute webinar by Andy Scott with lots more ideas of ways to make exam preparation interesting.

Various FCE activities I’ve shared on my blog, many of which could be adapted to other exams.

Richer Speaking cover

Richer Speaking is my ebook, which includes a section with activities for extending speaking, aimed at encouraging students to produce longer stretches of language. This is especially useful for the picture tasks in Cambridge exams.

A Hive of Activities

Emma Gore-Lloyd has a range of Cambridge exam activities on her blog.  One of my favourites uses pictures as a prompt to remember pairs of sentence transformations.


One of my all-time favourite resources, which is great for vocabulary learning in general, and which can be exploited for Use of English practice too.

How to use Quizlet, including links to classes/groups organised by CEFR level.

FCE/Upper Intermediate sets

CAE/Advanced sets

A good set to play Quizlet Live with is ‘Making your writing more interesting

Teaching exams reading list (Delta)

I’ve been asked many times for my reading list on teaching exams, which was my Delta Module 3 speciality, so I’ve decided to create a post for ease of reference! For that part of the Delta, you have to create a 20-hour course based on research into course principles, your speciality and what your students need. These are the books I used for my assignment on IELTS reading and writing, but there are caveats. I used these books, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily endorse or recommend them – they just happened to be what was available to me at the time! I am sure that there are many others which could be added. Some of the books were recommended by the Distance Delta tutors.

I’m afraid I can’t send you copies of my assignment, but I hope that this reading list will help you if that’s your speciality. Good luck!

Teaching Reading Skills by Christine Nuttall

[All links are affiliate links, so if you buy the book through the link I’ll make a few pennies.]

Alderson, J. C. 2005 ‘The testing of reading’; in Nuttall, C. 2005 Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language (3rd Edition) (2nd edition) Macmillan: Oxford [link to 3rd edition]

Brown, H. D. 2003 Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices Longman: New York

Burgess, S. and Head, K. 2005 How to Teach for Exams Pearson Longman: Harlow

Graves, K. (ed.) 1996 Teachers as Course Developers Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Graves, K. 2000 Designing Language Courses: A Guide for Teachers Heinle & Heinle: Boston

Gronlund, N. E. 1998 Assessment of Student Achievement, 6th edition Allyn & Bacon: Boston [link to 8th edition]

Harmer, J. 2007 The Practice of English Language Teaching Pearson Longman: Harlow [link to 5th edition]

Harris, M. and McCann, P. 1994 Assessment Macmillan: Oxford

Hedge, T. 2000 Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom Oxford University Press: Oxford

Hughes, A. 2003 Testing for Language Teachers, 2nd edition Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, undated ‘IELTS | Researchers – Band descriptors, reporting and interpretation’, accessed 20 January 2013

May, P. 1996 Exam Classes Oxford University Press: Oxford

Murphy, D. April 2000 ‘Key concepts in ELT: Evaluation’; in ELT Journal, Volume 54/2 April 2000, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Nuttall, C. 2005 Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language (3rd Edition) (2nd edition) Macmillan: Oxford [link to 3rd edition]

Prodromou, L. 1995 ‘The backwash effect: from testing to teaching’; in ELT Journal, Volume 49/1 January 1995, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Puchta, H. November 2005 ‘Making the most of multiple intelligences’; in English Teaching Professional, Issue 41 November 2005

Richards, J. 2001 Curriculum Development in Language Teaching Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Thornbury, S. 2006 A – Z of ELT: English Language Teaching Macmillan: Oxford

UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) 2002 Cambridge IELTS 3 Student’s Book with Answers: Examination Papers from the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (IELTS Practice Tests) (IELTS Practice Tests) Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Woodward, T. 2001 Planning Lessons and Courses Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

My first ever sketch-notes

On Monday, I was lucky enough to cross paths with Katherine Bilsborough, one of my fellow TeachingEnglish Associates. She was in Palma (where I’m working this month) doing a seminar on behalf of OUP. The other presenter was Jessica Toro, who I know from going to IH Director of Studies conferences. It’s a small world!

Their sessions were very useful, and since I didn’t have wifi access, I decided to take my cue from Christina Rebuffet-Broadus and have a go at my first ever sketch-notes. Looking at Christina’s notes now, I probably tried to pack a bit too much into mine, but I’m quite pleased with them for a first attempt. You’ll notice the notes from Jessica’s talk are a lot more adventurous as I got more confident 🙂 Let me know if you want text explanations of anything I put on there.

Katherine’s talk was about how to make the most of your coursebook, particularly if you’re working with primary-age children.

My first ever sketchnotes - from Katherine Bilsborough's talk

Jessica told us how to help students get ready for young learner exams.

Sketchnotes from Jessica Toro's talk

Both sessions had lots of activities in them which makes me a tiny bit more confident about offering advice to teachers about young learner classes next year!

Thanks for inviting me Katherine 🙂

Reading for exams

This presentation was part of the Tip-Top local conference in Sevastopol which took place on May 10th, 2014. There’s a video from the conference, with photos from my presentation from about 1:00-1:30.

I shared activities to help students prepare for the KET, PET and FCE reading exams. If you have other activities you like using, why not share them in the comments?

There is a recorded version of the presentation here:

Here is the handout with all of the reading texts referred to during the presentation:

They were taken from the official Cambridge handbooks for Key (KET), Preliminary (PET) and First (FCE), which are all free to download from the Cambridge ESOL site.

The listening book mentioned on the third slide is ‘Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action‘ by Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh.

The signs used for KET and PET were taken from ELTpics, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license. ELTpics is a collection of over 18,000 images (as I write this) shared by teachers and other education professionals from all over the world. They are arranged into categories, for example ‘Signs‘, ‘Rooms and Furniture‘ and ‘Every Picture Tells a Story‘. The photos used in the presentation were taken by Scott Thornbury, Victoria Boobyer, Mike Harrison, @silpico, Adam Simpson, and me!

The extra links I shared at the end of the presentation were:

  • Cambridge English‘ on facebook;
  • Hive of Activities: a blog by Emma Gore-Lloyd, where she shares activities she’s found useful in her class, particularly for FCE, CAE and CPE;
  • my diigo list of exam-related bookmarks, which I constantly add to. You can narrow it down by clicking ‘+’ next to any of the sub-categories on the left. For example, clicking ‘+’ next to ‘FCE’ will show you only my FCE links.

I’d like to thank David Dodgson, Hada Litim, Maria Theologidou, Olga Stolbova and Damian Williams for their help in putting together this presentation.

Teaching essay writing

Today I presented a seminar with ideas about teaching essay writing, with a particular focus on FCE and IELTS exam tasks. It’s part of the monthly seminar series at International House Sevastopol.

The slides from the presentation and all of the resources can be found below. You can download everything from slideshare, for which you will need to create a free account. The links in the presentation are clickable. You’ll find full details of all of the activities in the notes which accompany each slide, which you’ll be able to see when you download the presentation.

Three different types of IELTS essay question (adapted from DC IELTS):

IELTS questions to classify by type (adapted from DC IELTS):

Potato talks from Thinking in the EFL Class by Tessa Woodward (published by Heibling Languages – affiliate link)

FCE essay to put in order (via Pavla Milerski):

Essay structure (via Pavla Milerski):


Photo from ELTpics by @yearinthelifeof, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license

I’d like to thank Olga Stolbova from IH Sevastopol and Pavla Milerski from IH Brno for helping me to put the seminar together.

The next one in the series will take place on February 22nd 2014, on the theme of teaching stress patterns in pronunciation. Olga will present it. If you’re in the area, we’d love to see you there!

Revising numbers and letters

I did this activity in an IELTS class this morning as a fun way to practise listening part 1, where you have to write information down including numbers and letters. These could be product codes, reference numbers and other combinations of numbers and letters.

You could also use it with lower level students to practise the alphabet or vocabulary you’ve studied recently.

Dictate a place name, interspersed with letters and numbers. This was my example (be careful with ‘o’ and zero):


Students should write it down as just a series of letters and numbers. Tell them it’s a place which they have to find by underlining the letters. The answer here is ‘Wolverhampton’, the town where I grew up.

They then think of a place name and add some numbers to it to dictate to a partner. They could also choose some vocabulary from a recent class, names of people, or reverse it by having a date with letters interspersed in it.

Useful FCE websites

Here are all of the useful websites I can find to help students preparing for the Cambridge First Certificate exam. Please let me know if there are any broken links, or if you find something you think I should add.


Great website, full of tips, especially for Reading, Use of English and Writing. I’d definitely recommend students look at the word bank every day, and that teachers try to make use of those words in their classes to motivate students to use it! There is also a bank of writing showcasing all of the different text types, including teacher feedback.

The official Cambridge FCE website, with information about the length of the papers and the task types, as well as some free materials to download.

Three sites aimed at students. All include information, tips and exercises covering all parts of the exam.

Alex Case’s excellent collection of FCE worksheets.

FCE Result (affiliate link – I will earn money from Amazon if you buy anything after clicking this link), the OUP coursebook, has online exercises for each unit of the book. (via Anna Yermolenko)

And finally, these are the activities tagged ‘FCE’ on my own blog, including ones for speaking and use of English.

Practice exams

Two sets of Reading, Writing and Use of English practise exercises

A free practice test, not including speaking


Two places to find online flashcards to play games with on the Quizlet website, to download onto smartphones or to print off and use in class. If you’ve never used Quizlet, here’s my guide.

Oxford Word Skills Intermediate and Advanced (affiliate links) can also help you to build your vocabulary, and they have online exercises too. (via Anna Yermolenko)


Oxford Practice Grammar Intermediate and Advanced (affiliate links) have a test you can use to assess your level, along with practice exercises online. (via Anna Yermolenko)

Photo taken from by @yearinthelifeof, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

Photo taken from by @yearinthelifeof, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

The rest of the links are organised by paper. The links above also include some information for each paper, and there doesn’t seem to be anything specific for Paper 1: Reading that isn’t just a practice test.

Paper 2: Writing

General guidelines for the whole exam and for each part of the writing, including useful language

Flo-joe writing class, including a task every week, writing makeovers, and exercises on proofreading

First Certificate Writing is full of examples and tips, plus information about common mistakes.

A seminar for teachers from the IATEFL Birmingham 2016 conference, with Anette Capel sharing tips to help you prepare students for First.

Teaching students how to organise extended writing, with templates for essays and reports

Informal email






Tips on how to write essays of opinion or argumentative essays, including useful language

A sheet based on an opinion essay about sport

An exercise to practise the structure of an essay by putting missing phrases into an essay about computers

Essay writing checklist

Two fun interactive tools for planning essays, via British Council Las Rozas

Paper 3: Use of English

Lots of Use of English exercises.

Use of English exercises (under the ‘Intermediate’ heading)

72 key word transformation sentences, but no key.

This link will take you to Use of English part 4 Key Word Transformation information and exercises. At the top of the page you can also find links to Reading and the other Use of English sections.

Key word transformations on quizlet. Students can play games to help them practise the forms.

Key word transformations activities from Alex Case (plus tips for the teacher to show you how to deal with them in the classroom)

Paper 4: Listening

Listening practice from the British Council

Tips for teaching every section of the listening paper

Paper 5: Speaking
Speaking practice from the British Council.
Tips and example questions to help students prepare for the Speaking Paper (Paper 5)
A video showing two students doing part 1 of the Speaking paper. Once you have watched the video, click on the links to the right to take you to the next section. All four sections are available.
A very comprehensive guide to language students need for FCE speaking part two (comparing pictures), in order of priority, along with ideas on how to teach it.
Tips, do’s and don’ts for students to maximise their score in paired parts of speaking exams.

In the classroom

Andy Scott presented a webinar entitled ‘FCE: the musical’ for the International House Live Online Workshops. It was an hour of useful and fun activities to prepare students for the exam.

A Hive of Activities has a range of great FCE activities, covering various papers, with more being added all the time.

Alex Case has many very useful activities for FCE on This example is a selection of activities for speaking part 3 phrases: presentation, practice and games. There is also a key word guessing game for speaking 2.

Nicola Prentis has written Teach First Certificate, a beginners guide for teachers showing how to approach the exam, available on Amazon as a paperback or ebook [affiliate links].


Here is another directory of links from teflgeek.

An amazing video of tips for FCE students from students at IH Santa Clara.

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.

FCE Speaking Part 3: our version

On Thursday I introduced my students to Speaking Part 3 of the FCE paper. In this section of the exam, two students have about three minutes to discuss a set of 5-7 pictures and answer two questions. The first question involves some kind of scenario where they have to refer to every picture, and the second involves making a decision. The examiners are looking for whether the candidates can have a discussion (interactive communication) rather than monologue, among other things.

We were focussing on holidays all week, so in a similar way to the Present Simple / Present Continuous activity I shared a couple of weeks ago, I asked my students to draw a picture of themselves on holiday.

Since there were 11 students, plus me, we had twelve pictures in total (I’ll leave you to work out which one was mine!) That created two convenient groups, like so:

Speaking part 3The notes at the top show two language points which came up during the discussions. We ended up doing the task four times, using each set of pictures twice. The questions I asked were:

  • Imagine you are taking your family on holiday. What are the benefits of each kind of holiday when travelling with a family? Which is the best place to take a family too?
  • Imagine you are organising a holiday with your friends at the end of your exams. What could you do with your friends on each of these holidays? Which place will you go to?
  • Imagine you are going to have a week’s holiday by yourself. What are the advantages and disadvantages of travelling along to these places? Which is the best place to travel alone?
  • Imagine you are organising your next holiday. Why do people go on these kinds of excursions when on holiday? Which one would you go on as a one-day excursion?

We had done an example of the activity from Complete First Certificate, and I used their excellent speaking guide (at the back of the book) to give the students tips on how to approach the task. The general idea for this lesson was to familiarise the students with the format and to encourage them to converse, rather than monologue. In the end, that wasn’t really a problem as they’re very good at interacting with each other. They definitely improved as they did the task more times, although I think after doing it five times they never wanted to see it again! 🙂

(We used the class timer from the Triptico suite to keep the students in line!)

FCE Speaking (Paper 5) Part 1

I’ve just started teaching a Cambridge FCE group, so expect to see a lot of posts about my lessons over the next few months (they take their exam at the end of November). Hopefully I’ll be able to share some of the ideas I’ve been using and get some in return 🙂

For the first session I decided to focus on FCE Speaking Part 1. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, there are four parts to an FCE Speaking exam, the first of which is an interview where the interlocutor speaks to each candidate in turn. The questions are general ‘getting to know you’ ones, along with some which are little more in-depth. They are designed to ease the candidate into the exam.

We started off by brainstorming topics you might talk about when you meet someone for the first time. The students came up with:

Speaking Part 1 topicsI then divided the topics up into groups and gave the students some pieces of scrap paper. Each piece of paper was for one topic. Working in small groups, they brainstormed as many questions as they could for each area and wrote them on the paper.

We then passed the questions around the room for other students to correct and add to.

Once the questions were as good as they could be, the students took one set of questions each and mingled to find out the answers.

As homework, they typed the questions into this Google Document, which I had started with ‘personal information’ questions. I also added the bonus topic of ‘your house’. My job for this evening is to correct them!

Feel free to use the questions with your groups, or add to them if you think of any more.


CAE Speaking Part 3

Here is a presentation I made to help out my CAE students with their final preparation for the speaking exam. I hope your students find it useful too. I used some information from the Splendid Speaking website, which has some excellent tips for many Cambridge exams.

Mini reviews

If you have a few minutes between now and Wednesday 25th May 2011, I’d be really grateful if you could contribute to a collection of book/film reviews I’d like to use with my Advanced level students. I’m looking for your own opinions, rather than links online (as I could find them myself) 🙂

I’m trying to encourage them to use a larger range of adjectives than just good/bad/interesting/boring, so anything you could add would be great! They can be as long or as short as you like, and I would really appreciate some negative reviews too, as these are often neglected I think.

How to join in

  • Add a review to the comments in this post.
  • Post your review by adding a post-it note to this page in this link.
  • Record a short review using audioboo
  • Send me a review any other way you choose!
Thank you very much for joining in, and watch this space for a lesson plan showing how I used them.

Describing graphs

Here is a set of worksheets I made last year. I used them over a series of lessons with various groups at Intermediate and Upper Intermediate level. (They may take a while to load on this page)
Some of the activities are taken from other sources, in which case they should always be credited. If you believe I have used something which is uncredited, please let me know.
Feel free to use and adapt the worksheets however you see fit. They can be used in whatever order you see fit. I have tried to arrange them here with the more specific items at the beginning and the general summaries at the end. If you think any of the answers are missing or any of the information is incorrect, please let me know too.

Authentic Listening with British Accents

Both of the CAE courses I teach have recently encountered the Listening Part 4 tasks for the first time. For those of you who don’t know how this works, they have to listen to five speakers doing short monologues on a related theme, for example holidays, jobs or sport. While listening they have to do TWO multiple matching tasks, and they only listen twice. Some students do both simultaneously, others do them consecutively. Here is an online example.

For all of my students, the hardest part of the task is not the fact that they have to do so much at the same time; rather it is the difficult (mostly British) accents that many of them are encountering for the first time. Having previously only really heard neutral accents, with the occasional local one thrown in for an authentic feel to coursebooks, along with the American English they’re exposed to in films and on TV, they were in shock when they heard fast native speakers with accents including Somerset, Scouse, Welsh, Brummie and Irish, among others.

As a result, we’ve been adding youtube videos and other links to our Edmodo group every time we find an interesting accent. I thought it might be useful to share these with the wider world, and I’m hoping you might be able to add to the collection. We’re focussing on British accents because in Part 4 this is what they are most likely to encounter, although American ones do appear in other parts of the CAE Listening exam. I’ve tried to group them loosely by accent, but please feel free to correct me!

WARNING: A couple of these videos contain adult content, so check them before you use them with a class (I know you would anyway!)

In no particular order:

Many accents

A voicethread I made collating videos

British Library page

Evolving English world map

woices – location based audioguides (for example, there is a guide taking you through Birmingham’s musical history)

BBC Voices

Speech Accent Archive

Mixed Accents

Hale & Pace (Yorkshire and Dudley/Black Country) – Pub Hooligans and What are you looking at? (via Klara P)

Gavin and Stacey (Essex and Wales) – the girls are from Wales and the boys are from Essex

Cockney, Lancaster and Yorkshire accents in East Street (Eastenders and Coronation Street meet)

Frank Skinner (West Bromwich/Black Country) interviewing Noel Gallagher (Mancunian – Manchester)

Geordie (Newcastle)

Geordie case study from the British Library

Geordie monologue – a funny poem including lots of local words (these won’t appear in the exam – I hope!)

Ant & Dec talking about Comic Relief (see my lesson about Comic Relief and Red Nose Day here)

A local man talking about his seat at St. James’ Park (from

Sarah Millican (Geordie comedian) solving problems

West of England / Somerset etc

Fork handles by the Two Ronnies

I’ve got a brand new combine harvester by The Wurzels (and the lyrics!)


Rhod Gilbert doing stand-up

Tom Jones interview

Irish (I know they’re not strictly British, but these are good videos!)

The similarities between Irish and Scouse

Dara O’Briain doing stand-up about mothers using other men to control their children

Ballykissangel – the opening scene


Scottish English– an interview done by an American (via Klara P)

Hamish Macbeth – the opening scene

Scottish voice-operated lift

Glaswegian surrealism – Dee Dee in the kitchen

Scouse (Liverpool)

A set of links

The similarities between Irish and Scouse

Red Dwarf – Lister (Craig Charles) is a Scouser – in this clip, he speaks from 1 minute

Brummie (Birmingham) and Black Country

Talk like a Brummie Day

Black Country Alphabet and a blog post talking about the dialect (thanks to Mark Andrews for the second link)

Allan Ahlberg reading Talk Us Through It, Charlotte (a poem)


Last of the Summer Wine: Who’s Got Rhythm?


Phil Harding talking about the Stonehenge Dagger

‘Standard’ English

Hugh Laurie discussing some American and British English differences (via Kristyna)

Please feel free to add to the list by posting in the comments below, if possible including which accent(s) the video include(s).



I’ve now created a set of materials based on some of these videos and others.

I also found a list of accents used by public figures (all from England) on Wikipedia. It could be a good starting point if you want to do further research.

Not completely authentic, but interesting nonetheless: a dialect coach gives a tour of British accents for the BBC Film Programme.

Write on!

This  week has been all about writing for myself and my students. On Wednesday, I took part in the #eltchat on Writing and Marking (transcript here, summary here) and on Friday we had a CAM (IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology) session on Writing. In the course of both I was thinking about the writing my students have done recently, and realised that we’ve done many different things. Here is a selection of them in no particular order.

Email Workshop

  • SS sent me examples of real emails written in English.
  • I printed them, along with a couple of real emails I have sent to other native speakers, and cut them up to take into class.
  • SS sorted them on a scale (roughly) from formal to informal.
  • SS read the emails in more detail, attaching post-it notes to them with examples of good language from them. There was also a bit of scrap paper next to each where they could write any questions.
  • We took the emails one by one and went through the post-it notes and scrap paper, adding extra notes as they came up.

An example of an email we had looked at

  • At home, I scanned the emails with the post-it notes still stuck on them and emailed them to the SS.
  • For homework, SS added to a GoogleDoc to serve as a final reference which they can access at any time after the class. This is the original template, which you’re welcome to use (please ask me if you need access).

With five students and nine emails, this has already taken one 90-minute class, and could easily take another. The students are really enthusiastic about it and told me it was very useful at the end of the session.

Email conversations

One of the first things I did in my classes at the beginning of the year was to gather the SS’ email addresses. We are constantly in contact with each other, mainly about homework but with other emails related to holidays and issues the students have.

Short summaries

After a discussion in class, I encouraged SS to write a very short summary (3-4 sentences) of what they learnt. I then collected it, marked it quickly while they were doing some listening, and returned it asking them to email it to me for homework. This could have been done without marking, but as these students are training to take the CAE exam and are generally reluctant to write, every little helps!

Discussion questions and answers

The same group did some speaking in class based on a wordle of money questions from New English File Advanced. I gave them the original teacher’s book page for homework, then asked them to choose two questions. For one, they had to record an answer through audioboo or on their mobile phones; for the other, they needed to send me short paragraph by email. I posted the results on my student blog here. Half of the class did their homework, which is a pretty good hit rate for them!

Essay writing

In the CAE exam class, I introduced the group to essay writing. We followed a task-based approach, with the students writing essays in pairs, followed by an examination of linking phrases they could use to improve cohesion. They then had a chance to redraft their essay using the language and tips from the coursebook. I gave them online feedback for the first time (example) using Jing for the recording, along with OmniDazzle to do the mark-up. One student has already replied:

Thank you very much for this feedback. I think it very useful and I really like it. I believe that it will help all of us.

Thanks to all those on #eltchat who suggested feedback like this – it’s a great tool to add my toolbox.

EnglishRaven’s materials

Jason Renshaw is one of my favourite bloggers to follow. He constantly inspires me with all of the materials he posts on his excellent blog. This week I finally got to experiment with two of them – the Wizard English Grid (WEG) for emergent language, based on this post, and the reading and questions template from this post. The former is still a work in progress with the various groups I’ve introduced it into, but the latter was very successful. Having covered advanced family vocabulary with one group last week, I wanted to revise while pushing the students further. I found an article about demographics in the Czech Republic to paste into the empty space in Jason’s template, then gave the students time to create their own questions. We only had half an hour in class, but the way the discussion was going we could easily have continued for an hour. And where was the writing, I hear you cry? Well, the questions the discussion was based on were all written by the students themselves – something which they don’t often practise.


With two 1-2-1 students I recorded speaking, which they then typed a transcript of for us to work on the language. Neither of them noticed that they were writing, and they commented afterwards that they had never of thought of doing this before.

YLs and Teens

Even my younger learners didn’t escape! In the YL class of pre-intermediate nine- to ten-year-olds we’ve been watching a few minutes of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban at the end of each lesson as a reward for all of their hard work. This week, there was a space in the syllabus which was the perfect time to teach them some of the vocabulary they’d been struggling with. As a follow-up they wrote a couple of sentences about the film and draw a picture on this sheet:

The intermediate-level teens started writing a script for a presentation we’re going to make next week on their technology use.

The End

I think that pretty much covers it, and I hope it’s useful to someone! When I started thinking about it, I was very surprised at just how much writing there was in one week’s worth of lessons. What I’m concentrating on at the moment is trying to make all writing I do relevant and to give the students as much of a sense of purpose as possible. I know I was definitely guilty of ‘the next page is writing, so we’ll do it on Monday’ and ‘do the writing for homework’ before, and I hope the things featured in this post are the first steps to changing this!

Writing and Marking

Advanced-level students using laptops to produce film reviews

Advanced-level students using laptops to produce film reviews

Having just spent the morning marking writing from both Cambridge CAE and non-exam Advanced students, I suddenly remembered that one of the things I highlighted in my CAM action plan as an area to work on was presenting and marking writing. It seems a blog post is therefore in order…

Writing seems to be one of those areas which is quite ephemeral – a kind of ‘practice makes perfect’ for both teachers and students. Here are some of the things I’ve heard (and maybe even said) from each side of the divide:


  • I don’t have time to write.
  • I hate writing.
  • Arghhh! I can’t write. (after being presented with a sheet of paper covered in notes)
  • What [exactly] do you want me to do?
  • Why do we have to write?
  • Writing is boring and it takes too long.


  • I don’t have time to include writing in my classes. / Students never do writing for homework.
  • I don’t have time to mark writing.
  • My students don’t care about writing, so why should I?
  • I don’t really know how to mark [fill in appropriate level / exam] writing.
  • I don’t want to depress my students by covering the page in red pen.
  • Their spelling / grammar / handwriting is atrocious – I can’t read it.

So what can / should we do about it?

At the risk of over-bullet-pointing my own writing, here are some of the solutions I’ve found have worked with my students so far:

  • Setting homework through Edmodo: they have a range of different ways to do the writing, and are therefore (slightly) more willing to do it. They can also send homework later if they don’t have time during the week it’s set.
  • Presenting writing through a task-based approach (this will be the subject of a future blog post – watch this space), which allows students to do the writing in class in groups and produce two versions of it so they really see the difference before and after input.
  • Using a writing code: students soon get the hang of this, although it takes a bit of explaining at the beginning of the year. They occasionally hand back writing if they want to know how to improve it (depends on the student’s level of motivation).
  • Laptops: By asking students to bring in their own laptops, I created a language lab at a school with two computers 🙂 Students enjoyed being able to edit their work quickly. They could then reedit it at home and email it to me if they wanted to.

As you can see, there aren’t many of them (otherwise there would have been no point highlighting it on my action plan!) I will therefore set you a writing task of you own, so that you can get into the spirit of things.

Choose ONE (or TWO or THREE…) of the following to answer.

  • Writing for exams: should we always mark using the criteria for the exam? If not, what should criteria should we mark to?
  • How can we encourage students to correct their work and give it back, without creating a lot more marking for ourselves?
  • How much marking is appropriate? Where do you stop?!?
  • Handwriting: is it an issue? Does it matter if students handwrite or type their texts?
  • Spelling: How can we help students to improve it? How important is spelling for non-exam students?
  • Grammar: Is it possible for students to improve their grammar through writing?
  • Feedback: Do you use a writing code? If not, what do you use? What kind of comments do you give the students?
  • Should we give the marking criteria to the students before they do the writing? Or could this be too much for them? (thinking about exam-based criteria especially here)
  • How can we teach teachers to mark writing consistently with each other when sharing a class? How can we teach teachers new to an exam to mark writing at an appropriate level? (I was new to CAE this year, and this was particularly difficult for me, although after attending a seminar in December I feel much better about it)
  • How can we encourage both teachers and students to make time for writing inside and outside class?

Answers should be 120-150 words long in an informal-neutral tone 😉

Right, I think that about covers it. I look forward to marking your answers!


PS I have thought of blogging with my students – it’s a work in progress at the moment, as I’m still working out how the blogosphere works myself and computer access is scarce to non-existent at my school!

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