Developing a course for one of the standard international exams that test English language competency has much in common with developing a general English course, but there are also some important differences. For one thing, as well as the skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing, you will also need to familiarise students with a more specific set of strategies that relate to the exam they will be sitting.
These strategies can vary widely for different exams, depending on what they demand of students and, to a large extent, on the format of the exams themselves. Part of the job of preparing students for the exam they will take is making them aware of exactly what to expect on the day of the exam. For example, while Cambridge exams such as Preliminary (PET) test students’ speaking abilities by having them converse with another student, Trinity speaking exams are conducted one-to-one between a student and an examiner. Some exams may be taken on paper or online, with a resulting difference in the experience of students sitting the exam. Most exams measure students against the criteria of the CEFR, but some also have their own ways of measuring students’ levels of proficiency. For example, Pearson’s suite of exams are aligned with Pearson’s own Global Scale of English.
The structure and features of the course will be informed by the specifications of the exam. This includes things like word lists, reading text lengths, the formats of listenings and task types. When exams are updated, as happens occasionally, this can have a big impact on publishers who produce materials for these exams. This was the case, for example, with the 2020 updates for the Cambridge Key and Preliminary exams.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of an exam course is that the content usually serves a dual purpose: firstly, improving the students’ level of English and, secondly, giving them the skills they need to pass the test. In an ideal world, these goals will go hand in hand. After all, the aim of exams is to validate a student’s level, with the implication that the work students put in to achieve a good result will also increase their level and make them more competent users of the language.
In reality, there can be tension between learning how to pass a test on the one hand and becoming better at using a language in more natural settings – outside the controlled environment of the exam room – on the other. Providing this balance between teaching language skills and teaching students to pass an exam is one of the hallmarks of a good exam course. This can be done by ensuring that activities and tips focus on both the specifics of the relevant test and on general language acquisition and skills development.
In reality, there can be tension between learning how to pass a test on the one hand and becoming better at using a language in more natural settings.
Studying for an exam can be stressful for students who may have a lot riding on the results. For students taking IELTS or TOEFL, for instance, the grade they achieve may decide whether they are able to enrol on a particular university course, or it might affect their employment prospects. For this reason, exam courses should offer students help with managing nerves and provide strategies for dealing with anxiety, both in the lead-up to the exam and on the day.
Exams are generally over in a few hours, but students may spends months and many study hours preparing for that relatively short, high-stakes (and often expensive) occasion. A good exam course will accompany them through that time and help them to enter the exam room feeling fully prepared and to leave it feeling that they have done themselves justice.
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