What Every EFL Teacher Should Know: Teaching English for Exams, Part 2

January 5, 2012
Teaching English for exams

This post was written by Matthew Clark
As mentioned in our December newsletter, we are finishing up our two part series on teaching English for exams. We decided to consult Kimberly Stone, a current teacher in our Academic English Program in Denver.  Kim has a B.A. in English Writing from the University of Colorado at Denver and previously spent two years living in Florence, Italy, as a TEFL instructor.  To date, she has five years of experience teaching test preparation, and here are four things she says you must keep in mind:

Test preparation is different than a typical English class. That may sound obvious, but it’s important for English teachers and students alike to understand that test preparation is different than teaching basic grammar, reading comprehension, or vocabulary.  Test preparation is not a class to learn basic concepts.  I truly feel that students need to be at an intermediate level of English before jumping into any test preparation course, because if they’re not, most of the class is spent on teaching new grammar or vocabulary.  I’m not saying students have to be at a native speaker level, but if they don’t have a firm grasp of the basics they won’t get what they signed up for.

The time restrictions are brutal. Most likely to this point, these students have only participated in English classes where the teacher has given more time than necessary and the classes are fun and relaxed.  Now they must complete these tests in a time restricted environment.  To be effective as a teacher, you have to implement the same time constraints in class. In the IELTS and the TOEFL, for instance, students are given two writing tasks to complete—one with a 20-minute limit and one with a 30-40 minute limit.  In the test preparation class, the teacher must execute the same timing so students are comfortable with the timing and they are not racing against the clock when they take the real exam. This is one of the most important elements of test preparation.

Test preparation courses are short—motivate your students to do extra outside of class. Most courses are only a couple of hours per week, so I constantly remind my students that they cannot achieve everything in class only.  The test preparation course is designed to teach strategies and tips, show students how to practice these strategies, and to give a practice test to utilize these strategies.  Students must then take everything they have learned in class and practice outside of class. I constantly give homework, and part of this homework is to use the time restrictions.  If I give them a reading or writing test to take home, they must complete in the time given.  I tell them to stop when the time is up.  Don’t finish it.  Bring it to the next class, and we will figure out why they didn’t finish.  Also, if I give them a listening test to take home, I tell them they can only listen once.  Don’t try to listen two, three, or four times to get the right answer.  Test preparation homework is not about getting the right answer.  This homework is designed to learn how to get the right answer.  I always say, “Help me help you.”  If they don’t practice and put in the work I can’t help them.  They laugh, but they know it’s true.  And I do too.  I have been teaching test preparation for almost five years now, and the students that put their best effort in to this always come out on top.

Know your test! When I was given the arduous task of teaching TOEFL prep in 2006, the first thing (and most beneficial) I did was take a practice test.  I had to know exactly what we (both my students and I) were up against.  I entered my first test preparation class fully armed with the basics of what I would be teaching.  I didn’t learn everything I know now in a matter of days, weeks, or months.  I’m still learning and picking up new strategies and tips to pass along to my students, but no matter what I’m teaching, I’m always prepared and ready for anything.  These students are not only paying for these courses, but they are depending on you for their future.  They are looking for you to show them how to get that 7 in the IELTS or that 110 in the TOEFL, and if you are prepared and know exactly what to give them they will be able to acquire the score they want.