• Tom Garside

Teaching exam preparation


The English teaching industry has many levels of teaching position, from short contracts with language travel groups and summer schools to permanent tenure at English language universities. Everyone has to start somewhere, and sometimes it can feel hard to make a jump to a more permanent or specialist position in the industry.


One way of raising your game is to become familiar with international ESOL examinations such as IELTS, Trinity GESE or ISE, or the Cambridge ESOL exam suite.


These exams are all highly desirable confirmations of English learners’ language level in preparation for overseas work or study, and teachers who can effectively help students to reach their academic goals through these certificates are sought after worldwide.


Teaching exam preparation classes requires some professional development and a good understanding of some key points about language assessment, the structure and content of these exams, and the types of skills required for success. Here is a list of development points for anyone wanting to get into exam preparation teaching, and some simple ways of building your experience and knowledge about ESOL assessments:

Research the exam(s) that you will be teaching

Any formal ESOL examination involves a complex range of skills and language, both for the students to learn and for you to teach, so the first step to preparing to teach to an assessment is to look more closely into the exam's requirements. Most ESOL exams are divided into work on the 4 language skills - listening, reading, writing and speaking, though these are weighted and combined differently in different assessments.

IELTS separates these skills into 4 separate tests, whereas Trinity College’s ISE examination combines paper-based skills (reading and writing) and oral/aural skills (speaking and listening). These two structures involve very different approaches to how learners approach the language they are studying, and different types of classroom work from the teacher.


Within each of the skills sections, each set of questions is designed quite differently depending on the approach taken by the exam. Different types of question (multiple choice, open answer, cloze, gap fill, summary writing, data analysis, argumentative essays…) require very different language competencies, and students have to be ready to put these into action under quite stressful conditions, so the more you understand each of these skill types in the exam sections, the more efficiently you will be able to help your students develop this skills, and the more confidence you will be able to give through your preparation activity.

Take the exam yourself under timed conditions


Perhaps the best way to get inside a language exam is to do the test yourself under the same conditions that you are asking students to work to. I am always surprised at how few teachers actually take the plunge and take practice exams themselves.


Find an example exam online (or from the teachers’ room) and give yourself a couple of hours to work through it to the time limit. When you finish, think about which sections took the most effort and why, and which question types gave you problems. Think about the different strategies that you naturally used to complete the exam sections. Could these strategies also benefit your students, or do they have a more effective way of working?


This deeper level of understanding cannot be gained from short question examples in textbooks, and can give you a real empathy for the challenges facing your class. In addition, you will be able to provide solutions for students based on your own experiences and the strategies you took to the different sections of the paper.



Think about study strategies, not just results


The way that students approach an exam is as important as their language knowledge and abilities. A first-language English speaker will have issues completing the exam successfully if they do not know what exactly is expected of them for the different questions, and especially if they do not manage their time appropriately.


An experience in New Zealand confirmed this - a group of Kiwi nurses had to take an IELTS exam to work in Australia (where all non-Australian medical staff must achieve a certain score in the exam whether they are first-language speakers or not). The whole group refused to take classes to prepare (how hard could it be for a native speaker to pass an English language exam…). They went in to the exam cold and not one of them achieved the minimum score that they needed to make their move to Australia.


This is not a reflection on New Zealand or Australia - just simple proof that language ability is by far not the only factor for success in these examinations. An understanding of expected timings per section, what the questions are actually asking, and how to respond in the way that the exam wants you to are all additional factors. Look into different ways of answering questions, and get familiar with tips from preparation materials, in the context of your own experience completing the exam, and you will be further prepared to support students in their strategies for success.

Build your vocabulary teaching resources


Perhaps the biggest hurdle for students studying for English language examinations is vocabulary. Unless they are studying a specific assessment related to their field of work or study (which is not how most international examinations work), they will need to have a working vocabulary in many different fields. The topics of the exam content are not predictable, and students may have to read, listen, speak and write about topics as diverse as the environment, business trends, geography, European history, archaeology, anthropology, the arts… to name just a few of the common topics which come up in this kind of assessment.


This means that a huge amount of vocabulary work is required during the preparation period. For this, a topic-based approach works well, where the teacher prepares different common topics on a weekly basis, giving opportunities for students to flex their different skills in different ways based on a weekly vocabulary set that can be presented early in the week.

Review and revision is essential for successful vocabulary study, so as well as using the new words and phrases in speaking, writing, reading and listening tasks, some kind of end-of-week review activity (definition games, quizzes or projects) definitely helps students to retain what they are learning.


Vocabulary is another area where study strategies come into play. As well as the activity that you plan for the group, they will also need to keep working on their vocabulary outside of class, so giving them different ways of storing, building and researching vocabulary that they need will also have results in their assessments.

Make your students think like examiners


Another way of helping students to get inside the exam they are studying for is to lead regular assessment role-plays, where students take on the role of examiners for whatever exam section they are working on.

In a speaking assessment this means having one student asking the questions and prompting their group members, and assessing the quality of the responses that the rest of the group give them. You can monitor the group activity to see how authentically the ‘examiner’ is leading the session, showing whether they understand the nature of that assessment section.


In reading and listening sections, get students writing their own questions for exam texts that they have been studying. The wording that they use to ask the questions, the types of information they expect in answers can show a lot about how well they understand the exam requirements. Having groups of students creating whole exam sections and passing them on to others in the class to complete can also promote some interesting discussion about how appropriate or authentic the student examiners’ questions are. This is especially true if the ‘examiners’ and the ‘test takers’ disagree on the right answers - do the two groups’ expectations meet? If not, why not?


For exam writing sections, students can also set writing prompts for each other, pass them around the class for review, and then write essay plans accordingly. In data response questions (as in IELTS writing part 1), students can even search for their own data prompts online and ask others in the class to prepare writing prompts or analyse the graph or image they have found in an authentic way.


The more you can get inside the minds of the exam writers, and the closer you can get to the experience of a test taker preparing for a language exam, the more likely you will be to give your class what they need, and the more you will be able to help them to develop the key skills for success in different areas. Exam preparation is not just about teaching grammar and vocabulary (though that is important too) - it is all about your understanding of the requirements of the exam sections, and how you can help your students navigate those most effectively with the language and skills that they have on the day.


Overall, getting into ESOL assessments is a definite boost to any teacher’s CV, and if you can do it well, you will be fun demand both in schools and privately - the ESOL exam market is enormous and there are a lot of people out there who don’t do it as effectively as they could. Put the work in to understand the exams, and you will build a god name for yourself and get results for the students you teach.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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