20th June 2017

How to pass your English exam: tips for success

By James Pengelley

English exams are big business – the British Council claim more than 2 million IELTS exams were taken in 2013, while over 700,000 people sit a Trinity ESOL exam each year.

English exams have become particularly popular for students wishing to emigrate, study or work in English speaking countries, and in some cases, non-English speaking governments mandate that high school or university students must achieve a certain English exam grade in order to graduate.

That said, if exams were easy to pass, there would arguably be less demand.  In my experience, it is quite common for students to sit the exam they need multiple times before they achieve the grade they need.  Part of this might be down to students wanting to get experience with an exam before it becomes an emergency, however I suspect there are many students who are given poor advice and guidance in how to approach their exam.

So what are some things that English exam teachers and students should talk about?

1) Exam skills can make a small difference

Too often, I see students asking about how to pass an exam, or achieve fluency, only to find out they need to sit an exam or move abroad in two weeks’ time.  The reality is that learning a language takes time and effort.

Many schools offer short, intensive courses that aim to prepare students to take an exam, but there really is very little you can achieve, language wise, in 10 hours or so.

That said, if you don’t know what the format of an exam is, tips for managing your time, or how to answer specific sections, then the chances are you’ll suffer.  While exams are designed to get the best language and most authentic language out of students, it is actually really hard to do this in a way that ensures each and every exam is delivered in a standarised way.  So while the chances of taking your B1 student to C1 in 4 weeks is pretty unrealistic, it is a very wise idea to get help and guidance on what an exam looks and feels like, and to have practice answering questions in a recognised way to ensure it reflects your language level as accurately as possible because exams aren't very good at measuring language ability of students who don't know what the format of the exam is!

2) You’ll probably have to deal with very broad ability ranges

The big problem with exam preparation classes is often that ability range can determine what and how much material the class can get through.  In an exam like IELTS, where every student sits the same exam, it can cause headaches for teachers as schools push to fill their classes as much as possible.

On the other hand, exams like Trinity GESE or Trinity ISE are designed so that students will take slightly different exams depending on their level, it can also mean that classes can be filled with students of a broader ability range than your typical class - there have been stories of schools and teachers putting students in the wrong level so that they will get a certificate of a higher exam, or achieve better results by sitting an exam in a lower level.

For teachers, this means offering a range of tasks and options, regularly testing and providing feedback to determine specific areas of language need, and regular exposure to practice exam questions that are given under timed conditions.

3) You can’t teach personality

English exams are designed to ensure that the final grade reflects the language ability of the students, and not, for example, how stressed the student is, how much they know about football, or how many degrees they have.

Having said that, students who walk into a speaking exam, have difficulties making eye contact, struggle to ask for clarification or mumble because they are nervous, are likely to suffer in their final grade.

For many students, there is a cultural sensitivity to making mistakes or not getting answers 100% correct, or even giving opinions.  This is exactly the kind of thing that students need help with.  They need to be aware of how their culture and personality is likely to impact on their performance, and develop strategies to deal with them.  At the end of the day, most English exams are written with broad English speaking “norms” in mind, and regardless of where a student sits an exam, the same rules apply.

4) Consider cultural disadvantages

One of the biggest problems I have encountered, particularly working with exam students in China, is the issue of learning to give opinions.  Culturally, for many students, this is a very challenging concept and they often find this very confronting.

One of the best ways I guide students on this, is to find ways and to teach chunks of language to help students hedge and to offer balanced opinions.  Phrases like on one hand / yet on the other / some people feel / While .... is true,…. is also true, however - is something everyone needs to consider.

5) Talk about how to have fun

Above all, the higher-stakes the exam is for the individual student, the greater the risk of stress and anxiety interfering with the result.  Many students deal with this by taking the exam they need several times to become more familiar with it.

I often get the impression that students are rarely advised on developing plan B’s (i.e. what to do if they don’t get the grade they need when they want), and most importantly, how to see an exam as an opportunity to have fun.

Obviously, this will suit some types of people rather than others, but as with so many aspects of positive living, there is a lot to be said for learning to have fun, see mistakes as learning opportunities and using English to meet others and learn about yourself.  And in all honesty, students need to do as much as they can to leave a positive impact on their examiner who undoubtedly would rather spend their Saturday mornings with students who are willing to walk into an English exam with a smile on their face and a positive attitude.

In this regard, teachers can play a huge role in creating positive learning environments, helping students to reflect on the skills and world knowledge that they learn from class to class (rather than just focusing on the language and grammar), and by helping them to identify how each lesson might help them in different parts of their exam.

Good luck.

If you're looking for more information on English exams and ideas for preparing your students, contact our TESOL training team for information on upcoming training sessions for teachers in Hong Kong.

James Pengelley contributes to the TESOL team as a CertTESOL/DipTESOL trainer as well as one of EFA's digital content managers.  He holds a Cambridge DELTA, Trinity TYLEC and is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in teaching (secondary).  He contributes to English language teaching publications, including the English Australia Journal, The British Council and the International House Journal of Education and Development.