Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

May 19, 2010

Preparing for language exams

I’ve just been helping my 11 year-old daughter prepare for an end of term French test. I was ironing and she was at her books. We practised some short dialogues about the weather, transport, time etc.. did some drilling on pronunciation, new words and word order and then the usual recitation of irregular verbs. Two weeks ago another daughter took her GCSE French oral exam. This was a little more involved, we practised dialogues on given topics and I sent her a couple of questions in French during the day as text messages and she responded. Our big area of grammar was tenses.

My reason for describing this is not to give you an insight into domestic bliss in our household or to boast about my dedication to my children’s education. In fact I have two older daughters, now working, neither of whom speak any language other than English (cobblers’ children and all that). No, in fact it got me thinking about language exams and approaches to language exams and what activities might be most productive when facing a language exam.

I’d like to explore first what language exams are. In my opinion, they are simply benchmarks showing staging posts along a journey of developing and enhancing skills. They show that at some stage a particular level of skill was reached. That doesn’t mean to say that someone is still able to demonstrate that level and herein lies the rub! Skills can get rusty if you don’t keep practising them. I don’t see a language as an academic pursuit (the literature and other studies around language such as linguistics, philology etc.. are excluded here). To me it is akin to learning to drive, or playing a musical instrument or even achieving a certain level of physical fitness.  Language development starts small and then grows. See how any baby develops language and you will see this. It is ‘additive’ in its nature. You cannot enter at Upper Intermediate level and expect to perform well (let me know if this has happened!). We start with a foundation (however you choose to learn) and then build on this. The more you build the better you get just the like the more you drive the better you become.

(see my post ‘Are some people better at learning languages than others?‘)

OK  so how is this important for exams? It is important because language exams in my opinion need a different approach – I don’t believe you can ‘revise’ for a language exam in the same way that you would revise for a history or a medical exam. You need to practise for a language exam and the more practice you get the better you will be. OK this is trite stuff you may think – it’s obvious.  If so, then why do I see time and time again students going over and over practice tests instead of getting out and about in the language! Practice tests are more about exam technique than they are about language proficiency. Why do students have a slot in their revision timetable for ‘English’/’French’/’German’ revision? Why do my students, when I return their corrected writing to them, put it carefully in their folders where it never sees the light of day again and why am I told when I set about the present perfect tense for the umpteenth time, ‘we’ve already learned this!’ – been there, done that. The truth is you need to keep going there and doing that and each time you do, push your usage a bit further forwards. If you are guilty of some of these then take heed – you could be making the process far more difficult than it needs to be!

So, some top tips for preparing for language exams:

  1. Don’t make the exam the be all and end all of your language learning.  In fact, I think you should be thinking something like “I’ve really made good progress here, perhaps I’ll consider taking an exam.” –  rather than -“I need to get FCE, CPE etc.. when can I take the exam!”
  2. Don’t leave your exam preparation until the last minute – make sure you go over areas that you are not sure about immediately after your lesson/online session.
  3. Make sure you do something each day (it’s like learning the piano or improving your fitness level – 10 minutes per day is better than 30 minutes once a week). Try something like Gapfillers word of the day or daily practice.
  4. Do things you enjoy – all language learned is relevant it really doesn’t matter if it didn’t come up as an IELTS topic last year! In your speaking and writing tests YOU ARE IN CHARGE  use any language you like as long as you address the topic (and remember it doesn’t have to be true!)
  5. Be critical of yourself – don’t accept mediocre, if you are not sure ask or test it out.
  6. Jump in and try using phrases, words and new grammar the feedback will tell you if you’re on the right track – best to find out now before you use it in your exam!
  7. Use the internet – no excuses now for not having enough exposure. Listen to videos on your favourite subjects (that way you’ll be involved in something you enjoy too). Read, watch, listen, find grammar and vocabulary exercises – bookmark the ones you find useful so you can come back again.
  8. Try and think in your target language – do this during your short daily practice (see my post on Thinking in English – how to make it happen)
  9. Make sure you are a bit better than the exam requires you to be that way you’ll be more relaxed when you take it.
  10. You should use the exam to demonstrate your ability – make sure you have things to say/write. Make sure you learn language that can be adapted to different topics and scenarios

With as much exposure to and practice in the language as possible and an approach to your study that is both systematic and enjoyable, you should pass the exam with flying colours!



  1. Thanks, Berni, your recommendations are sound and I’ll share them with my FCE students who, in general, get scared but do little to improve themselves.

    Comment by marisapavan — May 19, 2010 @ 11:25 am | Reply

    • Thank you Marisa – I think it’s really about mindset and the right practice. I often wonder why schools don’t distinguish between subjects when it comes to study skills and exam prep. I also think maths should use a ‘practice’ approach too

      Comment by rliberni — May 19, 2010 @ 11:40 am | Reply

  2. […] Preparing for language exams Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by How to be a good language student! 10 suggestions « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — August 27, 2010 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

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