Column: What I wish I had known when I started teaching exam classes

By David Petrie

As I write, it’s the start of the new school year and I have been thinking about my new classes and what I want to do differently this time round. This led to a more general reflection, thoughts on how my teaching of exam classes has changed over the years, and to the things it would have been useful to know when I started teaching exam groups.

My first exam group was an IELTS class in China that I tandem taught and as I recall I was responsible for speaking and writing, while my colleague was responsible for reading and listening. Everything I knew about IELTS could have probably been written on a post-it-note with room to spare and my approach back then was very simple: follow the book.

The book is not the syllabus

Neither is the exam. To draw an analogy, it’s a bit like training animals to jump through hoops for the circus – the hoop is the exam and the coursebook is a manual on animal jumping techniques. Students should know what the exam looks like, but to make the exam the focus of everything is to do the students a disservice. Likewise the book. Coursebooks have to cover all the bases and include a suitable range of grammatical structures, vocabulary sets, example tasks and so forth as possible. Slavishly following the book forgets the fact that the students all come into the class from different starting points and it is unlikely that all the students will need to review all the content. As the teacher, we have to find out what our students need in order to be successful and to focus our energies on that. There are three main ways of doing this: needs analysis, diagnostic testing, and classroom observation. In general or business English classrooms, needs analysis is mostly concerned with trying to find out what the students want or need to achieve while in the exams class this goal is largely predetermined by the exam. The needs analysis process can then be used to find out what the students think their strengths and weaknesses are – where they have or lack confidence in their abilities. Diagnostic testing can then give the truth (or not) to these assertions. This could be in the form of a sample exam paper, but this can be time consuming and lead to a lot of additional marking and evaluation. Some grammar and vocabulary books include entry tests to help learners identify which bits of the book to focus on, these could be adapted and used with a class. Probably the easiest way to get a quick overview is to ask students to do some writing for you as a homework task. This gives students time to think about the vocabulary and grammar they want to use in a way that spontaneous speech does not and should therefore (theoretically at least) represent a higher level of productive ability. Finally, classroom observation can tell you a lot. If all your students are happily using a range of past tenses to describe what they did on the weekend, you can probably skip the unit that reviews past tenses.

Problems with speaking usually have little to do with speaking

In needs analysis questionnaires that I get back from students, the majority tend to be concerned about their speaking. For example: “I want to improve my conversation skills” or “I can’t express myself when I speak”. In practice, students clearly do know how to speak, they can do it in their own language and while there may be issues with interaction patterns and turn-taking, they can usually perform the mechanics of speaking. What they tend to lack is vocabulary, and this is why they find it difficult to communicate their meaning. In issue 43 of the IH Journal, Magnus Coney looks at the differences in learning planned items versus emergent items and notes that in his research, learners tend to retain emergent items at a much higher rate than with planned vocabulary exercises. For me the takeaway from this research is the impact that “incidental” vocabulary can have on a learner’s lexical resource, and it points to a way that we can help our learners improve: by making a point of finding opportunities in the lesson to reformulate what learners are saying, or to provide what learners want to say, and by making a record of this on the board and by coming back to these items in subsequent lessons, perhaps by beginning each lesson with a review activity or game. As well as us helping learners to review all this new language, learners also need to be encouraged to do more for themselves in this regard. There are now lots of apps and websites that students can work with, such as Quizlet, to build their own vocabulary sets and to spend five minutes here and there reviewing and testing themselves on the new items.

Practice needs a purpose

With apologies to Jane Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an exam student in pursuit of a good exam, must be in want of practice.” This is a theme I return to, having written about it in this journal before, but it is true that exam class students want to do exam practice (the more so the closer to the exam they get) and it is equally true that unless that practice is handled appropriately, it is largely pointless. To give students a sample exam task and for them to do it, being then told the answers, perhaps gives them practice in the mechanics of making choices but it does not help them to get better at doing the task. For this to happen there needs to be a process of reflection and self-evaluation. In my previous article I suggest asking learners to complete a hot feedback questionnaire before giving them the solutions. An alternative, and possibly more time efficient, is colour-coding the answers as the learners hear/see them. I ask learners to bring pens or pencils in four different colours, for example as with a highlighter pen set. Then as we review the answers the learners colour code their responses as follows: Green for an answer they knew instinctively, Yellow for an answer they knew but had to work out, Pink for an answer they got wrong but they think they know why, and Blue for an answer they got wrong and they don’t know why. This then sets up an informed reflection on the task: the students compare their answers and can explain to each other why answers are correct or incorrect (thus also turning feedback into a communicative activity). It allows me to monitor for any common problems and to focus group feedback on specifics, and this, to go back to the earlier point on classroom observation, allows me to focus future lessons on what is needed. There is another question that I like learners to try and answer after doing something like this: “What do I need to do next?” This throws the focus back onto the learners to try and make positive change or to seek development, rather than relying on me for all the answers, though obviously I do try and talk to the students about their ideas. It also tries to give learners a clear development goal in relation to the exam task – something concrete, meaningful and achievable. The next time we work on a similar task or part of the exam, I ask students to refer back to their notes and goals, and to review them before attempting the task again. I should say I do not go through this feedback cycle every time, but strategically throughout the course.

And yet more besides…

The premise of this piece is the advice I would give to my younger exam teaching self, just about to walk into that IELTS classroom in China, and there is so much more that I could mention and which I didn’t then know I needed to know. Discourse patterns and paragraphing in written texts for a start… But I think that whether teachers new to exam classes get the support they need is very often an institutional thing and it can be difficult to remember to ask for the help when you are busy with a hundred and one things to do, just as it can be difficult to remember to give that help. So if you are new to exam teaching, or relatively new to it, I hope you find this helpful and if not – go and bother your Director of Studies for their thoughts on it all!

Author's Bio: David Petrie teaches in Coimbra, Portugal and is also teacher trainer with IH OTTI. He is DELTA qualified and has a MA Applied Linguistics & TESOL. Professionally, his interests lie in the area of teaching exam classes and ways of using technology in teaching. He blogs about this and everything else ELT related at and can also be found on twitter as @teflgeek.


Coney, M. (2017). A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. IH Journal, [online] (43). Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018].

Petrie, D. (2017). Does practice make perfect? IH Journal [online] (42). Available at: [Accessed 15 Oct. 2018].