Ten things I wish I’d known before teaching Cambridge Exams

By Phoebe Gomes

There are many reasons why I really enjoy teaching Cambridge exam classes; the idea of an ‘end goal’, the progress you see amongst your students and the chance to really analyse the language in depth. However, I understand that it is daunting when teaching one of these classes for the first time.

As a teacher whose first Cambridge exam class was a 12-week FCE intensive course, an experience which initially summed up the idiom ‘to be a fish out of water’ perfectly, I have compiled a list of ten things I wish I had known before teaching a Cambridge exam for the first time. I’d like to encourage other teachers to take the leap and reassure them that teaching Cambridge exam classes is an incredibly worthwhile experience for you as a teacher.

1. Get to know the layout of the exam

This list is in no particular order of importance, but this is something I really wish I’d dedicated more time to before I started teaching for a Cambridge exam. Cambridge exams have 4 papers; Listening, Speaking, Reading & Use of English and Writing, but each paper is broken down into smaller tasks. Cambridge Teacher Handbooks are excellent for breaking down each component of the exam into more digestible chunks. They not only have sample papers, but they also contain a breakdown of the skills which students need to develop in order to complete each component of the paper successfully. If your school does not have a copy of these, there are PDF copies available online.

2. Stress the importance of consolidation and revision from the beginning

This is something that can be implemented in class, such as review of vocabulary and grammar from a previous lesson being revised at the beginning of the following lesson. However, it also needs to be stressed to the students from day one that they need to be revising and consolidating on an individual basis. A large amount of grammar and vocabulary is taught during a Cambridge exam course; it is essential that students revise these language points as the course progresses, not a week before the exam. Any new language should be recorded, giving students a chance to revise these in their own time. Remember, they are preparing for an exam; working towards this goal does not only take place in the classroom.

3. The success of your students is not only your responsibility, it is also theirs

This follows directly from the point above. I made the mistake the first time I taught a Cambridge exam class of putting a great deal of pressure on myself in thinking that I was solely responsible for the student’s final exam results. I convinced myself that if any of my students failed the exam, that is was completely my fault. Yes, it is up to the teacher to cover the appropriate material and skills needed for the exam. However, students need to be autonomous, and understand that part of the responsibility also lies with them. A teacher can give students the tools and practice, but a great deal of time needs to be spent revising and taking advantage of materials which you give them in their spare time. For example, I give my current FCE class practice papers with answer keys so they are able to practise these at home in their own time. You can only do so much, and it is important for your students to also make the effort.

4. The internet is your best friend

In addition to the course books and materials you give to your students in class, the internet has an array of resources which students can use to revise in their spare time. The ‘Flo Joe’ website is an excellent resource which allows students to learn new language independently. There is a Word Bank which changes every day, allowing students to not only learn new vocabulary, but also provides practice of Use of English tasks which they will encounter in the exam. If you’re going to promote any online resources to your students, choose this one! I pointed my current class of FCE adults in the direction of this website from the first lesson and I advised them to record any new vocabulary which they came across. There are also online resources which you can use to plan lessons. OneStop English is an excellent website which has lots of examples of resources which allow practise of all four of the skills which Cambridge exams test.

5. Students get stressed and it’s no reflection on you

Do you remember when you were taking school exams and you were feeling pressure slightly? Well that’s how some of your students will feel as the exam date creeps up on them. It is normal for students to feel the pressure and you may find some students cope with this better than others. Everybody is different. No, students shouldn’t take their stress out on the teacher who is trying to help them, but it is inevitably going to happen at some point in your teaching career. However, this reaction is towards the prospect of taking a challenging exam and not on you as a teacher. Show kindness and understanding towards your students; it is not a reflection on you of your teaching.

6. Be empathetic

This is similar to the point above but relates to not only the stressful side of taking a Cambridge exam. It is important to remember from the beginning that Cambridge exams are designed to be challenging and they ask a lot from students. Yes, it is frustrating when students forget the meanings of vocabulary which was covered early in the course the week before the exam. However, students need to have a grasp of a large amount of vocabulary and grammar, in addition to perfecting their receptive and writing skills. Remember, you are covering a large amount of language in a Cambridge exam course, and it is important to be sensitive to this fact when planning your lessons and reacting to students.

7. Lessons can still be engaging and interesting

Many teachers (myself included) have made the incorrect assumption that teaching exam classes equates to having to teach boring lessons. This is far from the truth. Lessons can still consist of an element of general English and a wide range of topics and issues can still be discussed with Cambridge exam students. Cambridge exam classes are not simply repeating exam tasks one after another. Classroom discussions and consolidation games have a big presence in my Cambridge exam classes – the former helps prepare students for the Speaking and Writing exams too!

8. It’s okay to feel out of your depth

This is very important. The first time I taught a Cambridge exam class, I struggled with the overload of information and language which I had to teach in such a short space of time. It’s normal to feel like this and to feel more confident, ensure that you have clear definitions and explanations of your target language for a lesson prepared, as you never know what your students may ask you. Also, please remind yourself of this fact: you cannot teach your students every word or collocation in the English language, so please stop trying.

9. Your colleagues can help

When feeling out of your depth as mentioned above, talk with your colleagues or academic management team at your school. Every teacher has experienced the ‘being out of your comfort zone’ feeling from teaching a Cambridge exam for the time (and if they say they haven’t, they’re lying!). Due to the nature of the industry, English Language teachers enjoy sharing their wisdom, materials and knowledge. I have learned a great deal from other exam teachers and this insight I’ve gained has certainly helped in making me a better teacher. So don’t be afraid to ask them, as they might have just what you’re looking for.

10. You’ll get there in the end!

To finish, it is importance to remember that the nature of exam classes is different to general English. They cannot go on forever and they have a very clear goal, so despite the initial stress and getting your head round a new convention of English language teaching, there is an end point and you will get there. The knowledge you gain from teaching an exam course is invaluable. For me, it not only improved my language awareness and grammatical knowledge, it also taught me the importance of pacing lessons and consolidation. After completing a Cambridge exam course for the first time, I immediately wanted to teach it again and take into account everything which I had learned. Finally, it is an incredibly rewarding experience whereby you can monitor and assess your students’ progress much more than you can in a general English class. I would encourage anybody to teach a Cambridge exam class, and I hope those doubts have been addressed in this article. Good luck!

Author's Bio: Phoebe Gomes is currently in her first year of teaching at International House Toruń and in her second year of post-CELTA teaching. She previously taught at International House Newcastle where she completed her CELTA in 2017. She holds a BA in English Language & Linguistics from the University of Sheffield and her main interests include teaching pronunciation, grammar and exam classes.