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The Distance Delta

Module 3
Exam Classes
The Distance Delta

International House London and the British Council

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Teaching Exam Classes

This material focuses on planning and teaching courses specifically geared towards exam
preparation. The particular focus is on IELTS and Cambridge ESOL Main Suite exams (First
Certificate in English FCE, Certificate in Advanced English CAE, Certificate of Proficiency in
English CPE), though most of what is said applies to all major exams.
Preparing students for an exam is a special responsibility. This is because exam
results can have a significant effect on peoples lives and careers; exams provide
access to higher levels of education and open doors to certain professions.
Sally Burgess and Katie Head How to Teach for Exams (Pearson Education) Limited

1. Characteristics of Exam Preparation Courses
2. Implications for Teaching: Achieving Beneficial Backwash
3. Implications for Teaching: the Role of the Teacher
4. Testing and Course Planning in Exam Preparation Courses
5. Syllabus and Course Design
Reading List

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1. Characteristics of Exam Preparation Courses

The chief characteristic of an exam preparation course is that it is concerned with helping
learners improve their English to a level sufficient to pass the exam. What that level may be,
and what exactly you need to focus on, will depend on the exam and the group; but in all
cases, the course will be goal-oriented. A significant variable, however, is the length of the
course which may vary considerably from short cramming courses to much longer
programmes of study. Shorter courses may therefore simply focus on familiarisation with
the exam and key strategies, while longer courses can offer a stronger language
developmental focus.
The students are highly motivated
It is no surprise therefore that those who take part in preparation courses tend to be highly
motivated, they are usually spending a substantial amount of money in order to benefit
from the teachers expertise. The exam represents an investment and one with potentially
important consequences for their lives e.g. they may move to another country or receive a
pay rise based on the result of the exam. They may need it to enter or graduate from a
university and they may be expected to pass the exam.
All of the above suggests that motivation may be varied:

It may be instrumental in that the exam will help them carry out tasks in English e.g. for
exams, listening to lectures at university.
It may be intrinsic in that the learners themselves have set the goal of passing the exam
without external incentive.
It will most often be extrinsic in that the learners are required to pass an exam rather
than choosing it themselves. They may have a sponsor such as their boss; their preferred
university may require it; or a parent may be encouraging their child to take it, with the
promise of reward (or punishment, in the case of failure).

The last point in particular highlights a contradiction to the point of motivation, although we
can say the participants in exam preparation courses are typically highly motivated, this is
not always the case, indeed, they may be reluctant to spend their evenings or Saturday
mornings in a classroom completing practice tests. This may often be true in certain contexts
e.g. teenagers or very young adults taking the FCE.
The learners have high expectations of their teacher
It is inaccurate of course to imply that this is not the case with general English courses.
Nonetheless, as a result of the motivation outlined above, the learners will expect a level of
expertise from their teacher. What is the nature of this expertise? Teachers will be expected

Show familiarity with the format of the exam.

Help the learners becomes familiar with it.
Provide tips in how to pass each part.
Help learners develop their language skills and knowledge/use of language systems.
Set and provide feedback on homework (including lengthy pieces of writing).

Most of these expectations are not unreasonable, though it can often be daunting to feel
equipped to meet them, particularly for less experienced teachers. They also give an
indication of the kind of elements that a typical exam course would or should include, that it
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should not simply include practice of exams; that an exam course needs not only to test but
also to teach.
Time is spent on awareness-raising of how to succeed in the exam; much of this relates to
skills work
What does the actual teaching on an exam preparation involve? This can involve a
traditional input-oriented focus on the language systems, notably grammar and, especially
for higher level exams, lexis. However, as we will see in the next point, this has something of
a diminished role. Many exam preparation courses expect, on entry to the course, a level of
systemic knowledge that is already more or less adequate for passing the course.
This can be attributed to various factors:

Time pressure: many preparation courses are short.

The majority of points available in many exams derive from skills-related work. IELTS, for
example, does not test grammar and vocabulary in a separate paper, and in main suite
Cambridge exams, only one out of five papers overtly deals with it.
As a result, success or failure in an exam often depends on becoming aware of relevant
strategies to adopt when answering the questions.

The final point relates to developing metacognitive strategies, that is, reflecting upon and
implementing strategies related to study and performance. It is fair to say that exam
preparation courses include a much more overt focus on metacognitive strategies in exam
classes than in general English courses.
What strategies are involved? These can be roughly divided into two: how to approach any
given question, which we will call task and rubric awareness training, and improving ones
language skills, which we will call sub-skills and strategies training.
Task and rubric awareness training involves the learners becoming familiar with the content
of the exam, what is expected of them for each task, and how best to answer the task. These
are often given as tips for learners to reflect upon. Examples of these include the following.

Underline the key information in a question so you know what to include.

Pace yourself so that you have time to answer all questions.
With multiple choice tasks, cross out the least likely choice first i.e. eliminate distractors.

Sub-skills and strategies training involves helping your learners actually develop strategies
for improving their competence in language skills. You may, for example, help learners do
the following:

Predict the content of a text based on the headline and other available clues.
Decide on what a given word means or what the pronoun it refers to.
Know how to participate in a conversation so that they hold and yield turns.

This is clearly of relevance to the Delta elsewhere wherever you have focused on helping
learners with a given language skill, you may have focused on helping learners with
strategies such as these.

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Task 1: Analysing Exam Course Materials (10mins)

Look at the extract (reproduced below) from Duckworth M. & Gude K. 1999. Countdown
to First Certificate (OUP) p.12
The following text is taken from a Help Line box which provides tips for approaching
writing part 2. Which of the four involve task and rubric awareness training and which
involve sub-skills and strategies training?

Read the question carefully and underline the key words. This will remind you to
include all the necessary information when you begin writing.

Always plan your writing carefully by making notes for each paragraph.

Keep your writing simple as you will make fewer mistakes. After you have finished
writing read your work again carefully and check for any spelling, punctuation or
grammar mistakes you may have made.

Watch the length. Your aim is to show what you can do accurately within the word

See Appendix 1
As you can see, the distinction between the two areas is not necessarily explicit in
coursebooks nor is it necessarily important, except in one key regard and that is how to pass
the exam. The task and rubric awareness training has little or no bearing on learners English
performance beyond the course. However, work on how to improve their English skills (subskills and strategies training) has a clear potential pay-off in terms of their communicative
competence. This relates to the important notion of washback, or backwash, which we will
look at shortly.
Less time is spent on overt input on grammar and lexis
A cursory glance through an exam preparation course will reveal that overt input of lexis
and, particularly, grammatical structures, plays a more marginal role; it is not the organizing
principle or central element of a unit, as with many general English coursebooks. The
learners are assumed to have covered key areas of grammar already; grammar study is
therefore relegated to review elements of a syllabus. In addition, as outlined above, more
time is spent on developing competence in the language skills.
What are the implications of this? One is that an exam preparation course could include
almost no input at all; no overt focus on developing the competence in the language
systems. This seems unsatisfactory, however, for a variety of reasons, including the

Success in the language skills requires a sound knowledge of language systems e.g.
recognising lexis and decoding complex structures for reading; decoding connected
speech and other suprasegmental features of phonology in listening; making the right
lexical choices and discourse strategies in speaking and writing.

Even when learners have covered most grammatical structures from coursebooks up to
and including upper intermediate, they have rarely mastered them to the point at which
they can use them effortlessly in production. More significantly perhaps, is the lexical

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brick wall that learners come up against at higher levels, as they start to appreciate the
breadth and depth of the lexical system in English.

Many learners expect, and want, language input. Rightly or wrongly, they feel they are
not learning anything unless they leave the classroom having had some sort of tangible

Nonetheless, the fact remains that less time will be spent on lengthy language presentation
and immediate production of language. The teacher needs to find ways to ensure that
language is focused on appropriately within the broader context of awareness-raising and
exam practice. The learners need to be attuned to opportunities for input, for example,
exploiting practice of cloze tests by noting down collocations and phrases that emerge from
Learner autonomy plays an important part in exam courses
Learner autonomy therefore plays an important role in exam preparation courses. If courses
are to maximize the opportunities for learning, and of course passing the exam, they need to
do the following.

Become aware of, note and put into practice the metacognitive strategies mentioned

Exploit any opportunity in the classroom for extra input.

Devote extensive non-classroom time to self-study and homework.

Note that the need for learners to engage independently with exam preparation is
recognized in the market with the presence of innumerable self-study practice tests with
answer keys. More interestingly, titles such as Tips for IELTS (Carter, S., Macmillan) provide
learners with a summary of the content of the test and techniques for improving their
performance in each paper.
It is easy for learners to feel saturated and burnt-out
An exam preparation course involves, then, a process of task and rubric familiarisation,
strategy training, actual test practice and feedback, and homework. Add to this placement,
diagnostic, and progress / mock texts and it becomes clear that exam courses can be an
intense and tiring process. When you factor in the frustration of poor test results and the
feeling that progress is slow, even the most highly motivated learner may start to feel burntout as the course progresses. This is particularly true if the balance of the above is off if
the course feels like endless test practice with little or no focus on the skills needed to
succeed in the tests. How can a teacher achieve a balance between testing and teaching,
and find ways of keeping this testing and teaching fresh for the learners?

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2. Implications for Teaching: Achieving Beneficial Backwash

What is backwash, and how can it be beneficial / positive? How do we ensure the focus on
exam preparation does not have a negative backwash on learning and teaching?
The backwash effect can be defined as the direct or indirect effect of examinations on
teaching methods....negative backwash, as experienced by the learner, means
language learning in a stressful, textbook-bound environment.
Luke Prodmorou The Backwash Effect: From Testing to Teaching Exams (ELTJ,
Volume 49/1, January 1995), p.1-2
In simple summary, backwash is the extent to which the exam affects the teaching and
learning on the course, positively and / or negatively. The image of a stressful, textbookbound environment is an apt one for negative backwash. In this classroom, the notion of
the exam, and passing it, dominates; the teacher administers a seemingly endless succession
of practice tests, which the learners complete and are then given scores for. They then move
on to the next component of the exam. Much of the testing focuses on sentence-level
transformation of discrete items. Between tests, the teacher may ask questions, but the
learners are rarely encouraged to ask questions themselves; there is little focus on content,
or context, of any sort, and no room for personalisation, perhaps because the teacher feels
it is inappropriate for a serious exam class, or perhaps because the tests do not allow it.
There is consequently, a negative effect on participants learning. The design of the exam
and the teaching methods employed demotivate and place little emphasis on feedback;
learners progress in English is consequently compromised.
This exam preparation classroom is perhaps somewhat anachronistic; the nature of the test
and the approach of the teacher jar with most modern teaching methods. Moreover, most
of the well-known English language tests such as the Cambridge main suite exams and IELTS
have been designed to test a learners skills in using and understanding English
(communicative competence) as well as their knowledge. Even so, it is easy to fall into bad
habits under the pressure of a full timetable and the need to give your learners as much raw
exam practice as possible. How can we achieve beneficial backwash with our learners? We
need to ensure we teach as well as test:

Identify learners weaknesses early on and gear the course towards improving these.

Where possible, build progress tests into the syllabus and adjust the emphasis of
subsequent teaching based on the results.

Raise interest and motivation in the exam tasks. Draw attention to them as real life
tasks as well as testing material.

Provide feedback on performance rather than simply marking. Look to give constructive
tips on a learners performance.

Explicitly equip your learners with strategies for improving their skills. These should
include task and rubric awareness training ideas as well as, and more importantly in the
long run, sub-skills & strategies training;

See error as an opportunity for learning. Identify through exam practice, gaps in
learners grammatical and lexical knowledge and provide remedial input.

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Look for ways to build mini-inputs into lessons e.g. looking at relevant lexis before or
after writing practice; exploiting tapescripts / texts after exam practice for useful

Encourage learners to make the most of their studying through explicit input on learning
skills and strategies e.g. using a clear notebook for recording incidental language; using
tools which they can access autonomously, such as dictionaries; encouraging them to
ask the teacher questions;

Vary the nature of exam training. Learners will become jaded e.g. if you only ever follow
a practice feedback / input cycle. Think creatively in terms of exam practice. For
example, many exams include in their reading test a multiple matching task. In this task,
the learners have a lengthy text, or series of shorter texts, to read and they are required
to match statements / questions to the relevant section of the text. It primarily tests the
ability to rapidly skim sections and scan for specific information. A simple way to
practice this in an engaging fashion would be to give out a single question at a time to
each learner; they read fast, with their pencil over the page, until they have located and
underlined the relevant section of the text. Once the teacher verifies this is correct, they
receive the next question and so on, until they finish. The fastest student wins the race
if appropriate to the learning context. This simple adaptation into a kind of reading race
adapts the original task in a straightforward way but has the potential to engage through
adding a competitive element and forcing a fast pace. In achieving the latter, it practices
precisely the skill it should i.e. fast skimming and scanning.

3. Implications for Teaching: the Role of the Teacher

This section will answer some key questions in relation to the above and hopefully illustrate
how we can teach as well as test on exam preparation courses.
How can I teach my learners a skill?
To help your learners improve their writing, listening, reading or speaking, we have said you
need to familiarize them with the exam tasks / rubrics, give them practice, and equip them
with strategies. With regard to the last point, you yourself need to understand what subskills are involved in a given paper; and you need to know strategies the learners can adopt
to help improve them.

Task 2:
1. Look at an example reading paper for an exam of your choice. Try out the tasks. After
you have completed them, consider what sub-skills of reading you had to employ in
order to successfully complete the tasks.
2. The following are all strategies designed to help develop a key reading sub-skill. The
sub-skill itself has been removed. Try to guess what it is.

Look at the title and other visual clues.

______ the main content words only; do not look at grammar words.

______ only the basic structure of sentences.

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Use a pencil to train your eye and help you ______.

Underline key words, but as few as possible.

See Appendix 2
The above example is for reading but applies to all of the skills.
Many exam preparation coursebooks outline these strategies, often in the form of an exam
training / exam tips / exam focus box. It is important not to treat these as peripheral but
as central to the teaching and learning process of exam training. You need to consider how
and when you focus on strategies within a given lesson. This will depend on your learners,
and how much time you have, but you might consider varying your approach across the

Test-Teach: the learners complete a task and then reflect on how they went about it.
The teacher inputs strategies for next time.

Test-Teach-Test: the above is followed by having the learners try out a task again, and
then reflecting on whether they were able to apply the strategies. Alternatively, the final
test could be set for homework.

Teach-Test: you discuss the strategies up front, developing a checklist that the learners
then try out through practicing an exam task.

Although you are the teacher, with the expertise, it is important not to treat your learners as
blank slates, who have no idea how to read or write especially if they are adults and at an
advanced level. Even so, learners often lack metacognitive awareness and do not
automatically transfer what they do naturally in L1 to English hence the heightened role of
awareness-raising in exam courses. The learners can and should be involved in this
awareness-raising process through, for example, having them choose between poor
strategies and effective strategies for a given task or having them discuss their prior
knowledge and experience with a given skill / sub-skill. A cycle of task-reflect in which the
learners get into the habit of discussing the process of completing an exam task and how
they tried to do it can be very useful in helping to develop metacognitive thinking on the
part of your learners. With the productive skills of writing and speaking, it is possible to build
in a peer teaching element, for example, during a speaking pair task a third learner can
monitor how the interlocutors are speaking, checking if they use certain exponents or turntake appropriately. With writing, they can read each others work and evaluate it against a
checklist; for example, evaluating if the style or organisation is appropriate.
How can I ensure a focus on input as well as skills?
In an exam preparation course, there may of course be some lessons that focus quite heavily
on language, but the majority will not. However, a lesson does not have to have grammar or
lexis as a central aim for input to occur; instead, a teacher can look for opportunities for
what could be called incidental input. The teacher can do the following:

Input topic-related lexis before the task is practised.

Draw attention to useful language in texts / tapescripts after practice.

Treat cloze (and other relevant discrete item test) exercises as input generators (see
task below).

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Task 3
Look at this excerpt, adapted from a CAE English in Use multiple choice cloze. How many
collocations or other lexical phrases could your learners attention be drawn to (in
addition to the correct answer)?
It has also been shown that the left and right halves, or hemispheres, of the brain are (1)
.. for different functions. While language is processed in the left, or analytical
hemisphere, music is processed in the right, or emotional hemisphere. (2) .. of music
like tone, pitch and melody are all probably processed in different parts of the brain. Some
features of musical experience are processed not just in the auditory parts of the brain, but
in the visual ones. We dont yet fully understand the (3) .. of this.
1. A amenable
2. A Views
3. A expectations

B dependable
B Aspects
B implications

C responsible
C Factors
C assumptions

D reliable
D Pieces
D propositions

See Appendix 3

Exploit model texts for writing for useful language.

Identify common gaps based upon the learners written and spoken production and
work this into the aims of subsequent lessons.

Encourage learners to read extensively for homework e.g. online articles. In a

subsequent class, they can summarise / report back on the content, and share useful
phrases they picked up.

Offer roughly tuned input via ungraded teacher talk. The learners are trained to notice
the expressions you use, and to query them where curious. Note that your learners need
to be made aware of, and comfortable with, this active querying role.

How can I encourage learner autonomy?

Task 4: Encouraging Learner Autonomy (10mins)

Look at these ways of helping increase learner autonomy; the list is extensive and it is
unlikely you could implement all of them. Which three or four do you feel are most useful
in your context, for your learners? You could encourage your learners to the following:

Devote a regular slot to English study in their free time.

Use self-access materials, such as dictionaries, grammar references and self-study


Independently record lexis or other language that comes up in class via a notebook or

Systematically organise these and other notes.

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Write a learner diary to track their feelings and progress.

Read internet articles or other material extensively, possibly presenting summaries of

what they have read in class.

Complete practice tests independently and check against a key.

Develop self-monitoring skills such as proof-reading their writing.

Review strategies and tips they have come across in class.

Consciously apply these strategies in their own time e.g. guessing words from context,
listening to English language media and trying to get the gist.

A teacher needs to be realistic in how much learner autonomy they can encourage during an
exam course as the shorter the course is, the fewer good study habits you are likely to be
able to cultivate. Similarly, a class of adult professionals from a traditional background are
unlikely to take to learner diaries, that is, unless the use of these is fully rationalised. Such
open discussion of rationale is crucial to successful learner training.
How can I keep learners motivated?
Earlier, we looked at expectations the learners will have of the teacher. The best way to
sustain motivation is to try to meet these expectations and, above all, help the learners feel
they are getting unambiguous feedback on their strengths and weaknesses as well, of
course, as specific advice for these weaknesses. Despite all of this, an exam preparation
course can be wearing; shorter ones due to their intensive nature and longer courses as it is
hard to sustain the required focus for a long period of time. The modes you work in, exam
practice and feedback, can become repetitive. It is worth, therefore, considering some ways
in which you can work usefully but less conventionally in the exam classroom.
One way is to adapt exam tasks in order to create engaging training exercises. A popular
choice is to give learners short texts and have them design exam practice for each other e.g.
creating a cloze activity for the other group. In this activity, the class have two or more short
texts. Words are gapped in the text by the learners using whitener, then texts are swapped
and they attempt to complete the cloze. Exam Classes by Peter May (1996) , part of the OUP
Resource Books for teachers series, contains numerous ideas for sensitizing learners to and
practicing exam tasks in an original and engaging fashion. These can offer a change of pace
which renew concentration and energy while remaining explicitly focused on exam tasks.
Another way of helping with motivation is to take the focus off the exam that is, to include
occasional lessons where you engage in useful work but do not explicitly focus on real exam
material. How much of this you can do, and how far from the exam you stray, will depend on
both the length of the course and the specific needs of the learners. A lesson might be
purely input-oriented or involve watching an authentic film or programme or involve writing
/ speaking on a topic relevant to the learners and their culture. The key is to ensure there is
some transferability to the exam, for example, when watching a programme, the learners
are given tasks which help focus on areas useful for the exam e.g. decoding connected
speech, or extracting the gist of a long turn. Or, if the learners are involved in a lively debate,
they are given exponents they can usefully employ in the actual speaking test.

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Finally, it is important not to abandon the techniques we habitually use in general English
classes in order to generate and sustain interest. These are often based upon exploiting the
topic / material in terms of the learners own experiences and interests. An exam reading
text may be designed in order to test reading skills but it remains a text, with content and
meaning. It would therefore make sense to exploit this, by leading into the text, for example,
by discussing the topic, brainstorming key vocabulary, eliciting predictions and opinions etc.
All of these have the added bonus of encouraging a top-down approach to the text, which is
a valid strategy for attacking texts in exams. The same applies after the learners have read.
Eliciting the learners views on the topic and their reactions to the text can shore up energy
levels by encouraging real interaction in an otherwise primarily display-oriented classroom

4. Testing and Course Planning in Exam Preparation Courses

Elsewhere in this course, you have read in detail about testing and assessment. Before you
read on, it is worth recapping on some of the key terms and concepts.

Task 5: Review of Testing Terminology

1. Define these types of test. Put them in an order logical for an exam preparation

An achievement / proficiency test

A progress test

A placement test

A diagnostic test

2. What key terms related to testing are defined here?

The degree to which a test measures what it is supposed to measure.

The degree to which a test gives consistent results; the same results when given on
different occasions or used by different people.

The degree to which a test is easy to administer and score.

See Appendix 4
Perhaps needless to say, testing and assessment has clear relevance to an exam preparation
course. In particular, the course plan will at intervals formally test the learners, so
understanding the nature of these tests is essential:
Placement Tests
Your learners will likely have completed, or will need to complete, a placement test in order
to meet the standard required for entry onto the course. The length and content of
placement tests will vary, it will be a valid test for the exam in so far as it mirrors what the
exam actually tests. However, having learners sit an entire exam is generally not practical so
placement tests are often therefore scaled down versions of the final exam. They often
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consist primarily of objectively scored elements, such as reading comprehension and

discrete item tests, as this is both a more practical way to score and offers more reliable
results. Writing and speaking may also be tested, but listening may not to be tested in the
manner of the final exam, due again to lack of practicality, normally due to lack of space and
Diagnostic Tests
These are used very soon after the start of the course and can be considered crucial in
helping determine the strengths and weaknesses of the learners. The content, shape and
emphasis of the course plan will be determined by the results of the diagnostic. It is
obviously important then, as far as possible, that the diagnostic represents an attempt at the
whole exam under exam conditions. This will help ensure that the results from the
diagnostic are valid and reliable although this may be reduced depending on whether the
marker is trained and standardised in terms of marking the subjectively scored elements of
the exam. Practicality is an issue again as there may not be time available for learners to sit
the whole exam, particularly on shorter courses.
Progress Tests
It is essential to test improvements your learners have made over the course and to adjust
the course plan as necessary, putting greater emphasis on areas they need most help with. A
key progress test is the mock exam which has high validity in that it should represent a full
simulation of the final exam. However, as with the diagnostic, a full mock raises the issue of
practicality in finding the available space, time and man-power to invigilate and correct the
exam with the expertise of the marker also affecting the reliability of the final results.
Achievement Tests
This is the exam itself. It should have high face validity especially if it is a well-established
and recognised exam. The reliability of results is typically ensured by pre-testing the tasks,
making consequent adjustments and training and standardising examiners. Most
examination boards attempt to make exams highly practical through easy-to-follow rubrics
and a high percentage of objectively scored content. However, skills which are designed
integratively and tested directly, such as speaking and writing, tend to be less practical to
administer and score.
These are the most explicit and formal tests on an examination course. It is important to
remember that the learners performance will be tested regularly from lesson to lesson, and
crucially the testing will be balanced by teaching i.e. equipping the learners with the
necessary strategies and input to succeed in the exam. This needs to be reflected in the
course plan, in other words, it should not simply be a succession of tests.

5. Syllabus and Course Design

Course design and syllabus types have been covered elsewhere in the Module 3 materials,
and have already been touched on above. You will recall the key steps of the course
planning process in general and there is a great deal of overlap between planning a general
English course and planning an exam preparation course. Both should target the specific
needs of the learners via a needs analysis process; both aim for a course plan which reflects
these needs but also tries to ensure there is balance and variety built into the course and
individual lessons.

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For an exam preparation course, the key steps would likely be:

placement testing

needs analysis

diagnostic testing

teaching / input

progress testing

teaching / input

progress testing

teaching / input

achievement / proficiency test (the exam itself)

It is arguable that the key needs analysis mechanism of a questionnaire has a diminished
role in exam preparation courses; though it can of course still provide useful information on
the preferences and feelings of the learners. Instead the teacher relies primarily on the data
provided by both the placement and diagnostic tests. This helps identify the key strengths
weaknesses in relation to performance across the exam tasks. The course content can then
be weighted towards helping improve performance in the salient areas.
The course cycle suggested above will vary depending on the length of the course. An
extensive preparation course can afford the luxury of several progress tests, allowing for
more focused teaching and input in subsequent phases. In reality, you may only have one or
two progress tests, including the mock.
It is important to realise that the course be considered flexible. Each element of testing, the
placement, the diagnostic, and any progress tests, has a profound effect on the focus of the
next phase, ensuring that the developmental needs of the learners are adequately catered
What is the structuring principle of an exam preparation course syllabus?
Despite the extensive literature on syllabus design in recent years, there is little
empirical evidence to warrant commitment to any particular approach to syllabus
development. In practice a combination of approaches is used.
Jack Richards in The Language Teaching Matrix, chapter 2, p.9-10
The implication of the Richards quote is that most courses follow an eclectic or mixed
syllabus. The syllabus for an exam course will depend on the nature of what is tested in the
exam; and in what key developmental needs emerge from the needs analysis and diagnostic
procedure. Given that many of the key exams teachers prepare their learners for emphasise
success in language skills, it could be argued that many exam courses follow a skills-oriented
syllabus, that is, the objectives cluster around the key sub-skills / strategies required to
succeed in any one of the four skills.
In conclusion, whatever the specific nature of the exam, and the resulting syllabus type, we
have seen that the content of the course is highly likely to include the following elements:

Diagnostic and progress testing

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Awareness-raising of the format of the exam and individual task rubrics

Awareness-raising of language sub-skills and metacognitive strategies

Practice of individual exam tasks, employing and reflecting on these strategies

Input and recording of lexical chunks, and revision of grammar

Significant elements of homework and other autonomous work by the learners

These are all considerations when planning the course and aiming for an engaging, varied
and balanced plan. Above all, a successful exam course ensures the provision of teaching as
well as testing, targeting those areas the learners need most help with, and in so doing,
improving their English competence and ensuring beneficial backwash.

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Suggested Reading
Burgess, S. & Head. K. 2005 How to Teach for Exams (Pearson Longman)
Cory. H. 1999. Advanced Writing (OUP)
May, P. 1996 Exam Classes (OUP)
McCarter. S. 2006 Tips for IELTS (Macmillan)
Prodmorou, P. 1995 The Backwash Effect: from Testing to Teaching ELTJ 49/1

Additional Reading
Anderson. A. & Lynch. T. 1988 Listening (OUP)
Baxter, A. 1997 Evaluating Your Students Richmond Publishing
Brown, H. G. 1993 The Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd Ed) (Prentice Hall)
Bygate, M. 1987 Speaking (OUP)
Flower, J. 1996 First Certificate Organiser (LTP)
Grellet, F. 2006 Developing Reading Skills (CUP)
Harmer, J. 2001The Practice of English Language Teaching Chapter 23 (Pearson Longman)
Hedge, T. 2000 Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom Chapters 10, 11 (OUP)
Hughes, A. 1989 Testing for Language Teachers Cambridge CUP
McNamara, T. 2000 Language Testing (OUP)
Nutall, C. 2005 Teaching Reading Skills (Macmillan)
Scharle, A. & Szab, A. 2000 Learner Autonomy (CUP)
Tribble, C. 1996. Writing (OUP)
Wallace, C. 1997 IELTS: global implications of curriculum and design materials. ELTJ, 51(4)
Wenden, A. & Rubin, J. 1987 Learner Strategies in Language Learning (Prentice Hall)

Coursebooks and Supplementary Materials

Aspinall. T. & Capel. A. 2000. Advanced Masterclass CAE (OUP)
Duckworth M. & Gude. K. 1999. Countdown to First Certificate (OUP)
Jakeman, V. & McDowell, C. 2001 Insights into IELTS Cambridge CUP
Haines, S. & May, P. 2006 IELTS Masterclass Students Book Oxford OUP
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OConnell. S. 2002 Focus on IELTS (Pearson Longman)

Pearson, S. 2003 Focus on IELTS Pearson

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Appendix 1
1 and 4 are focused on task and rubric awareness training. They are tips useful for the exam,
though have little or no effect on the learners English competence more broadly. Number 2
and 3 involve sub-skills and strategies training, they focus on how to plan for writing and
how to proofread. Admittedly, they are very general and somewhat vague, but they form
the seeds of key writing sub-skills.

Appendix 2
1. Commonly tested reading sub-skills include:



Understanding the gist of part or all of the text

Identifying explicit or implicit information

Ignoring lexis

Deducing meaning from context

Identifying elements of grammatical cohesion, such as reference words or linkers

Identify elements of lexical cohesion, such as lexical fields, synonyms and antonyms

2. The sub-skill is skimming. These strategies are adapted from Tips for IELTS by Sam

Appendix 3
It has also been shown that the left and right halves, or hemispheres, of the brain are (1)
.. for different functions. While language is processed in the left, or analytical hemisphere,
music is processed in the right, or emotional hemisphere. (2) .. of music like tone, pitch
and melody are all probably processed in different parts of the brain. Some features of
musical experience are processed not just in the auditory parts of the brain, but in the visual
ones. We dont yet fully understand the (3) .. of this.
1. A amenable
2. A Views
3. A expectations

B dependable
B Aspects
B implications

C responsible
C Factors
C assumptions

D reliable
D Pieces
D propositions

The idea behind the input generator is to not only give the correct answer but to explore,
where possible and/or relevant, how the other words can be used; the difference may be
semantic, or related to form; but the teacher in feedback should clarify the correct answer
and select and exemplify how the other choices can work. For example, for (1):

Amenable does not fit in terms of either contextual meaning or form; you can be
amenable to something (usually an idea / plan / suggestion) but the meaning is willing to

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Dependable is also wrong semantically as it means reliable. We usually use it to

describe a person, predicatively or attributively e.g. He is dependable or shes a
dependable person.

Responsible is correct in terms of meaning and form, the hemispheres are in charge of
different areas, and the collocates (the verb be and dependent preposition for) fit.

Reliable does not fit in terms of meaning or form. The meaning is the same as
dependable i.e. someone or something that can be trusted to do what is expected. Note
that learners may be distracted by the fact that rely on could be used, though the
sentence needs to be reworked i.e. the brain relies on different hemispheres for different

Potential input:

to be amenable to an idea / a suggestion / a plan

a dependable person; to be dependent on someone or something; to depend on

something or someone

to be responsible for something; contrast: to feel responsible for something; to have the
responsibility to do something

a reliable person; to rely on somebody for something

You would not necessarily focus on all of these; the point is to illustrate that a single gap in a
cloze can generate a lot of input for the teacher to pick and choose from. The key is to
outline it clearly, concisely and ensure the learners note the new phrases.

Appendix 4
1. Define these types of test. Put them in an order which they may logically appear on an
exam preparation course:

An achievement / proficiency test: 4

A progress test: 3

A placement test: 1

A diagnostic test : 2

2. What key terms related to testing are defined here?

The degree to which a test measures what it is supposed to measure: validity.

The degree to which a test gives consistent results; the same results when given on
different occasions or used by different people: reliability.

The degree to which a test is easy to administer and score: practicality.

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