One of the best groups I’ve ever taught was an IELTS preparatory group of teens who consider studying abroad (best of luck, mates!). I was lucky to teach this particular group, as exam-prep courses have a justified opinion of the most boring classes. While I believe a lot depends on the coursebook (I used Ready for IELTS by Macmillan and can happily recommend it), there is also a specific approach an exam-oriented course requires. I’ve found my first exam-preparatory course quite challenging (it was a group of people after the Callan Method course who wanted to pass FCE – and yeah, I was too young to know better), so when I got a book on proper teaching for exams I read it immediately and I can recommend it to everyone, not only those teachers who start their adventure with exam-oriented classes. Let me share the review of How to Teach for Exams by Sally Burges and Katie Head.
The book starts quite promising with the chapter on “How to be a successful exams teacher” and the following chapters take you through the course planning process (along with choosing materials), teaching particular skills for the exam and – something I find quite important as not many publications cover this aspect of teaching – teaching for low-level exams. Moreover, the book includes the Task File so that you can use it as a form of exercise, either to think about on your own, or to discuss with your fellow teachers.
I’ve read some books about teaching for exams, but I must admit this is one of the most user-friendly one – the language is simple and the organisation seriously inspires the reader to stop after each part and reflect on the ideas (e.g. three short paragraphs about differences between the weak class, the average-to-good class and the strong class gave me quite some food for thought).
Questions… and answers
What I enjoy immensely when it comes to book organisation is that on the margins you have questions and catchphrases, from the most common (“what is special about teaching an exam class?”), to more complex ones (“encouraging familiarity with genres”). All of the chapters are divided into logical parts, with theory, examples, conclusions and some additional food for thought you can find in the Task File.
What makes it even better is that all the cases are really down to earth and highly relatable (“how to help learners do their best on the day? Imagine that a close friend or relative of yours is taking an exam tomorrow. What advice would you give them?”) or great ideas for overcoming the stress factor during listening exams.
Each chapter, which focuses on teaching a particular skill, contains examples of activities and lessons that are designed to help teachers introduce the exam-oriented approach, however,
undoubtedly the most valuable part of the book for me was the Task File.
The exercises relate to the topics discussed in the book, and while some of them require a definite answer, some are useful as inspirations and topics to discuss. You can photocopy the exercises, so if you are a DoS who needs to train teachers before they start the exam-prep classes, this book may be perfect for you.
Some exercises are good to think about before you start actual teaching (e.g. “make a list of differences between exam classes and non-exam classes” followed by some interesting questions “if a student fails an exam, is it the teacher’s fault?”). Others are really useful when you want to focus on the particular skill (developing task and strategy awareness for reading or developing coping strategies for the exam room during speaking exam).
I don’t think I need to recommend anything written by Sally Burgess, but in case you wonder whether you should invest some money and buy this book: yes. Whether you are an experienced teacher, or a person new to the job, you will definitely find something useful.
You may be a person who’s taught exam classes for years and still find some inspirational ideas (e.g. linguistic and cultural contexts as factors influencing exam course planning).
If you begin your adventure with exam classes, you will love the chapters on teaching particular skills as they not only briefly revise various kinds of tasks, but also discuss abilities that are measured during the tests (e.g. in which tasks you need to apply skimming or scanning etc. along with useful tips on improving reading speed or a great subchapter on developing sound discrimination skills).
Overall, I believe every teacher should at least browse this book – one soon realises that “right, I’ll take a quick look just to revise some stuff” attitude changes into “Ooooh, I didn’t know that!”. And, last but not least, the book is full of tips on training students to become independent learners – something that gives exam classes more purpose than just preparing for the test.