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International exams, designed to test the knowledge of English have become widespread and extremely popular since they give candidates the possibility to enter university or find a job. Therefore, there is a demand for exam preparation courses which aim to develop special strategies and familiarise learners with the format of the exams and the exam tasks.
Before diving into conducting such classes, it is important to have a clear idea about the peculiarities of exam preparation classes. In this article, we will discuss what an exam preparation course is, its positives and negatives, and whether it is different from the general English one.
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The purpose of conducting an exam preparation class is to prepare learners to successfully pass the exam. In terms of teaching approaches, exam classes do not differ greatly from general language classes. The learning activities are the same, and the types of exercises in the coursebooks are similar.
It is possible and even advisable to use such techniques of a general English lesson as delayed error correction or drilling, various interaction patterns, etc. What is more, in recent years textbooks have used exam tasks which reflect real use of the language (Burgess and Head, 2005:1).
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What distinguishes exam classes is the focus on developing exam strategies for skills tasks rather than upgrading language skills and systems.
Exam strategies include a clear understanding of the exam itself and task format, and knowing how to approach the task and cope with it successfully without wasting precious time.
Due to the fact that exam preparation courses are usually limited in time, there is hardly any possibility to include language practice or grammar and vocabulary revision. Therefore, without a solid foundation in the four skills learners are unlikely to pass an exam (May, 2000:4).
Apart from that, in the exam class, a serious responsibility lies on the teacher. This is because exam results have an important effect on the candidate’s life, future career and studies (Burgess and Head, 2005:1).
From my personal experience of teaching exam classes, I can say that learners expect the teacher to inform them about the exam format, give practical tips on how to pass the test, develop their exam relevant skills and systems, and provide feedback on homework, especially writing.
There are several positive aspects of exam preparation classes. One advantage is that there is a clear shared aim for the class and that learners are motivated to work hard (Burges & Head, 2005:1). Furthermore, hard work which is measured regularly by both the teacher and learners leads to success, and thus provides further encouragement (May, 2000:4).
Another benefit is that due to the fact that exam classes are similar to general language classes, it is easier to develop and reinforce a positive attitude towards the exam class.
It can be done by encouraging learners to think that the class will be useful in the future not only in terms of passing the exam, but also for improving the command of the language and developing language skills for further use in real-life situations (May, 2000:7).
A potential negative aspect is that the course may imitate the exam itself and teaching may be too focused on a particular exam task, e.g., doing multiple choice questions or using isolated sentences to test knowledge of lexis (May, 2004:4). This situation may negatively affect learners’ motivation and diminish their eagerness to study.
Another drawback is that outside the classroom learners often have limited exposure to authentic language while most exams use materials similar to those learners might come across in real-life situations.
This situation is quite common in an EFL classroom and learners may often fail to cope with exam tasks. Thus, it is important to increase the use of such materials during exam classes.
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One more essential constraint is that exam classes are usually limited in time, and it is impossible to practise all the tasks fully in class. The solution could be an emphasis on learners’ doing homework and providing extra practice to be done outside the class (May, 2000:5).
Since developing exam strategies plays an important role in exam preparation classes, it is essential to discuss such a notion as washback.
Washback is defined as the “effect that a test has on the teaching programme that leads to it”. It affects teaching practices, teaching materials, learners’ approaches to test preparation and expectations (Allen, 2016:3).
Washback may be both positive and negative depending on the scale of its influence on teaching practices.
Negative washback may lead to the abandonment of learning goals (e.g., developing writing skills) in favour of test preparation when learners do exam-oriented tasks (McKinley & Thompson, 2018:1), and the whole course turns into teaching for exams (Baxter, 1997:28).
At the same time, positive washback can be seen in the selection of authentic materials to encourage developing learners’ skills (McKinley & Thompson, 2018:6). Authentic materials are likely to be motivating and provide learners with opportunities to notice new language.
All things considered, exam preparation classes have their own peculiar features which should be taken into account. It is essential to reinforce the positive aspects and be aware of potential risks, the main being turning the course into preparing for the exam.
After all, the knowledge gained during such courses should benefit the learners not only for the exam itself but also for use in real-life communication.
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DELTA, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English, IELTS Prep, International Speaking Examiner
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