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Two weeks ago, we started a small FCE group; 2 hours/lesson, 3 times a week. I hadn’t had a chance to reflect on their lessons before, on paper (or shall I say ‘screen’?), anyway, so it’s about time I rectify that.

I often ask myself, “How different should an exam prep class differ from an “ordinary” language-learning, non-exam focused class?” How do other teachers approach exam classes? Do they just practise and practise from coursebooks and on handouts after handouts?

I am not sure if my approach is normal or unorthodox; I am not sure if it’s worse or better than others. All I’m sure of is that my focus is always more on language learning than on exam preparation because, in my humble opinion, in improving their use and understanding of the language, they will be better prepared for their exam. After all, shouldn’t exams really be a test on how well the candidate can defend themselves in the language?

With that in mind, my priority is always the learner. The focus is always on the learner, and my aim is to marry what they want with what they think they need and with what I think is good for them. For the majority of learners in an L2 environment, what they need most is oral fluency – and I’m talking about mature learners here – because it is the one thing they can’t do by themselves. Grammar, listening, reading and writing – all these can be done at home. The priority in class has always been maximum student speaking time. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I neglect their near-future goal, which is to pass the exam. My modus operandi for the CAE and this FCE groups has been to focus on oral fluency and accuracy in class and to use Wiki for offline tuition. It means more work for me, without extra pay, but payment is if these students become successful learners.

The Wiki is shaping up nicely, after the initial toe-dipping start. This is how it looks right now.

FCE Wiki

Of course, maximising speaking times doesn’t mean neglecting aspects of the exam; we do bits and pieces in exam mode and we’ve even started using a coursebook, but wherever I can, materials and topics are student-centred.

As regular readers among you are aware, I’m fond of asking students for their opinions after each lesson and this is done in Lesson reflection in their Wiki. I’d like to share some of their comments from these past two weeks here. (I’m working on their incorrect language ;-))

  1. What did you like about today’s class?
  • “I liked the class in general, because we spoke a lot and it wasn’t boring.”
  • “The class was very enjoyable and we talked a lot.”
  • “I liked so much because was dynamic and funny.”
  • “I like the dynamic of the class, we never stop. I dislike that I feel like I have a long way in front of me me to improve my English, but it’s just the second class, we’re still working. :)”
  • “I like very much, but in my opinion, we spent a lot of time to correct the homework maybe it’s better put the solutions in the website and everyone correct his answers, it’s an idea.”

My answer to this comment: Yes, quite possibly. That was why, if you remember, I asked the class regarding this. With any luck, the other student will come tomorrow. We can discuss this again, and I will go along with the decision of the majority.

  • “I like the class because It’s very interactive and funny.”

2. What do you think about the pace of the class? Is it too slow, too fast or just right?

  • “I think it’s just right.”
  • “I like the timing that we follow, I felt that time went very fast, maybe we can go a little bit faster, we can say stop if we feel vertigo.”
  • “I think that the pace is perfect, when the class end seems that only has passed 30 min.”
  • “I think that for a moment the pace of class is better.”

3. If you had the same class again, what would you like the teacher or yourself to do different?

  • “If we had the same class again I wouldn’t change anything, I think that we are improving our speech, we make some mistakes but we still learning. For the next lessons would be nice to refresh some verb tenses and some prepositions like on, in, at, of or for.”
  • “I would change nothing because I think it’s important to improvise our speaking and this is one thing that it’s difficult for me. These kind of class is good for me.”
  • “I think that the class was perfect. We practised speaking, listening and also we wrote some questions.”
  • “I have the same opinion, the classes are very interesting and complete.”

4. What did you think of the activities which we did from the book? Were they useful? Or would you prefer to have done them yourselves at home?

  • “I think some activities we can do in class because we do them quick, but others… for example reading, it’s necessary to do it in our houses.”
  • “I am agree with Sara, I think that some activities is better at home than class because you need more concentration. For example, reading… But for me grammar and vocabulary is better in class than at home.”
  • “I think that are useful because we have to prepare the exam but maybe is better to refresh some things before doing the exercises.”
  • “I think that the activities are useful.”

As you can imagine, I’ve been extremely pleased with their feedback, which is generally very positive. As to be expected, the initial classes generated a more enthusiastic response partly because they were probably not used to my approach. As they become used to it, the novelty effect diminishes, and my task is to maintain their motivation at a reasonably high level.

Do you teach exam preparation classes? How do you approach them? Are you happy and are your students happy? Is there a lot of learning going on?