How To Help Your Students With Language Proficiency Exams


In recent years, testing has become a big business with high demands for international proficiency examinations, such as the Cambridge English Assessment exams, IELTS and TOEFL, which has popularised exam preparation courses around the world. 

Today we’re discussing some characteristics of exam classes and sharing a few tips to help you with your lessons!


Because of the nature of the course, students preparing for exams are often encouraged to spend long hours self-studying. Many books in the market reflect this, such as the First Trainer (May 2018) which offers practice tests with tips and answer keys. Therefore, it’s important to teach students how to self-study, what to focus most in the exam and how to revise.

Revision is important

I’m a big fan of Quizlet and always use it with my groups to revise vocabulary. Here’s an example of a Quizlet set I created for an IELTS group.  I also like to use Quizlet to practise for the keyword sentence transformation exercise found in the Reading and Use of English paper of Cambridge exams (B2, C1 and C2). In my online lessons, I like to share the link with the group (here’s an example from the C1 Advanced), put learners in Breakout Rooms and ask them to work together on the write mode of Quizlet.


In my experience, students preparing for exams are usually disciplined and have high attendance. However, there can be significant issues with motivation, in particular among teenage learners who may view the course and the exam as an imposition from parents rather than a personal objective. To enable you to encourage motivation, it’s essential that you investigate learners’ reasons for taking the exam and their past experience, for example, re-sitting an exam may impact negatively on motivation.

Get to know your students! 

If possible, get to know them before the course starts. For example, I like to send them simple questionnaires via Google Forms in order to collect information on learners’ interests and reasons for sitting for the exam. As a rule, the more information you have about your students, the better!

Motivation is also affected by a view of exam courses as boring. Therefore, it is important to maintain a positive atmosphere by building variety and fun into an exam course so to avoid your student from feeling tired or bored.

Games belong to the exam prep class!

Don’t be afraid of playing games from time to time! Many exam tasks can be adapted and made into games and students can create their own tasks, which as well as being engaging helps learners understand the rationale of exam writers. Claire Parsons, from International House Lacunza San Sebastian, had a fantastic idea of asking students to choose a TED Talk on a topic of their interest, look at the transcript and create their own version of an open-cloze exercise found in the Reading and Use of English paper in the Cambridge B1-C2 examinations. There are also books with some great ideas of games such as the IELTS Games and Activities: Speaking and Writing: Focus and fun for the IELTS classroom (Aida Sahutoglu 2019).



One of the challenges for the teacher when preparing candidates for exams is the intensity and stress for students, created by the need to succeed in the exam. That’s particular true amongst learners whose results during the course indicate they may fail the actual exam.

Be honest with your Feedback

Direct and individual feedback is crucial and it is important to be honest with students about their strengths, weaknesses and courses of action. The course should include moments of feedback from the teacher and self-reflection on learners’ performance, as well as tips on how to cope with the pressure.

Don’t overwhelm your learners

This is something I’ve been guilty of when I started teaching exam classes. I’d often start the course with as much information on the exam as possible, describing each part of the exam in great detail. I realise today that students don’t need to know everything about the exam right from the beginning! It’s just a lot of information and they are unlike to remember it all. Take it slowly, and explain the different parts of the exam as course progresses.  


Although exam classes present us with many challenges and a considerable amount of stress, they can be fun and very rewarding! So, here’s my final tip:

Don’t take it personally!  

You may do your best (and I’m sure you do!) but you will (unfortunately!) have students who will not get the result they expect in the exam. Don’t let it affect you too much! There are many factors that stop candidates from passing the exam, such as their nervousness and poor time management skills, which are not your fault!

Extra tip: Check Rachel Tsateri’s post with tips on how to help students generate ideas for an essay! A skill your students will need in the exam!


  • Burgess, S. & Head, K. (2005). How to teach for exams. Harlow: Longman.
  • Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Longman
  • May, P. (1996). Exam Classes. Oxford: OUP
About Luiz Gutierrez 2 Articles
DELTA qualified EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer and lifelong learner

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