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Effective Ways to Motivate Cambridge Exams Students

Teaching Cambridge ExamsTim is our Teaching IELTS, Teaching EAP and Teaching Cambridge Exams Classes tutor. He is based in Bangkok Thailand, where he works as a CELTA trainer and also prepares students for the IELTS exam. He has taught EAP at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and also Leicester University in the UK. He spent 10 years teaching English in Russia and has also worked in Japan. He also has a BA in PPE, the Trinity CertTESOL and the Cambridge DELTA.


The Cambridge Exams that test a learner’s level in English are becoming more and more popular and they are constantly extending the range and making changes to keep them relevant and up-to-date. The most popular are the B2 First (formerly First Certificate in English) and the C1 Advanced (formerly Certificate in Advanced English). They have also started a B2 First for Schools aimed at teenagers, with more relevant and engaging topics and material. Many EFL teachers will be asked to teach classes to prepare students for these exams and some teachers may find these exam classes ‘dry’ and feel their students are not very engaged. What can we do to ensure our students are more motivated in preparing for these classes?

To take the B2 First as an example, many students who take this exam will have already completed an Upper-Intermediate course and may well be put in a class that follows a course book specifically written to prepare students for the exam, such as CUP’s Objective First or Pearson’s Gold for B2 First. These books inevitably include a lot of exam practice and while the materials are well designed, they are not tailored to our students’ particular needs and interests. With adult learners, they may put up with this as they at least are attending class willingly (to get a better job or get into a university.) But teenagers may not really want to attend class and only do so because they have to (as part of the school programme or because their parents have signed them up for extra classes). For both types of learners, adults and teens, we can improve the engagement of the class by adapting materials and making lessons more interesting for learners.


Let’s look at the different parts of the exam starting with reading tasks. Students, especially younger learners, can find it hard to concentrate sitting in their seats reading long texts and doing exercises on them. Think about making the tasks into a race, for example sticking the questions around the room – one student runs to the wall, reads a question, then comes back to tell their partner and find the answer in the text. Sometimes it might be better to stick parts of the text around the room and give students the task (eg matching headings to paragraphs). You can also stick/write/project the task to the board and give each group a different coloured board pen. When they find an answer, they write it on the board and win a point (no other group can answer that question now). It’s still necessary to do some useful feedback after the race, helping them with answers they struggled with or got wrong, but students may be more interested in this if they have enjoyed the process of reading the text.

Use of English

One of the most difficult parts of these exams is the Use of English part of the reading paper, where there are a series of controlled practice tasks of vocabulary and grammar structures (gapped texts, sentence transformations, word transformations etc.) There are several ways to make these more engaging and motivating. For example, with the sentence transformation tasks, use the “rip and run” activity: cut the task up into strips with one sentence on each strip. Stick one set on the board for each group. Then groups can race to take a strip, answer the question and check with the teacher. This is also a good way to help the teacher monitor – students have to check with the teacher before moving on so it’s easy to spot problems and see where they need more help. Another variation is to give each student one strip with one question and they write the answer on the back (you’ll need to monitor and check these answers). Then let them mingle with other students, showing the question side of the strip and seeing if the partner can answer it. The monitoring and feedback is then done by the students themselves!


Listening tasks are often only as interesting as the content of the text. Find out what the students are interested in and see if you can design listening tasks around an authentic task such as a song, a TED talk, or excerpts from TV/movies. This provides listening practice towards the exam, but it can also be used to encourage students to listen to more English outside of the classroom. For example, having worked through one TED talk in class, they can be set homework to write a summary of another TED talk that they find themselves.


Writing tasks can be made more interesting by making them more realistic and having some real world relevance. For example, if the task is to write a job application, bring in some real job adverts and let them choose which job they would like to apply for. You can extend this into a speaking task by having a partner read the written application and then conduct an interview. If they have to write a magazine style article, tell them they will have to ‘publish’ their final works. Get them to plan the design and layout and put them all together in a booklet (they’ll need to design the cover too!) that can be left at the reception area for visitors to read.


Speaking tasks are generally the most interesting for students and they are often very engaged in these. But maximize how much you exploit a task. For example if they are going to discuss pictures, give them preparation time to plan what they will say and what language they can use for the task. Give them an opportunity to repeat the task with different partners so they get a chance to develop fluency. If you are able to lead some delayed error correction before they repeat the task, this will also give them a chance to improve their accuracy and the quality of the language they use.


The key to motivating students is to get to know them well so that you are aware of what they find interesting – Do they like playing games? Listening to music? Speaking with different people? Reading about sport? Use authentic texts and just design your own reading/listening tasks following the exam format. Perhaps the most motivating thing is to let them see how English can help them in their own lives. Find a teacher in another country who’s teaching a group for the same exam and get them to interview each other on skype/facetime or chat together on What’s app/ facebook etc. If students see that they can use English to make new friends and talk to people around the world, they will be motivated to keep studying and improving.

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