Effective FCE Use of English: word formation

The aim of this activity is to let students use the words in context before they apply the familiar principles of word formation. This activity fosters the understanding of both the meaning and the form of words students are required to use in the exam and prevents mindless guessing and relying on false friends. I use it to help students with Use of English, Part 3.

The Problem

When dealing with word formation exercises, my students would often resort to guessing the new word form without even trying to understand the context in which the word was used, not to mention trying to establish whether they needed to form a noun / verb/ adjective/adverb. They would rely on the principles of word formation they already knew (e.g. various suffixes used to create nouns) to form  nonsense words that would very often resemble “English versions” of words in their L1.

Word formation exercises were of no educational value at all, my students wouldn’t learn any new vocabulary, they would only try to memorise suffixes (to create new words) and prefixes (to create opposites). They also saw no point in expanding their vocabulary and understanding it at the same time since this was not how they saw the point of the word formation exam exercise.

The Question

Since the exam preparation course required doing countless word formation exercises, was it in any way possible to make them about something more than just memorising and regurgitating? How could I promote learning new vocabulary, using it in a meaningful context, and understanding both its form (it’s a noun, here’s how I should use it) and its meaning (I can use this word to talk about XYZ)?

The Solution

I decided to try and build an entirely new exercise based on a word formation task. I used the Complete First by CUP workbook I was teaching from at the time as the basis for the exercise.

The new activity consisted of:

  1. speaking using target words
  2. discussing target words in context
  3. filling in the gaps in the text with target words
  4. looking at the relationship between the target words and the words in CAPITALS
  5. coming up with sample exam-type questions using target vocabulary

What did I hope for this activity to achieve:

  1. the focus would be shifted from putting the word form first and forgetting about the context and meaning to understanding and using the words orally by the students themselves and THEN using them in the context provided by the exercise
  2. students would actually practice and/or learn new vocabulary items in context
  3. because of understanding the context, they would gain a deeper understanding of new vocabulary and would be more confident using it

The Task

Here is what the original exercise looks like:



The words students are supposed to create are:

  1. movement
  2. locally
  3. reliable
  4. difficulty
  5. solution
  6. impossible
  7. easiest
  8. protection

I used these 8 words ( + the word increasingly that has already been transformed) to write 9 questions.

INCREASINGLY What is becoming increasingly expensive in your country?
MOVEMENT Can you name a movement that has changed the course of history?
LOCALLY What are the advantages of vegetables grown locally?
RELIABLE What’s the most reliable source of information nowadays?
DIFFICULTY Are there any words you have difficulty remembering in English?
SOLUTION Your friend is qualified but has no work experience and because of that she can’t find a job. What’s the best solution to this problem?
IMPOSSIBLE What do you think will still be impossible for humans in 100 years?
EASIEST What’s the easiest way of getting around in your city?
PROTECTION What do people in your country need protection from?

Stage 1: Speaking, words in context

I divided my students into pairs. I cut the questions, mixed the order and gave each pair a pile. Their task was to draw questions from the pile and answer using the word in bold.


What do you think will still be impossible for humans to do in 100 years?

I think it will still be impossible to fly without using any technology.

This stage of the activity allowed my students to get familiar with some word forms (increasingly, locally) and make sure they understood some others correctly (movement, reliable). It also resulted in some spontaneous expanding on the target words and in fact “deconstructing” them:

a) what are some other meanings of the word movement?

b) if you find a SOLUTION to a problem = you SOLVE  a problem

c) INCREASINGLY looks almost like INCREASING only with -ly at the end

There were some aha! moments experienced by my students. The best part of it: it was student-led, they were the ones noticing some connections between words, asking questions and trying to figure out answers.

Stage 2: gap filling

Once we worked through the target words, I distributed the worksheets. IMG_20151109_134051Words in CAPITALS were erased. Students worked individually to put 8 target words in the gaps in the text. Then they checked with their partner and we finally corrected the exercise together. In order to do the exercise correctly, they really needed to understand the text they were reading and focus on the meaning more than on the form (as the original activity would require).



Stage 3: reversed word formation

After correcting the exercise, I distributed the original copy of the task. The students were able to see the words in CAPITALS that were supposed to be used to create the target words. This is when we really focused on the form. We discussed each of the words in CAPITALS to establish what part of speech they were and then compared with the target word. Which nouns turned into verbs? Which verbs turned into nouns or adjectives? Adjectives to adverbs? Adverbs to adjectives? How do you know it’s a noun?  Can you think of any similar nouns?

We spent a considerable amount of time looking at the word formation aspect and I saw there was much less hesitation and, more importantly, guessing and “absurd word formation” than before. My students seemed more confident dealing with the words as they had already used them in the speaking part of the class and had a hunch or two about several ways these words could be transformed to make new ones (movement – ment = move, easy huh?).

Stage 4: delivering a sample exam task

The aim of this stage was to make sure the students were able to use the target words in context. Their task was to come up with 3 exam-type sentences with a word in CAPITALS that would have to be transformed. They could use any given form of the words from the original exercise (their word in CAPITALS might have been either the original MOVE or the target MOVEMENT) as long as it made sense.

Students worked in pairs to come up the sentences and then exchanged them with other classmates. Obviously, coming up with the word to fill in the gap was a no-brainer at that point. The difficulty lied in coming up with a sentence that would justify using this word. Once again, it boiled down to my students understanding the meaning of the words in context.

For more word formation activities take a look here, here, here, and here.

Personal Experience

I decided to use this exercise for the first couple of weeks with all new FCE groups I was teaching, especially if it was their first year of learning for the exam and they had little knowledge of what it was about. I noticed it worked better than burdening the students with e.g. 4 different suffixes + examples.

Reversing the order of this activity was also an appreciated change for the students who had already been studying for the exam for some time and were getting frustrated with the repetition. It helped them see how much they had already learned and rediscover some vocabulary that they hadn’t used in for some time.

I also tried this with some of my CAE students and it has been a great tool in expanding their vocabulary and letting them use new, often complicated words in context first.

The biggest upside of this activity: the materials are already there in the coursebook, I just had to tweak them.

The biggest downside: it is definitely not a low-prep activity, it takes time to come up with appropriate questions that would make sense, appeal to the learners and use the target word correctly. I have never managed to come up with a set of related questions, they all usually come up a bit random, but so far my students didn’t seem to mind.

Encouraged by how well-received this activity has been, I have been trying to modify other parts of the Use of English exam paper to make it more about learning English and less about the exam itself. Sadly, nothing substantial has come out of it yet. I would love to hear from other teachers preparing their students for Cambridge (or other) exams: how do you deal with these courses?

If you are looking for more ideas to use in your exam preparation classes take a look here and here.


  1. Great idea! I must say I really appreciate your website. Thank you for your work and sharing it with other teachers!

    • Hi Kasia, thanks for reading! I hope you keep finding interesting posts here.

  2. I’ve away been looking for advance ESl activities and am just glad I’ve found such a website. This is awesome and thank, enjoyed it very much

  3. This website is just what Teachers need. I’m going to try some of the ideas suggested and will let you know what happens. What I like best about the activities is that they’re mainly student centered. Thanks.

  4. This is great, thanks! Really gave me some ideas.

    You said some students are in their first year of studying for the exam. How long do you usually teach them for before taking the exam? Very often I get people contact me saying they need to take FCE or IELTS in 6/8 weeks, or even less! I would like to hear your thoughts on approaching this type of course when you don’t have many lessons before the exam 🙂

    • Hi Benjamin, that’s actually a question I often grapple with as well. I personally think it takes at least a semester to be ready for the exam and it’s in case of students who already have a firmer grasp of the B2 level as such (for FCE) and need to work on their exam skills and techniques. More often than not, though, we have to work with learners who struggle with less complex grammar structures and have limited vocabularytrying to introduce them to the exam at the same time. Without them being 1000% committed before the exam I think the best we can do is to walk them through particular parts of the test, advise on the best approach in each case and hope for the best. Managing students’ expetations plays a huge role here and I think honesty is the best policy. What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment here or drop me an email at gosia@lessonplansdigger.com 🙂

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