Effective FCE Use of English: key word transformation

EFFECTIVE-FCEUSE-OF-ENGLISH-KEY-WORD-TRANSFORMATION1The aim of this activity is to take a little break from the routine of Cambridge English: First (formerly known as FCE) exam preparation. It focuses on Part 4 of Reading and Use of English exam paper where students are supposed to paraphrase sentences using the word given.

The Problem

I’ve noticed with a lot of my students that they weren’t able to transfer the knowledge of particular grammar structures to the exam exercises and the word given, instead of giving them a hint, was throwing them off. In other words, my students seemed to have a good command of exam grammar points at any time BUT when dealing with an actual exam paper. This was causing a lot of frustration and my students’ confidence was plummeting.

The Question

How could I help my students overcome the confusion the exam-type exercises seemed to have created? How could I help them activate their knowledge of grammar structures and understand what is expected of them in the exam task?

The Solution

I decided to try to reverse the way in which my students had traditionally approached this exam task and encourage them to look at it from the POV of the test maker (as impossible as it sounds!)

The new exam task

1. I prepared some sentences covering a range of grammar points.

2. I asked my students to paraphrase these sentences in as many ways as possible. I told them not to worry about the number of words. Just try to convey the same meaning using different words.

3. We checked new sentences and chose one that was closest to the original.

4. I asked my students to look at these new sentences and imagine they were  target sentences for the exam task. Which grammar structures appeared in the target sentences? Which word from the target sentence would most likely be chosen as the word given? Why?

5. We tried to establish which words would most likely point towards the expected grammar structures. It was interesting to see that my students were, in fact, able to identify the correct keyword and draw a connection between the first sentence, the word given, and the desired outcome.


Sentence 1: Sailing is more expensive than biking.

Paraphrase 1: Biking is cheaper than sailing.

Paraphrase 2: Sailing is not as cheap as biking.

Paraphrase 3: Biking is not as expensive as sailing.

These sentences test whether students know how to compare things using: comparative adjectives + than / as  adjective as.

We discarded the #1 as too easy.

We looked at #2 and #3 and decided that the word given would most likely be AS. The final version would depend on whether Biking or Sailing would be the first word in the sentence. My students were able to arrive at paraphrases #2 and #3 independently and they claimed it wasn’t difficult since they had already known this structure!

Other sentences I used in this activity

1. I don’t know anybody nicer than Tom!  Target sentence: Tom is the nicest person I know. Potential word given: THE

2. I was so disappointed with this film that I wouldn’t recommend it. Target sentence: It was such a disappointing film that… Potential word given: SUCH

3. I think you should stop smoking. Target sentence: I think you should give up smoking. Potential word given: UP

4. I don’t like golf as much as swimming. Target sentence: I like swimming more than golf. Potential word given: MORE

5. Carla looks like her mother. Target sentence: Carla takes after her mother. Potential word given: AFTER


I used this activity as an experiment and I was quite happy with the result as my students started connecting the dots and thinking more along the exam lines. It was also great for their morale and showed them how much they already knew, regardless of their exam scores. Still, there are certain limitations to this idea as in some cases the scope of paraphrased sentences is very wide and students might find it difficult to come up with a whole sentence from scratch (being used to having paraphrase just a part of it!)

I definitely wouldn’t recommend using this reversed approach with students who are only starting to learn for and about the exam. I think it works best with learners who already have some experience dealing with the exam and got stuck in a rut of repeating the same mistakes. The change of perspective offered by this activity is quite refreshing for both teachers and students so I’d strongly encourage you to give it a go in one of your classes. Let me know if you do!

If you are interested in more rut-breaking ideas for exam preparation, take a look here and here.



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