Do less to achieve more when teaching exam classes

Why throwing more worksheets at your students and spicing up old activities might not be the most effective way to go when dealing with exam preparation courses? What can you do instead? Keep reading to find out.

The title of this post is no accident. It’s very much in the spirit of this year’s TW!ST Conference, which I am, yet again and happily, attending as a speaker.

Focusing on clarity. Minimizing distractions. Decluttering your lessons.

Choosing quality over quantity. Discovering what works and refining that.

These’re just some of the principles TW!ST tries to promote this year. Reading it got me thinking about my own teaching and how it’s changed over the last years.

My mind immediately went to my experience teaching exam preparation classes, something I’ve been doing since the very beginning of my teaching career, back when my own memories of taking FCE and CAE were still quite fresh. I’ve always liked it: there was some structure, a clear goal, abundance of materials, and motivated, ambitious students.

I can now proudly say I’m really good at teaching this type of courses and I specialise in helping my students do well in the speaking part of the test. I feel one of my biggest strengths lies in the ability to quickly identify areas where my students struggle and devise a straightforward action plan to remedy that situation. The word straightforward is emphasized here as I know it hasn’t always been the case.

Let me walk you through the main stages of my Teaching Exam Speaking experience:

Stage 1: Let’s make it really fun and creative!

I feel all of the teachers dealing with exam classes have been there at one point or the other. We realise that the content of the lessons might not be the sexiest so we try to spice it up. My website contains a lot of ideas for making speaking activities more engaging, more fun, more motivating, creative and so on. I still don’t think there is anything wrong with that. The problem in my case was that I decided to add all the extras before ever focusing on the actual substance of the speaking activity.

The effect? Students used English and had quite a bit of fun doing so yet they couldn’t really see any real connection between fun exercises and actual exam tasks. Why? Because I’ve never spent enough time “boring them” with the real stuff for them to crave the fun twists. The dessert was served before the main course. Everybody left the table happy but still, they consumed nothing of real substance.

Stage 2: Let’s make it rich in useful language!

Each exam coursebook contains a true gold mine for teachers: a speaking reference section, overflowing with useful expressions students should be encouraged to use during the exam. Just looking at the page makes you want to grab scissors, cut the expressions up into stripes or squares, turn on the laminator and produce some neat cards (yes, the fun game is just around the corner!) Or you might choose to make a worksheet. Or a Quizlet set. Or a poster.

Obviously, when I say “you” I mean myself. Around 2013 I went through a manic phase of force feeding my students a bunch of useful expressions they should use to agree, disagree, state their opinion, ask the speaking partner for theirs and so on. My students felt they were learning useful vocabulary and I felt extremely satisfied with bringing out the big guns: something tangible, something they could note down, memorise and use in each task we did. This went hand in hand with copying frenzy: I decided to go through each exam coursebook in existence to amass as many expressions and exam visuals as possible. My students absolutely had to be offered the opportunity to practice with every type of photo known to man.

The effect? My students knew a bunch of lines. Still, some of them very often looked at the task and had no idea where exactly to start and what was the whole point of the exercise. Also, I was drowning in worksheets and strips of paper and felt overwhelmed on a daily basis.

Stage 3: OMG, what’s happening? Rethink and regroup.

I guess it was the stack of wrinkled copies that first alarmed me. I started feeling this whole exam prep process had taken a life of its own and I had little control over it. Luckily, my students were still doing great and they enjoyed the classes.

Nevertheless, I started thinking about ways to streamline the lessons, especially since I began having more and more students who needed to get up to speed very quickly before the exam. They needed to know exactly what to do to pass in terms of the structure of the speaking tasks and wanted to know how to do their best linguistically.

Suddenly, there was not so much time for fun and games and a gazillion expressions. Suddenly it was about precision, working with whatever language the student already had, and it all boiled down to understanding the requirements of each task and meeting them in the most effective way. And effective started to mean: fast, precise, with as little distractions as possible. Straightforward.

Stage 4: Juicy steak comes first. Structuring my teaching.

I guess the moment I realised my exam speaking classes needed a clear structure was when I also saved myself from either the copy machine toner poisoning or going hysterical over trying to invent yet another fun game.

It’s also when I understood that looking inside the task is the necessary first step that’s going to determine whatever I do next. I spent so much time and energy browsing through various exam coursebooks and collecting thousands of images and exam questions when all I really should have done was ask myself: what is this task really about? Given I’ve seen dozens of actual exam papers, coming up with a straightforward answer was not a huge challenge.

What does it look like in practice?

I first focus on making sure my students understand the point of each part of the exam and are well familiar with its structure. This often means they spend some time with their coursebook on their own. For me, it means being very clear with my instructions.

Once they understand what the exam is about, it’s easier for them to approach each task and use common sense instead of memorised phrases to deal with each part. If they struggle, I make sure to help them comprehend the most natural and obvious structure of the task, breaking it down into smaller parts.

Next, we deal with the actual language and generating ideas. Here I often try scaffolding and ask my students to take a look at exam tasks in their book to know what types of questions to expect.

When these huge building blocks are put in place, there’s time to add twists and some spice.

As you can see, I haven’t really eliminated anything from the way I teach (other than stacks of copies, maybe!) What I did was change the order of particular steps and involve my learners in learning about their exam.

What’s in it for me? What’s in it for them?

How has it helped my students? Now, they actually tell me they understand what’s expected of them and they appreciate being given clear instructions and succinct pointers.

How has it helped me? Now, I feel I have a system in place which is structured enough to cover all the necessary information yet flexible to the extent of making it possible to accommodate whatever any given student might be struggling at any given moment. I save a bunch of time and energy as well and it’s a huge perk.

In order to get here, I had to cut through the teaching noise I myself generated and calm down my innate desire to invent even more! even better! I had to learn to zero-in on the core of what I was teaching instead of losing focus over constantly trying to make things more entertaining.

Finally, I had to learn to value the opportunity to teach similar lessons over and over and fine-tune when needed instead of reinventing the wheel and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Focusing on clarity. Minimizing distractions. Decluttering your lessons. These are definitely my biggest takeaways from this experience and the principles I try to apply to my teaching in general.


  1. Excellent post and so timely for me personally! I’ve reached stage 4 but recently been thinking that I do need to make things a bit more “entertaining” – but then I take stock of things, see a post like yours and realise that doing what works is better than entertainment for its own sake. Thanks 🙂

    • Thank you for commenting, Craig. It’s interesting how we all seem to go through similar stages in our teaching life. Being more selective with games and seeing their clear purpose is a huge challenge for me personally as I’d like to think about my lessons as a positive experience for my students. It is sometimes hard to stay on task when you hear students laughing out loud in the next room (where they don’t happen to be doing CAE word formation exercises 😀 )

  2. Nice post, Gosia!
    Thanks for sharing your invaluable insights and experiences and good luck with both the classes and your writing.

    • Hi Luke, thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you’ve found this post interesting.

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