Exam Teaching   (Exit)

How to teach an FCE class
by Fiona Joseph

The First Certificate in English (FCE), administered by UCLES, is a general English examination for upper intermediate learners. Teaching an exam class for the first time can be daunting but experienced teachers tend to agree on the following advice.

1. Your first task will be getting to grips with the exam specifications. You need to be familiar with each of the five papers, which are Reading, Writing, Use of English, Listening and Speaking, ideally before you begin your first class. The Exams Officer in your school or college should have a copy of the FCE Handbook, which explains exactly what skills and language knowledge your students need to have before they take the exam, as well as providing a sample paper. (If this document is not available at your school or your copy is out of date, then log on to the UCLES website where you can download the latest version free of charge.) It is also worth going through this sample paper yourself, as this will help you see the exam through your students’ eyes.

UCLES produce a number of other publications to support teachers, including an FCE Speaking video, past papers and Examination Reports, all of which are invaluable for those who are relatively inexperienced in preparing students for FCE. Time spent in understanding what is required is never wasted – when your students bombard you with questions you will feel more confident if you can answer them with ease.

2. Be aware of issues like learner motivation and classroom morale. Learners in exam classes tend to be more goal oriented that those in a general English class. (The majority of FCE students take the exam for either study or work purposes, rather than for pleasure.) Remember that students will have to pay a fee to sit the FCE as well as for the preparation course, the advantage of which is that having invested in an exam course then the average FCE student tends to be highly motivated to succeed. However, motivation and high morale can be very fragile things. You can help to maintain motivation by gradually building up to FCE-level tasks and language. Don’t test at FCE level too soon by announcing in week 2: ‘Right, class. Today we’re going to try an FCE listening paper’ - far better to try just one listening task at a time. Tackling small chunks of the exam paper in this way minimises the risk of demotivating individuals or even the whole class.

3. Part of your role as a teacher is to demystify the exam requirements and lead your students towards an understanding of what the examiner expects from them in each paper. Setting quizzes based on the exam specifications – e.g. How much time do you have for the Reading Paper? - can inject some fun into an otherwise dull or routine procedure.

Students need to be familiar with the exam conditions and requirements, and regular timed practice under exam conditions will help them get used to exam rubrics, different question formats, time restraints, doing tasks efficiently and filling in the answer sheets correctly. Don’t be afraid to share information with your students by explaining, for example, the marking criteria for assessing their writing tasks (available from the FCE Handbook). However, it is essential to get a good balance between exam-style tasks and general skills development. An FCE class needn’t (and shouldn’t) consist of a diet of endless exam practice. Be aware that reading, and grammar/vocabulary exercises can be usefully set for homework with class time being used to discuss, explain and compare answers.

4. Be explicit about the value of classroom activities. As well as having high expectations of you, you may find that your students have quite definite ideas about what an exam class should be like. A student may try to undermine you by saying that discussion activities, for example, are a waste of time in an exam preparation class and that time should be spent doing grammar exercises or practice tests. However, this situation is less likely to happen if you explain at the outset that pair and group work activities are invaluable for the Speaking paper, in which candidates are examined in pairs and their ability to interact with a partner is assessed. (Another argument for building in more ‘communicative’ activities is that they can help to lighten the atmosphere!) Likewise, if you opt to do the set text option (a novel) for the Writing Paper – which isn’t always a popular choice with students - then explain the general benefits of reading extensively, i.e. it improves vocabulary, spelling and broadens language range.

5. Try to instil good study habits from the start. What your students do outside the exam classroom is just as vital in preparing for the exam. Use tutorial time to help individuals identify their strengths and weaknesses in each paper and to structure their homework/self-directed learning accordingly. Often, the most successful learners are those who keep good records of their learning. Encourage learners to keep a vocabulary notebook, organised in a way that is meaningful to them. This could be organised by topic area, such as ‘holidays’ or ‘transport’, and by language area, e.g. phrasal verbs and common collocations. Help learners to keep a record of their test scores every time they attempt an exam paper. This will help them to track their progress easily. Encouraging learners to take a degree of responsibility for their own progress has an added bonus of taking the pressure off you. The emphasis becomes less on you getting your students to pass FCE and more on helping them to get themselves through the big day.

Useful reading

Exam Classes – Peter May, OUP

UCLES Teacher Support website – for the FCE Handbook and other publications


Flo-Joe’s Resources Room – for printable resources and self-study worksheets


About the author

Fiona Joseph is an exam textbook author and the co-founder of flo-joe.co.uk, the online resource for Cambridge exams. Subscribe to Flo-Joe’s free e-newsletter for FCE teachers by sending your email address to fiona@flo-joe.co.uk