Number one for English language teachers

Teenagers: Preparing young learners for exams

Type: Reference material

Many children around the world, especially teenagers, have to take formal English language examinations. This section provides some useful suggestions for teenagers taking exams.


Many children around the world, especially teenagers, have to take formal English language examinations. These may be internationally recognised exams like the Cambridge First Certificate or a local examination like the Sri Lankan O Level or Hong Kong Certificate in English. 

This month we are looking at how teachers can help students do as well as they possibly can in these exams, while maintaining motivation and enjoyment in English classes.

Some of the problems of preparing students for English exams are:

  • Preparing for exams can be very stressful for students
  • There never seems to be enough time
  • Exam preparation classes can become very boring
  • Teachers find it hard to find suitable materials for exam preparation lessons apart from practice tests
  • Doing practice tests can be very demotivating for students when they do badly in the
  • Teaching turns into testing

Yet in many ways the examination preparation class could be seen more positively as:

  • Students are motivated to pass their exams
  • Students are all working towards the same goal
  • There is a set syllabus to follow
  • It is easy for teachers to justify what they do in lessons if it’s useful in the exam
  • There is a real challenge for students and teacher alike
  • The satisfaction of knowing you are doing well is very motivating

So we must attempt to build on these positive factors and reduce the negative. Here are some tips and practical suggestions on how to do so: 

  • Exam preparation classes should not just practise doing exams but teach students examination techniques and make these transparent.  

  • Students must know what the exam includes and what the examiner is looking for. Look through old exam papers with your students. Let them discuss what each question is testing e.g. a composition tests grammar, vocabulary, structure, punctuation, organisation of ideas, ability to interest the reader, ability to answer the question thoroughly and sometimes creativity and imagination, too.  

  • Explain that examiners mark many papers and that can be a boring job. They are pleased when handwriting is tidy and easy to read and when students are imaginative. (I used to mark up to 1,000 examination compositions every summer and can tell you it’s wonderful when students are truly creative and interesting. Once I had read the 50th story that ended with ‘and I realised it was just a dream’ I was ready to scream – driving the marker crazy is not a good way to get top marks in an exam.)

Please do not encourage students to learn model compositions by heart or even model paragraphs. Markers can spot these immediately and students will get no marks for this.

Students must get used to interpreting rubric (the instructions at the beginning of the exam and before each separate part of the exam) correctly. Many students lose marks by skimming over the rubric and, for example, writing more than one composition when only one is required. You can play a yes/no game with students here. Let them read a rubric and then ask questions like:  

Will you write in pencil?
Will you answer all the questions?
Will you spend one hour on part one? etc.

Let them call out yes or no or raise their arm if they agree with your statement. This will bring to their attention the need for careful reading. You can also insist that they spend the first 5 minutes of any test/exam reading the paper carefully and are not allowed to pick their pens until those 5 minutes are up. This will ensure they don’t start off without a careful reading of the instructions and is also useful for calming them down at the start of the exam. I’ve made my teenage classes sit on their hands for the first 5 minutes to stop them grabbing their pens and writing immediately.  

  • Merely going through practice tests only shows the students what they don’t know and doesn’t actually teach them very much.  

  • Practice tests are useful for students to get to know the format of the exam and to get used to the timing, but should be used sparingly. They take up a lot of time, teachers have to do a lot of marking and the results can be very demotivating.

  • You should continue to be ‘teaching’ English all the way up to the exam and not just recycling or testing. This will help keep students motivated and make good use of the limited time you have.

Exams test many different skills. Be aware of what these skills are and ensure you practise them in isolation as well as in exam mode.  

By isolating them you can help students understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Also students will be aware of the skills they should be displaying during the exam. Many young students go into an exam with the sole aim of surviving it and getting out as soon as possible. These students do not do very well in exams. The exam is, after all, meant to be a showcase for what they are able to do.


Below is a breakdown of some skills that are tested in different papers in an exam and some suggestions on how to practise them in class (or for homework). It is important that you explain to students how the skills you are practising in these activities can be used in the exam – point out the links. For example if you do some editing/correction work on a piece of writing in class, explain how this is also important to do in the exam.

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