Russell Whitehead answers a question on how to engage students more in Cambridge First lessons.

Dear Editor,

I teach 2nd year teenagers at a bilingual school. I work with a Cambridge First book because they are supposed to sit for the exam by the end of the year. The problem is that sometimes it gets a bit 'heavy' to teach this level so I’d like to know if you can suggest any alternative activities or web pages to make it more appealing for the students.

Thank you very much,

Analia Verónica Sallakian

As a starting point, I’d say there are positive aspects to teaching the Cambridge First exam. It is well respected, tests effectively across the four main skills and requires a sound working knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. If someone passes it, it’s the gateway from intermediate to advanced language ability – any further learning can be fairly termed ‘advanced’.

Inevitably, there are good books and bad books, and also good books that are no good in certain situations, and so on. Just because a dress looks good in a shop window, and is made by a top designer, doesn’t mean it’s going to suit everyone. If you decide by the end of this year that the book you’ve been using isn’t right for your situation (is it very dry for younger learners, for example?), then go for another one next year.

But if we assume that the book you’re using is basically a good book, then count your blessings: its authors have carefully prepared a syllabus for you, and produced lots of appropriate exam practice material – that’s lots of decisions saved for you, leaving you free to add some extra spice that will make the whole process of learning a good level of language enjoyable for your particular students. There are two main areas where you could focus these efforts to make it more ‘appealing’ for them, and I have attached a couple of brief descriptions of example activities.

Firstly, try to get your students to feel involved in the whole testing process by engaging them in it. Don’t just ‘do’ tests – ‘make’ tests too. They can make up gap-fills for each other, play about with multiple choice questions, create speaking tasks based on pictures, and so on. If they really get to grips with it like this, they may well feel more energetic about the whole thing.

Secondly, try and bring the skills work that the exam assesses to life. You can do lots of lively speaking and listening skills work that can bridge effectively to language work – and derive the energy from the students, rather than leaving it to the printed pages. The couple of ideas I’m attaching involve very little preparation on your part.

I don’t suppose you need reminding that onestopenglish is a good place to find resources, and that more are being put on the site all the time.

Have a look at the Cambridge English website and their page on the First exam. You can access all sorts of information here about the exam as well as see sample papers and book your students' exams.

Finally, of course, is the challenge to you – if you feel that dealing with the First is ‘heavy’, this feeling is sure to communicate itself to your students. I hope you can derive enjoyment from the idea of helping your students  match up to the rigour and communicative nature of the language model the exam uses and so pass this enjoyment on to the students.

I also think these activities can be easily adapted to any Cambridge exam class.

Ideas for engaging students with the testing process

Use of English

Elicit a list of topics that your students are interested in or curious about or having to study for other subjects. Look them up in Wikipedia, or Google them, or get texts from paper-based publications. Or have the students do this, in or out of class time.

It’s probably best if they work in pairs, and ideally on computers or tablets, but otherwise with paper and some white-out fluid is fine.

Once they have looked at some sample/practice Use of English tasks – perhaps Part 2 (the open cloze) is the easiest starting point – they should then be able to start creating some likely-seeming gaps in their texts. These tests that they have made can then be done by other pairs. They can then discuss whether they think the gaps are good gaps or not, and why.

This process works equally well with the other task types used in the Reading and Use of English paper. The point is that they are engaged in hands-on groupwork that really gets them inside the exam.


An eccentric, but effective, take on this can be that when they’ve done a writing task, you go through their answers and gap out all the wrong words. The gap-fill practice for Use of English and the writing practice for that paper are then combined as the students go through, probably in pairs, and try to come up with right and good words to fill the gaps.


Apply the same main idea as with the Use of English.

Make the students responsible for suggesting – and maybe producing – the kinds of texts that they find interesting or helpful – this should address the ‘heavy’ problem.

Starting with either the standard multiple choice questions in Part 1 or the gapped sentences from Part 2, as before, spend some time with the students analyzing how the exam tasks seem to work, and then get them to try making questions/gaps etc. It doesn’t really matter how poor their early efforts may seem – the main thing is to get them involved.

As an interim stage, give them practice/sample tasks for the multiple choice with, for example, the three wrong answers there, but the key answer deleted, and have them try to produce the right answer. Or do that the other way round.


Again, they choose images, off the web or in magazines etc. Again, have a look at the kinds of questions and tasks the exam bases around the visual input. Then students work in pairs to create exam tasks. They can then interview other pairs, offer them assessment and feedback, and so on.

Ideas for integrating skills work and Use of English practice


Here’s a basic structure you can use time and time again:

Take a piece of audio. This can be the BBC News, or a bit from an audio book, or a recording of you or a colleague/friend etc. reading a nice/useful text aloud. It can be a monologue, or a conversation (you and a colleague read out a bit of a play?), and of course it can be with video – although the exam won’t include that aspect. What is good is if the audio can include things like names, dates, numbers, places, etc.

Play the audio, and tell the students, as appropriate to the particular audio, to note down all the numbers – or names, dates, or all of these – that they hear. Then pairs or threes discuss what they noted and what they think these things were. Repeat the audio for them to check.

Now ask them what they’ve got. It will all be a bit a jumble, perhaps, but now you can reveal your teacherly task-based-learning hand… Move them to this kind of thing: £4m ( to take an example of this morning’s BBC radio news) – ‘£4m is the amount of money which the Asthma Society say that the government is wasting every year on…’ And so on: you can get lots of relative clauses practice out of this. Or it could be reported speech. Or whatever. But it should all work quite well, because it’s real, and the students are creating the language practice.


Just play games. It will build fluency and accuracy. Twenty questions. You can’t say yes or no. Run general knowledge quizzes. Just a minute. Sentence chaining. All those old favourites raise energy levels and help develop good exam performance.