10 best practices for tackling English language exams

10 best practices for tackling English language exams - Illustration by Tang Yau HoongSummer might be the season for taking time off work, but for many English language students it’s also the time of year to sign up for an exam and work towards passing it. Whichever exam you’ll be taking, be it PTEFCE, CAE, CPE or IELTS or another, we are here with some advice that will help you prepare. Here, then, are our 10 best practices for tackling English language exams.

1. Avoid learning language in isolation

If grammar is the skeleton of the language, then vocabulary is the meat (and we might say idiomatic language the blood). Of course, you can’t have one without the other. When learning new words, make sure you learn the grammatical constructions that go with them (e.g., dependent prepositions, whether verbs are followed by a gerund or the infinitive, and so on). When learning grammar, make sure you personalise and contextualise it with lots of examples. Familiarise yourself with collocations and learn language in chunks.

2. Record yourself

A very simple way to improve your speaking is to record yourself on your mobile phone (let’s say, completing an exam speaking task), and then listening back to your own performance. This will help to make you aware of which areas you need to improve on. You’ll likely find that you’re repeating a lot of the same structures and vocabulary, so this can be a great impetus to make you ensure your language is richer and more varied.

3. Read a lot, read widely

One of the best ways to increase your vocabulary, consolidate your knowledge of grammar and become more familiar with different styles of English is, of course, to read. However, it’s not simply as case of reading as much as possible but also as widely. Make sure your personal reading list includes everything from newspaper articles to Wikipedia entries, graded readers to magazines. Don’t forget to read the small stuff, too, especially if you’re in an English-speaking country: product packaging, adverts, leaflets and flyers, timetables, signs, public notices – there’s no end of input out there. And if you’re looking for a good summer read, look no further than our list of great reads here.

4. Practice writing

Writing doesn’t mean simply getting the right words down on paper in the right order. Good writing requires planning as well. Whenever you practice writing, make sure you practice planning. And don’t forget that (with the exception perhaps of personal diaries) nobody writes something unless it’s to be read, and nobody writes without a purpose. Therefore, make sure you know what kind of text you’ll be required to write in the exam and then practice writing that kind of text, bearing in mind the target reader, how the text should be organised, what level of formality to use and any conventions associated with the text type in question, such as an essay or a report. At the same time, why not practice writing for real by taking part in an online discussion forum? No matter what your interests or hobbies, you’re bound to find people discussing it in English somewhere online.

5. Get to know the exam

The language might be the same, but no two exams are ever the same. It’s vital that you find out in advance exactly what kind of tasks you will be called upon to complete, how long you have to complete them, what exactly the exam is testing, and what criteria the examiners will be using to mark the exam. Find out more about how to prepare in general here, and for some specific exams below:

– PTE Academic

– Cambridge FCE

– Cambridge CAE

6. Use a variety of study techniques

People learn in different ways, some visually, some by listening, others by making lists, and so on. There are lots of learning techniques out there, so make sure you try out different ideas until you find the ones that work best for you: mind-maps and spidergrams for vocabulary, flashcards (which you can easily create online), mobile apps, self-testing, language exchanges, even talking to yourself and having imaginary conversations

7. Don’t rely on a dictionary, but when you do, go monolingual

Pearson DictionaryBoth in the exam, and in real life, you will have to deal with words and phrases that you simply do not know. The ability to work out from context what they mean, as well as the ability to judge whether or not a word is crucial for understanding the wider passage (or whether you can ignore it), is one of the most useful you can learn. However, if, when reading, you constantly refer to a dictionary, looking up everything you don’t know, then come the exam you’ll be left stranded when faced with unknown language. Always, always try to work out the meaning of unknown words from context first, even if it’s only an approximate meaning (“it must be a kind of food”, “an adjective meaning something like ‘afraid’” and so on.). What’s more, if you do use a dictionary, use a monolingual one. This will help hone your language enormously.

Finally, three pointers to add to our 10 best practices for tackling English language exams. These are common sense but easily forgotten or ignored.

8. Start preparing early

Learning a language takes effort and time, and you will need to dedicate yourself to preparing for whichever exam you have decided to take. It is never simply a matter of having the necessary level of English; you have to learn and practice exam technique as well. Don’t leave it to the day of the exam to find out what’s involved!

9. Get a good night’s sleep – don’t cram

Taking an exam in another language is very tiring. Depending on the exam, you may up to six or seven hours at the exam centre. You need to be focussed, alert and ready to apply everything you know and all that you’ve learned, in exam conditions and to strict timing. Don’t jeapordise your chances by arriving exhausted on the day. It’s better to have start the exam well-rested and ready than to start it bleary-eyed and already flagging, with nothing but a few scattered items of vocabulary to show for your last minute cramming.

10. Don’t panic.

Easier said than done, I know, but bear in mind as you take the exam that a) however little it might seem that you know, compared to where you started, you undoubtedly know a lot; that b) learning a language is no mean feat, and far from a challenge that everyone takes up; and that c) the exam is testing what you do know, never what you don’t.



Gold Experience


PTE Academic

Pearson Test of English

Great Teachers’ Exams Place

You might also be interested in…

– Top tips for passing the FCE (First Certificate in English)

– Top tips for passing the CAE (Cambridge Advanced English)

– 7 tips for English exams to help you prepare

– PTE, TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, Cambridge exams… Which English exams should I choose?

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