25 stupid things about Cambridge First Certificate

Summary: 25 illogical parts of FCE that Cambridge need to change, and in the meantime teachers and students have to cope with.

Despite meaning having to redo all my many FCE materials, I was quite looking forward to the Cambridge First Certificate exam being updated in 2015 because I could think of a whole bunch of things that needed changing. While they did fix a couple of those problems, unfortunately they introduced even more randomness. Here are 25 of the most idiotic things about the present version of FCE:


Stupid things about FCE Speaking

The differences with IELTS

Cambridge is also responsible for developing IELTS, so why can’t they decide if it’s better to do the speaking with two or three candidates together (FCE) or on their own (IELTS), have one examiner in the room with a recorder for checking their performance (IELTS) or two examiners in the room (FCE), give a one-minute mini-presentation comparing two photos (FCE) or a one- or two-minute presentation based on a written topic sheet (IELTS)? If there is no scientific way of deciding if any of those things are better than each other, we can only conclude that the whole test is completely random.

British English when there is a much more common international English version

Even British people say “apartment” sometimes, so why does FCE insist on “Do you live in a house or a flat?” Ditto with “go on with” instead of “get along with”, and many others.

The amount of interruption

I tell students that being interrupted is a good thing because it means that they have plenty to say and aren’t pausing all the time. However, it is very hard for students to keep up their motivation and confidence when half the time they are interrupted halfway through what they are saying. This has got even worse in the latest version of the exam, with interruption possible or likely at the end of Speaking Part One, both parts of Speaking Part Two, and both parts of Speaking Part Three.


Stupid things about FCE Speaking Part One

Now just two minutes to get to know two candidates in Part One

Speaking Part One (personal questions) is one of many parts of the exam that have got shorter in the current version. Nobody likes long exams, but in this case it means that if one candidate gets a question that they particularly like or have a complex answer to, that leaves about 30 seconds for the other candidate to get comfortable with speaking before moving onto the incredibly challenging task of describing two photos in Speaking Part Two. I understand that Cambridge wanted to reduce the length of the speaking exam to cut down on costs and therefore make even more cash, but couldn’t they have done that by not having two examiners in every test and instead recording the candidates to be listened to at the examiner’s leisure?


Stupid things about FCE Speaking Part Two

Comparing and contrasting two photos

Comparing two photos on your own for (exactly) one minute has to be the most unrealistic, pointless and random speaking task of all time. In the rare moments when we do talk about photos in real life, we certainly never compare them. Outside Cambridge exams, I doubt more than 0.1% of the world population have ever done such a thing in their whole lives.

Two tasks in one minute

Fluent or well-trained students can easily compare and contrast the two photos that they are given for more than one minute. So, I can think of no good reason why Cambridge insists on confusing candidates with a second task in those 60 seconds, especially as candidates have already answered similar personal questions in Speaking Part One. To help them know when they should switch to that second question, I sometimes train my students to be able to know more or less when 40 seconds is up. However, this is a really painful waste of classroom time, because being able to estimate how long you have been speaking isn’t a skill that they will ever need outside of FCE.

Only the second part of the Speaking Part Two task being written on the photos

It’s good that students don’t have to remember the second question in Speaking Part Two anymore because it is written above the two photos, but now I have found that they are now even more likely to go straight to that part of the question and forget the (main, more important) comparing and contrasting task. The task really should have the comparing/ contrasting part of the instructions written on it too.

The brief question about the photos to the other candidate

When one person has struggled through comparing and contrasting two photos and answering a random question related to them in one minute, their partner gets an even more random question like “Which kind of holiday would you prefer?” or, even worse, “Do you like taking holidays in the countryside?” They usually don’t need to have listened to their partner comparing the photos or even look at the pictures to answer the question, they will get similar questions elsewhere in the exam, and their answer will be quickly forgotten as they move onto describing two unrelated photos themselves, so this question seems to serve literally no purpose. The only thing that usually results is yet another chance for the examiner to interrupt the candidate, this time if their answer goes on for more than about half a minute.


Stupid things about FCE Speaking Part Three

Two minutes then one minute to discuss the Speaking Part Three question together

In Speaking Part Three students are given a simple mind map with a question in the middle and five subtopics around it. For example, there may be “Why do people take these kinds of transport?” with “taxi” etc around the edge or “Should there be tax on plastic bags?” with “the environment” as one of the five subtopics. Students used to have real problems managing their time when they had to discuss each of the things given and then come to a decision together in exactly three minutes. Therefore the new system of having two minutes to discuss of each subtopic and then one minute to come to a decision seems to make more sense. However, in reality it is often even worse than just having one three-minute slot. For one thing, the fact that candidates aren’t given enough time to do what they are asked stands out even more now that they are clearly told to discuss five options in just two minutes (with no reassuring message about not needing to finish the task). Students who haven’t been intensively coached might therefore be even more tempted to skip straight to making a decision. Making this (quite natural) mistake would now leave them with absolutely nothing to do when they are asked to come to a decision in one minute. Even if they do manage to hold off from making any judgements during the initial two minutes, it might well be that they have extra time at within the final one minute due to having exactly the same opinion as their partner(s). As they have already discussed all the options in the two minute task, it’s even less obvious than it used to be how they can fill in the rest of that one-minute period (as I believe they are supposed to do).


Not asking about students’ decision(s)

When I first started teaching FCE 20 or so years ago I always asked students “What did you decide?” when they finished Speaking Part Three. This produced some useful language like “We haven’t decided yet but…” More importantly, it makes the previous three minutes of speaking seem a bit less pointless. Unfortunately, it seems that examiner don’t ask this (anymore).


Stupid things about FCE Writing

Almost no tasks that match students’ real-life English writing

Students might have to write the kinds of genres that come up in FCE Writing outside class, e.g. English job application letters, informal emails, essays or reports. However, the exam tasks are becoming less and less like the real-life versions that they will use outside of FCE. Maybe 1% will write an Amazon or TripAdvisor review in English, but again the FCE tasks have nothing to do with that kind of real-life use. None of my students will ever write an article in English outside of FCE. See below for more on each of these.

Having to write an essay

One of the most useful pieces of real-life English that FCE used to force students to learn and rewarded them for knowing was how to write an email. However, the email and letter tasks are now optional or might not even come up at all (as the three options in Writing Part Two could possibly be just a review, an article and a report). Instead, in Writing Part One we now get a genre of writing that doesn’t exist outside of class, and a really unrealistic version of that. What is more, an essay is a genre that has loads of cultural differences, putting some students at an automatic disadvantage if Anglo-Saxon models of essay writing are assumed.

The different tasks getting less and less distinct from each other

On top of having to write an essay in Part One, the report, article and email tasks have become more and more like essays. See below for more details on each of these.

No planning necessary or possible

Basically all of the tasks now have three questions in them that can be answered in each of the three paragraphs of the body. This takes away any incentive to teach the planning process that is one of the most important things in students’ own real-life writing. It also means that learning the fixed paragraph structures of real genres such as “reason why I want the job/ reasons why I am perfect for the job/ availability” for job applications will just confuse students in the exam, leading to another separation between FCE and real life.  

The background to the writing tasks

Presumably to make up for the fact that FCE tasks in no way match easy to imagine genres of real-life English writing, FCE tasks often have some kind of context added such as “You have been talking about… in class and your teacher has asked you to…” Trying to imagine a classroom discussion before thinking about the essay task is more confusing than just “Please write an essay about…” and none of the backgrounds to the other tasks are more helpful or realistic. What on earth is a “college magazine”, and which websites ask for articles and reviews and only publish the best ones? And why on earth would it be the case that “the report will appear in the college English-language magazine”? What kind of magazine publishes reports??


Stupid things about FCE Writing Part One

The two points you have to write about in your essay

The biggest change of the whole 2015 FCE test was having an essay in Writing Part One instead of a letter or email. They also changed the essay task, adding two subtopics and a space for your own choice of third subtopic and insisting strongly that you should cover all three in your answer. Already having two suggested topics to write about in an essay sounds like it should make planning and therefore writing easier. Actually, it makes planning and writing more difficult, because you absolutely have to write about exactly those things. It also sometimes makes it difficult or impossible to write your real views on the topic given. For example, if the topic is “animal rights” and the two subtopics that you must write about are “suffering of animals” and “teaching compassion”, it makes it almost impossible to decide to take the view that there is already too many emphasis on animal rights, and you are almost forced to give the opposite point of view – or at least are likely to finish more quickly if you do so.


The third point that you have to write about in your essay

Having a third subtopic that you can write about seems a reasonable idea, but what was the philosophy of having to include a third topic but being given no help on choosing it? And it gets worse – the two easiest subtopics are usually already included and you don’t really have an absolutely free choice of third topic because that is often decided by which point of view is easier to write about.


Stupid things about FCE Writing Part Two 

Personal reports

A difficulty of the old FCE report tasks was that students had to make up imaginary survey results, conversations with classmates, etc to make enough data to put in their reports on, say, the best leisure pursuits for the college students’ room. However, that at least made what they wrote something like a real-life report. In contrast, a more recent task like “Write a report on a part-time or holiday job that you have done” doesn’t sound like a report to me. If so, it’s about the level of an Elementary school book report and so has no fixed genre characteristics that we can usefully teach our students.

An application letter

When did anyone last send a letter? We don’t know for sure that students get marked down for “Please find attached” instead of “Please find enclosed”, but we do know that they are unlikely to be able to use that language in real life if we teach it to them.  

Emails without the most important functions

I’ve just finished making a list of vital emailing language for a Business English class on the topic. In the body of the email that most useful language tends to be requests, responding to requests, asking for and giving information, and making arrangements. In the FCE test those functions are much less common than giving advice and, recently, even giving opinions.

The articles are not really articles

How is “saying what things you think are important for young children to learn, and why?” an article? That is basically just yet another (almost) essay question.

Unrealistic reviews

In the unlikely event my students ever publish a review in English in the future, it will almost certainly be in a place where all reviews which are submitted are published such as movie reviews on IMDB.com. In such cases, there are no restrictions on how you plan your review, no restrictions on what you write about, and no reasons why you shouldn’t write a completely negative opinion. None of those things are true about the FCE reviews.


Stupid things about FCE Use of English

Random language points

“Get/ Have something done”, reported speech, third and mixed conditionals, verb patterns, etc are all useful points to study sooner or later, but are they really the priorities that their inclusion in so many FCE tests would suggest? To start with, the increasing emphasis on FCE being a test of communication would suggest covering mainly language points that cause misunderstandings, but this is far from the case. For example, do verb patterns really matter in communicative terms at all, apart from the few where a different in form means a difference in meaning (“stop to do” and “stop doing” etc)? Ditto for collocations with adverbs.

The approach to phrasal verbs

At FCE level (high Upper Intermediate or low Advanced) students should probably start learning a few phrasal verbs, but FCE in no way helps with that. I say this because Cambridge don’t really prioritise the most common and useful phrasal verbs, and there is no restricted list that students can concentrate on getting a good knowledge of. This means there are several hundred candidates for phrasal verbs that could be useful in the exam. Learning all those is unlikely to be the best use of their time, either for their language development or to get a better score in the test (given that there are only a few questions with phrasal verbs in them).


Other stupid things about FCE

The new name

As if being known both as Cambridge First Certificate and as FCE wasn’t confusing enough, the test is now officially called “Cambridge: First” of all things (don’t forget the colon!) Is it subconsciously supposed to suggest “and Oxford second”?

Copyright © 2016

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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