Preparing to teach your first EFL exam class

Summary: What you should do before teaching an EFL exam class for the first time.

Classes in preparation for EFL exams like TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS, FCE, CAE, CPE, PET, KET, BULATS, or BEC can be very motivating for both teachers and students. EFL exams is also an endlessly growing market that you will want to show you can teach for on your CV as soon as possible. Many teachers find the prospect of stepping into their first class daunting and/ or find the school unwilling to trust a teacher with no exam experience, however. Whilst at the top of the profession there is no substitute for being a qualified examiner or teaching one type of exam class for thousands of classroom hours, there are plenty of ways to make sure you are ready before your first class and so really give yourself the edge over others who have never taught for that exam before. The areas you can prepare for before you first step into the classroom can be divided into:

  1. Exam knowledge

  2. Teaching techniques

  3. Materials


1. Exam knowledge
Exam knowledge can be broken down into knowledge about test taking in general, such as good tactics for multiple choice questions, and knowledge of the particular test that your students will be taking. For the first part, signing up to take any kind of test yourself, e.g. a test in another foreign language, and writing about what you have learnt about general test taking skills or stress management can be great preparation. If you can make any texts you write on your test taking experience and techniques look like an exam reading, you can also use these in class and kill two birds with one stone.

Looking at specialist test knowledge, you will find that if you only read about the test you will soon forget most of the information and tips- just like your students! More interactive ways of making sure you know about the exam include:
-Try to answer FAQs, and then read and check your answers
- Try an exam task, analyze it for the type of language (e.g. "lots of phrasal verbs", "mainly formal language" or "false friends") and/or sub skills ("skimming quickly" or "listening for detailed understanding of numbers and letters") needed, and then read the information for teachers and check your analysis against theirs.
- Do the "getting to know the exam" exercises for students in textbooks and self-study books
- Compare several descriptions of the exam, see if you can spot any contradictions, and then decide which one is the easiest to understand, most comprehensive and/or concentrates on the most important points.
- Ask your students or students that you level test about their EFL exam experience and try to give them advice on what exams they might want to take in the future

Things the students might want advice on, and so you will need to make sure you know about, include:
-Recommendations for self-study materials and how to get hold of them
-Self-study tactics, e.g. vocabulary learning techniques
-Self-study priorities
-What score or improvement in score they should be aiming for
-How to finish the test more quickly/ on time
- How to cope with stress

- How to spend the final weeks, days and hours before the exam

- Different ways of approaching the various parts of the exam

Sources for this information include:

- Workshops by other teachers, authors of exam books and local EFL exam representatives

- Exam textbooks and the accompanying teacher's books

- Self-study exam textbooks for students

- Internet forums for students and teachers (good for gossip about recent changes in the exam and spotting common misconceptions about the exam)

- The official websites of the exam boards

- Accompanying websites of exam textbooks

- Other TEFL/ TESOL websites

- Book reviews in TEFL magazines, on TEFL websites and on general bookseller websites

2. Teaching techniques

Just like teaching in general, there is a gap between knowing about the exam and knowing how to teach for it. As well as looking at the sources for teachers above, you can also help prepare yourself by trying out the kinds of techniques you will need to use in your new exam class in your non-exam classes. It depends on which exam you are teaching, but suitable techniques often include reading skills (finding the right information for the question by quick skimming and scanning, not falling for trick questions, reading quickly for general understanding), listening skills (picking out the important words, ignoring words that aren't important for the question), speaking for longer and error correction.


3. Materials
Teachers' books for exam textbooks are perhaps unique in ELT publishing nowadays in not having lots of photocopiable activities at the back of the book to help supplement your course and make it more fun. You may also find that the accompanying workbook is not as useful for students as a book of practice exams or other self-study exam books. It is therefore well worth having a bookshelf of materials available for the use of exam teachers and students, as well as your own personal file of things that you particularly want to add to your classes.


When looking for supplementary materials for exam classes, things to look out for include:

- If it is a game, will exam students still be able to see the usefulness of it easily enough to accept doing games when a high-pressure exam is coming up?

- Does the book give guidance on why the wrong answers are not correct and other common mistakes?

- Do the materials give good exam tips in language the students can understand?

- Are the exam tips memorable and interactive?

- Is the exam practice realistic in terms of format, presentation and level?

- Does the book slowly ratchet up the level until the students are ready to use the realistic exam practice?

- Does the material focus on the language and skills which have the greatest impact on students' exam scores?

- Does the material focus on the particular difficulties of your students?

- If the exam is taken by students at different levels (e.g. TOEIC and IELTS), does the book aim at the right level for your class of students?

- Does the material fit in with the number of hours students have before taking the exam?

- Is the material interesting enough that even non-exam classes would be happy to do the listenings, readings etc?

- Is there enough variety?

- Is there a good balance between exam practice, skills development, language input and exam techniques and tips?


Copyright © 2008

Written by Alex Case for

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