If you are one of those teachers about to start a new term or session with a group of students specifically preparing for a particular English exam (and I may just have covered the greater portion of the entire ELT multiverse there), you may find yourself poring over an exam prep coursebook that makes you wish you'd stuck to shelf-stacking or something similar.
The ELT publishing industry is very good at telling itself and us that it has made enormous leaps in terms of the quality and presentation of its coursebook-based materials, but to be entirely fair, when it comes to test prep books they have excelled only in replicating the tedious and lifeless experience of taking the tests themselves.
The main reaction I often have when looking at the latest TOEFL or IELTS test prep offering from a publisher is to demand each member of the publishing team lug it around in a backpack (if they can find one big enough) and read it every day for an entire school term, and then see how they feel about it!
Well, the good news on this front is that the very best way (in my experience) to prepare students for important international English tests is to do away with coursebooks (or at least do away with them for the main part of the classroom lesson time), and adopt an unplugged approach to the course (there's also a pretty good - okay, damn good! - book on teaching unplugged, which I thoroughly recommend).
The "unplugged" (or Dogme ELT) approach in combination with exam prep might sound like an unlikely and unholy union at first, but it is actually a highly effective alliance of sorts.
- All English exams are comprised of highly predictable formats and task styles which need to be flexible enough to fit a range of different content or themes, in order to satisfy most tests' reliability requirements
- One of the most effective approaches to test prep is to take learners inside the actual tasks (in essence, by getting them to make their own materials and questions that fit the test specifications, then try them out with each other)
- The unplugged approach will begin with real conversation, which can then be harnessed and channelled in ways that match the basic formats of the exam being prepared for
Here's a quick example for you of how I used an unplugged approach in a business English course where the learners were due to be judged purely based on the scores they achieved in a formal TOEIC speaking test applied at the end of the term...
I met the learners once a week for three hours, with that teaching block divided into three lessons of 50 minutes (10 minutes break between each).
Lesson 1: Open conversation based on students' own experiences, thoughts, and inclinations
(10-15 minutes at the end of the lesson dedicated to emergent language issues based on the open conversation, and aligned to particular language patterns and vocabulary the teacher knew would be featured or required in the speaking exam.)
Lesson 2: Task-based project or presentation work drawn from the conversational topics that came up in the previous lesson, aligned as much as possible to the relevant test formats
The teacher would deliberately channel this work into formats that reflected relevant parts of the TOEIC speaking section, but the content itself was created collaboratively by the students and it extended out of the general conversation-based session that preceded it. They might, for example, create business announcements that could be aligned to TOEIC speaking questions 1 and 2, or find an image relevant to their own business that could be used for TOEIC speaking question 3, or generate a complaint or enquiry that could be matched to the relevant task to appear later in the TOEIC speaking section.
In essence, in this part of the lesson the students are creating their own test content, but it is based firmly on things they have already discussed through open conversation in the preceding lesson. Depending on the lesson, each of the student groups may have generated different content to fit the same sort of test task, or similar thematic content but applied to various test tasks.
Of course, one of the teacher's prime concerns here was to help the students hone the produced content to fit the actual test specifications, but not to the point that it overtook the communicative value or the sense of student/group ownership of the materials and tasks generated.
(10-15 minutes at the end of the lesson dedicated to emergent language as per with lesson 1 above.)
Lesson 3: Test Preparation for TOEIC Speaking
The content and tasks generated by the students are applied amongst themselves for the first half of the lesson, with the teacher 'floating' between groups to advise and make recommendations. The second half of the lesson is then dedicated to evaluation, targeted practice and strategy building for the actual TOEIC speaking section, based firmly on the content and experiences of the students themselves in previous lesson segments, but also with clarifying information to close the gap with the actual test.
The students all ended up with great scores when they took the actual formal TOEIC speaking test at the end of the course, which was important for their company profiles and promotion potential. In that sense the learners felt very satisfied with how the course had targeted their needs.
But before or beyond that, their own conversations and content were put front and centre during the course, which made for enjoyable and motivating lessons that also felt relevant to their day-to-day working needs.
These learners didn't need a formal test-prep coursebook. They did, however, need a teacher who intrinsically knew the ins and outs of the actual test and was genuinely dedicated to finding a way to make the learners' own content the star attraction.
The approach works equally well for almost any other formal English test I can think of (or can recall preparing students for).
So sure, get a test prep book if you (as the teacher) need to learn more about the test.
But hopefully you'll only need the one book. The students themselves have all the potential test-prep content waiting inside them. Your job is to help it emerge and to hone it and apply it in ways that will help the learners get the scores they need on that test.