During the first session of #ELTChat last Wednesday, we discussed the topic of how to prepare students for language exams. A pretty important topic, really, given the dominance of testing in our field of work.
During the discussion, I generally advocated unplugged and task-based approaches to exam preparation, involving students themselves in the generation of content and tasks that can correlate to the exams they have to face later.
One point that came up in the conversation was that many exam-prep coursebooks are pretty woeful to use in class, mainly because they are so boring and detract from student-oriented communication in the classroom.
However, something that didn't come up really at all was how regular coursebooks try to cater to the more important English exams as one of a great many priorities when it comes to content, format and activity selections.
Following the chat, this took me down memory lane a little, and I recalled how I had tried to address exam preparation in my own series of coursebooks. Among a variety of content writing challenges, I didn't just have to incorporate practice for a huge range of tests (basically, all levels of Cambridge YLE, KET, PET, FCE, IELTS and TOEFL, TOEIC), I also needed to do this in a way that would feel natural and accessible for younger teenage learners. Learners who were still a couple of years away from some of the more important tests, but nonetheless learning English in contexts that were extremely fixated on good results in those tests -- sooner rather than later.
In the end, this turned out to be surprisingly easy to accomplish. By pulling all the exam sections and questions back to their more basic formats, it became quite feasible to work them into a variety of existing theme-based units and utilise content and tasks that might be considered quite accessible and relevant to younger learners.
Here are some quick examples (drawing on a formal presentation I did at the Korea TESOL conference in 2008, targeted at demonstrating to teachers how the 'popular' iBT TOEFL was being considered and prepared for as part of the Boost! Speaking strand):
TOEFL Speaking question 3 integrates a campus-related notice with a discussion about the notice between two students. In a lower level of Boost! Speaking, this is adapted to feature a notice about an upcoming Halloween party and an accompanying conversation (and attached to a unit generally about organising parties and special events).
And in a later unit at the same level (this one targeting free time activities), the same TOEFL question format is applied through a notice about after-school clubs and a conversation specifically addressing the information in that notice.
And that was just one question format from one of the major tests. In fact, a detailed chart showing exactly which parts of the coursebooks provided initial preparation just for the different sections of the TOEFL speaking test alone looked like this:
Similarly, tests like Cambride YLE, KET, PET, FCE, IELTS and TOEIC were all systematically catered to in the coursework content.
What I personally find very interesting in all this is... most teachers (and certainly most students) never even noticed! One of the reasons I had to do the presentation shown in part above was because we had teachers and schools clamouring for coursebooks to address their exam prep needs (even at younger ages), without being "just test books", and the content and task types were already there in the books in front of them...
This shows me one or both of two things:
- Exams can be adapted and integrated quite seamlessly into existing coursebook content, to the point that teachers and students don't even realise they are getting test prep as part of the natural progress through their coursework;
- Many teachers and schools are good at yabbering on about tests, without actually knowing much about them, and/or assuming that the only 'good/effective' preparation for exams is through explicitly labeled materials or books.
In any case, I have to confess to not being all that bothered about having to cater to language exams through coursebook content, even when the learners are a little younger. It can all be bent and directed in ways to match the original thematic thrust of a unit, and even the various emphases in skills-based coursebook units.
Dare I say it... sometimes the exam formats gave me some interesting new ideas for ways to extend and redirect content, too!
So what are your thoughts on this sort of thing? How do you feel about exam prep through coursebook content (without the coursebook necessarily being about specific tests)?