Official Language Exams II. First Certificate in English (FCE) – Cambridge

Here we are again! Sorry for the long pause, the last months have been a bit busy and I left the blog aside for a while. However, I’m glad to say that I have fulfilled two out of the three “new year” resolutions I wrote about in the post about the blog’s first birthday. I’m currently studying a Finnish language and culture module starting from the B2 level in the University of Tampere, so I kept improving my Finnish, and I got a job as a Spanish teacher. I’m also teaching English to a private student. And I started to study Swedish in my free time, so as you can see, I have been busy indeed!

But today I’m here to continue our section about official language exams. Now is the turn to talk about Cambridge’s First Certificate in English. This exam certifies a B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Most universities and institutions accept it as proof of a good command in written and spoken English as a foreign language, and it’s one of the most popular exams among the ones offered by Cambridge English. I passed the exam in June 2006, and have prepared several students to take it as well during the last years.

Cambridge EnglishBut I think that now is a very good moment to talk about it, because there have been some changes in the format of the exam starting from this January. Let’s take a look at the new format:

The FCE exam used to have 5 different parts, or papers: Reading, Use of English, Writing, Speaking and Listening. However, as of January 2015, these parts were reduced to 4, since the Reading and Use of English parts merged into one. This has shortened the duration of the exam about 30 minutes, so nowadays it lasts around 3 hours and 30 minutes. You can take the exam paper-based or computer-based.

These are the different parts:

Reading and Use of English: It now lasts 1 hour and 15 minutes. It’s the most important part of the exam, because the result in this part is the 40% of the total score. There are 7 parts in this paper, and the first questions are the Use of English part. This means that the activities will be of grammar and vocabulary, such as multiple-choice questions, texts with gaps to fill in, and word formation tasks. After this comes the Reading part, where we can find different texts with questions about them, missing paragraphs, and other comprehension activities. Having a wide vocabulary and knowing well grammar constructions is of vital importance in this part of the exam. Reading plenty newspapers, novels, books, and basically everything that you can get in your hands is a good way of preparing for this paper. My personal advice when studying vocabulary is to have a notebook where you can write all the new words that you learn. Then, always when you are reading a book or a newspaper or watching a movie in English and you see a new word that you don’t know, you can look it up in the dictionary and write it in your notebook with the meaning in your mother tongue. This can of course interfere in the process of reading that novel or watching this movie, but it’s worth it. You can always review your notebook now and then to reinforce the learning of those words, but even if you don’t, having written it down with pen and paper will make it easier to remember it than if you just look it up in the dictionary without writing it down.

Writing: It lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes and has two parts. The mark of this part will be a 20% in the final score. In this part you need to write two texts that can be essays, articles, e-mails, letters, reports, or reviews. After the changes in 2015, a story is not part of the possibilities in the second part of the Writing. Both texts will have between 140 and 190 words. In the first part you will need to write an essay, so that’s sure, but in the second part could be any form of writing. So you may want to know how to write all of them. In that first part you will be given a title and two ideas related to it, and you must write an essay using those ideas and adding one of your own. You need to write a clear and concise texts, expressing opinions, justifying, contrasting… In the second part you will have to write another text, choosing from 3 possibilities that will be offered, so you can choose to write the type of text you feel more comfortable with, or choose the one that has a more interesting topic. In this part it’s important to organize well the time and not to waste time. Some people like to write a draft before writing the final text, some others prefer to write the final version from the start… You can choose what works better for you, but always bearing in mind that you need to plan, organize and write 2 texts in 1 hour and 20 minutes. My personal advice to prepare for this part is to study how to write the different types of texts, all of them, even if you will only need to write 2. It’s better to focus more on the essay, since that one will be in part 1 for sure, and then practice the others, even if you can focus more on 2 or 3 types of your preference. In part 2 is good to read carefully the instructions of all the types, because it could happen that someone prefers to write e-mails or letters, but they know better the topic of the review and they would have much more to say if they choose the review. Always read all the instructions and choose the one that fits you better. And don’t forget to keep an eye on the clock! To practice for the writing the best thing would be to have an English tutor that can correct your texts and give you advice. If this is not possible, internet offers many solutions, my favourite being the website Lang-8, about which we talked already in the blog.

Listening: This part lasts 40 minutes and represents 20% of the final grade. In this part you will hear different recordings, such as monologues and conversations and you will have to answer questions about what you heard, complete sentences using the information in the recordings, and so on. The most important thing in this part is to read the questions or texts BEFORE listening carefully to the recordings, so you know what kind of information you need to get from what you hear. The recordings are usually played twice, so it’s good to wait until the second time before choosing the right answer even if you got it after the first hearing, just in case it was a bit tricky or you misheard something. My personal advice on how to prepare for this part is to listen to English-speaking radio stations, watching movies or TV shows in English, listening to music, and of course, talking to native speakers if possible. This will help you to get used to English pronunciation and will also widen your vocabulary. Keep your notebook nearby when you listen to the radio/TV as well!

Speaking: And we finally get to the last part. The speaking is the shortest part, it lasts only 14 minutes, and it represents the 20% of the final grade. This part is taken in pairs of groups of three. Usually the institution that organizes the exam chooses the pairs randomly or by alphabetical order. This means that you will take the test with another student, that you may or may not know beforehand. Many people fear that they will not understand well what their partner says, or that he/she will have a much lower or higher level that theirs… But this shouldn’t be a problem, since you only need to talk with the other candidate for half of the speaking part. There will be two examiners, one will talk to you and give you instructions, and the other one will just listen carefully and take notes. This can seem a bit terrifying, but don’t worry, they are not dangerous! 😉 In the first part of the Speaking paper the examiner will ask you questions about yourself, usually simple things such as where are you from, what do you like to do in your free time, your family and friends, and so on. Then you will get two photographs and a question about them, so you have to talk about 1 minute about them and about the issue raised by the question. The other candidate will make a short comment on the same issue once you finish speaking. You will also need to make a comment after your partner finishes speaking about their pictures. And then it’s time to talk together. You will be given some material (usually texts) and instructions. You have to discuss together the material you got and make a decision about what was asked in the instructions. You have to talk together for 2 minutes, so it’s important that both of you talk, no one should speak all the time, so even if your partner tries to speak a lot try to stop him/her with sentences such as “yes, I agree with that, I think that ___” or “sorry, but I don’t think so, in my opinion ___”. If on the contrary your partner is shy and doesn’t participate in the discussion try to encourage him/her with sentences like “what do you think?” or “do you agree with that?”. The examiners will be paying attention to the use of English, your pronunciation, what you say, but also to the turn-taking and that both of you collaborate together. In the last part you will have 3 minutes to keep discussing something about the topics raised in the previous exercise. And after that, you did it, FCE is over! 😀 My personal advice to prepare for this part is to talk to native speakers as much as possible, using programs like Skype if you can’t do it in real life. In many cities there are places where people meet regularly to practice languages, you can check that out, or looking for a private tutor, or doing some language exchange with someone that speaks English and wants to practice your mother tongue, so you can meet to talk during one hour in English and another hour in your mother tongue. But the best advice for this part is: Don’t be nervous. I know that this part can seem frightening, since is the last one and people are already tired, and you don’t know what you will have to talk about nor with whom… But try to think that after 14 minutes you will be out and free, and do your best in that final sprint.

If you want some free samples of the different parts you can download them legally from here. You can get some tips on how to prepare for the exam here, or you can enrol in a language school or hire an English tutor to prepare the exam. There are also many books from Cambridge with grammar and exercises to prepare for the exam on your own. Some of my recommendations are “Cambridge Grammar for First Certificate with Answers and Audio CD” and “Countdown to First Certificate“. However, all of them are very good, and you can find a list of official preparation books here. If you are thinking about taking the exam this year you can find the exam dates here, although you will need to check where you can take it in your country and confirm with the institution that they do organize the exam in the chosen date.

Well, and if you are taking the exam this year I can only tell you GOOD LUCK!! If you have more doubts or questions, please leave a comment and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Official Language Exams I. Graded Examination in Spoken English – Trinity College London

People ask me very often about official language exams, so I have decided to write a series of posts about some of these exams, so more people can find answers to their questions here.

As strange as it may sound, language exams are some kind of unusual hobby for me. I have taken several over the years, and I have even participated in the organization and supervision of some while working in Seinäjoen kansalaisopisto.

The first post of this new section will be about the first official exam that I have took. My first experience with this kind of language exams was when I was very young, only 11 years old, in the year 2000. I took the Graded Examination in Spoken English, grade 1. I had started to study English only 3 years ago, and apart from studying it at school I also had private lessons 2 days per week. My private teacher was who proposed that I could take that exam, since my parents had never heard about it before. But something went wrong at some point, and I don’t know if it was that my teacher was mistaken, or if I registered in the wrong level, but I certainly took the wrong test!

My teacher explained me that in the test I had to present a topic of my choice, and give a short speech about it, using also some material if needed. I remember that she really enjoyed preparing material for the lessons, with a lot of images from magazines glued to paper or cards – we are talking about a time when the Internet was not still of common use, I didn’t even know what it was yet… Ah, the good old times! So we chose a topic that I was interested in, dog breeds, and we (probably she) prepared a beautiful poster with many pictures of dogs of different breeds. Then, we prepared a speech about them, describing the main features of each of them, and telling a bit about dogs in general. We practised this speech many times in class, since I wasn’t allowed to take notes with me, I had to memorize it. I remember that there were some new words that I learnt with this activity, and there were many complicated sentences, compared to what I was used to at school. I had learnt this speech by heart and even practised it on my own just repeating it time after time sometimes just without speaking out loud. Since it was my first experience with an official exam, or anything of this kind, I was quite nervous. And when I say “quite” I should probably be saying “terribly”. I knew I was well prepared, since I knew the speech perfectly, but I feared the moment of finding myself in front of the examiner and forgetting everything or who knows!

The day of the exam arrived, and my parents took me to the school where it was held. I don’t really remember anything of that day before entering to the examination room. But I do remember what happened once there. The exam was only a speaking test, so there was no writing. Each candidate had to have a face-to-face meeting with the examiner, only one candidate at a time. So I entered there with my wonderful poster and my speech more than practised and sat down in a chair. The examiner presented herself, asked me what was my name and how old I was. On the table there were pencils of different colours, and probably more things that I don’t remember. The exam started, and the woman asked me different things like “how many pencils are on the table?”, or “could you please give me the red pencil?”, or “is this pencil green or blue?”. I don’t recall if there were other questions that were not related to the pencils, that’s the only part that I remember clear as water. I was thinking “What is this? This is way too easy! I want to say my speech once and for all!”. So when the lady said “That was all, thank you very much”, or something like that, I told her that I had prepared a speech and asked if I could do the presentation. She said “No, no” and I had to leave the room for the next child to take the test. Of course, I passed the test with distinction. Because it was the most basic level, when I had prepared for a higher one! This was a mistake on our part, and a quite clumsy beginning for my story with language tests! However, it didn’t stop me from taking more, as we will see in the next posts of this series.

Now that I have told my story with this exam, I will give some information about it for people who may be interested in taking it:

Trinity College London

These exams are called “Graded Examinations in Spoken English“, also referred to as GESE, and are organized by the Trinity College London. As the name says, they are only speaking exams, without grammar exercises or any other writing test. The test is offered in different levels, and is divided in 4 stages: Initial (grades 1-3), elementary (grades 4-6), intermediate (grades 7-9), and advanced (grades 10-12).

In the initial level, the tests consist of a conversation with the examiner, and lasts around 5 minutes. The difference between grades 1, 2, and 3 is that in grade 1 the candidate is supposed to answer the questions with very short responses, one or two words, since the questions are very simple. In grade 2 the answers may even be full sentences or more than 3 words. In grade 3, the candidate is supposed to use connectors to link sentences, but still in an initial level, for example “My dog is small and likes eating pie”.

In the elementary level, a topic is introduced in the exam’s structure. The test lasts around 10 minutes, and the candidate is supposed to have chosen and prepared a topic beforehand to discuss it with the examiner. Then they talk about something else that the examiner decides. In grades 5 and 6 candidates must ask the examiner a few questions about the topics discussed.

In the intermediate stage, which would be a B2 level according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, an interactive task is introduced. The candidate must also prepare a topic to discuss with the examiner, and they have a conversation about some other topics, but the candidate also must face a new task that he couldn’t have prepared for. Basically, the examiner explains a situation and the candidate must ask questions about it to get more information and make comments on it. The level of difficulty rises from level 7 to 9, of course, adding more vocabulary and expressions that the candidates are supposed to know, as well as being able to react in different situations.

In the advanced stage there is a new task, apart from the same tasks from the previous stage, and that is a listening task. The examiner reads three passages and the candidate must complete them or answer questions about them. Grade 12 represents a C2 level, so candidates are supposed to have a very good command of English and to be able to discuss about all kinds of different topics with fluency.

Exams are held all throughout the year in many countries of the world. Here you have a list of these countries with more specific information that varies from each country, such as the dates of the exams, how to contact a center, etc.

After going through the structure of all the levels, it’s very clear that I took the grade 1 exam, when I had been practising for one of the elementary stage, maybe grade 4 or 5.

More information about GESE exams here.

Trinity College London also organizes other exams of English as a Second Language: Integrated Skills in English (ISE); Spoken English for Work (SEW); and ESOL Skills for Life, aimed at adults living in the UK who do not speak English as their mother tongue.

This has been the first post of the series on Official Language Exams. I will talk about other exams in next posts, but please let me know if there is any specific exam you want me to cover because you are interested in taking it in the near future or for any other reason.

And I couldn’t finish this post without asking: Has anybody taken this exam? Tell us about your experience in the comments 🙂