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.


Puhutaan Suomea – The magazine for students of Finnish

Bringing back the recommendations section, today I want to talk about a magazine for people who study Finnish. Its name is Puhutaan suomea, and is published by Artemira.

Puhutaan suomea started its journey in May of last year, and 8 issues have been published this far. A new issue is released every two months. The last issue has recently been published and it’s a double issue for the summer.

Since all the content in the magazine is in Finnish, it’s aimed at students who already have some knowledge of the language, not for beginners. However, the articles are divided into three categories: helppo (easy), keskitaso (medium level), and vaativa (difficult); so students can find the texts that are more suitable for their skills. And of course, they can also try to challenge themselves reading the vaativa articles! In every article there is a vocabulary section where some of the words of the texts are explained. In the easy level texts, the meaning of the words in this list is explained in Finnish, and the English translation is also included. In the medium and difficult level texts, the meanings are only explained in Finnish, without any English translation.

The magazine has different sections: An editorial from the editor in chief, Florin Dimulescu; a news bulletin (uutiskatsaus), a section written by magazine readers in which they present their home countries, called Minun kotimaani on… (my home country is…); elämys, or “experience”, a section where all kinds of interesting articles are welcome; tutustu Suomeen, or “get to know Finland”, a section about Finland, from cities, traditions, typical food, important people, etc. There is also a section about language and grammar, where in each issue there is the explanation of some grammatical aspect and some exercises to practise. This section makes the magazine very useful for learning and practising the language, other than just enjoying the articles and learning without being aware of it. Finally, there is always a calendar of events that will take place around the country in the following weeks after the issue is published, and an interesting interview. The interviews are always about different topics and always related to Finland or to services to promote the learning of this language.

Puhutaan Suomea

In the website of the magazine you can find more extra content and the audio version of the articles, so the students can also listen to the pronunciation of the words. You can also follow the magazine on Facebook and Twitter.

If you are interested in brushing up your Finnish and practise it while enjoying reading articles about many different topics, you can become a subscriber in the website. There are many different options you can choose, for example just the magazine, or an e-version of the magazine as a PDF file with the audio in mp3 files sent to your email, or a CD with this same e-version and the audio. You can check all the options here.

And as an anecdote, I write a little column in the magazine about different aspects of Finland and the way of life here from the point of view of a foreigner. The things that surprise me or the cultural differences that I find along the way, among other things.

Personally, I really enjoy this magazine, since in every issue I learn some new words or I spot some grammatical construction that I still don’t master, and of course, since there is such a big variety in the content of the articles, there is always something interesting. Puhutaan suomea is the only magazine of this kind, a mixture between a magazine and a textbook for people who is studying Finnish, it’s a very good resource for students. And since there are articles of different levels, it suits students who have been studying the language during one year or more. Even very advance students will find it enjoyable, since they still may learn something new, be it a word or just information about other countries, or about a nice Finnish dessert.

Recommendation: BusyTeacher

The website I recommend today is for teachers of English as a Second or Foreign Language: It is full of worksheets that you can download to use in your lessons, and you can find activities for students of all levels. In order to download the worksheets you have to be registered in the site, but it is free. You can also upload your own materials to help other teachers and contribute to the education of hundreds of students from all over the world.


The interface is very easy to use. The worksheets are divided into categories, e.g. grammar, listening, pronunciation, reading, speaking, vocabulary, writing, teaching ideas, ESL articles, and seasonal activities. Each of these sections is also divided into sub-sections to make it easier for you to find what you are looking for. You can also browse the worksheets by writing your search in the searching box.

BusyTeacher is very useful for teachers because you can get ideas to create your own material, use some of the worksheets of this site in your class, or even adapt them to your own needs. If you are looking for something very specific, for example, an activity about Halloween for students of an intermediate level, you are very likely to find it.

I would say that it is a perfect complement for beginning teachers that still have not developed a lot of material of their own. I would like to thank all the teachers who share their materials with other people unselfishly! Thank you!

Recommendation: Lang-8

Today I’m going to talk about a website that I find very useful, and maybe some of you will also like. It’s called Lang-8, and it’s a good resource for foreign language learners, specially for the self-taught. I have talked about this site with some friends, and I recommended it to my students, and none of them knew about it, so I want to spread the word in case this can be helpful for more people.

The basic principle of Lang-8 is that when you create your profile you select your mother tongue and the foreign language that you are studying -you can select up to 2 foreign languages if you are a free user, unlimited languages if you are a Premium user- and right after creating your profile you can start writing! You can write texts in the language you are learning and native speakers will correct them, so you can see the mistakes you made and, if you are lucky, the person who corrects your text may also take the time to explain why what you wrote was wrong. You can also correct texts that people who study your mother tongue have written. Since there are many users in Lang-8, usually someone will correct your text -called journal in this site- in a matter of minutes or hours. This depends, of course, on which language you are learning. If you are learning English, or Spanish or another popular language, your texts will be corrected faster than if you study a more exotic language such as Georgian, because there are more users whose mother tongue is English than Georgian. But still, your texts will be corrected as long as there are users who speak that language as their mother tongue. If you study a very exotic language you can check whether there are any native speakers in the site, just in case. To follow with the example of Georgian: As I write this there are 112 native speakers of Georgian registered in Lang-8, so no worries : )

Lang-8 is a free service, but they offer the possibility of becoming a premium user paying $63 per year. Premium users have some advantages, but you can make the most out of the website for free. You can see the advantages of a Premium account here (click to enlarge):

Premium features

I have been using Lang-8 since September 2012 to practise my Finnish and I’m very happy with this site. You can write texts about whatever you want, short texts or long texts, isolated sentences or a long essay about any topic you want. I think that this is very useful to improve your language skills, because when you sit down and decide to write a text about what you did yesterday you also have to look up some words in a dictionary, check some grammar books if you are not sure about how to say something, etc, and this is really useful to learn. Then, once someone has corrected your text you can go through the corrections carefully to make sure you learn from your mistakes.

If you also take some time to correct texts written in your mother tongue you will be helping other people as well, and it doesn’t really take a lot of time. Some weeks ago the website introduced a system of points, called L-points, to encourage people to correct texts instead of only writing them. Every time you correct a text you earn some points, and the more points you have, the upper your texts will be in the “To-be-corrected” list.

Anybody who wants to learn a foreign language and has a basic or intermediate level will find this site useful. Learners of an advanced level can also find Lang-8 useful, but if they don’t usually make mistakes when writing in their language of study, they will not make the most out of the possibilities it offers. Something that you need when using Lang-8 is determination, because no one is going to ask you to write texts and practise your skills, you just have to take the time to write about something and check the dictionary as many times as you need to. But once someone corrects your text and you can see how well you did, you will be rewarded with the feeling of having learnt something.

If you follow my recommendation and decide to give Lang-8 a try, let me know what you think about it!

Happy language studies!