How to help your students prepare for the First (FCE)

The First Certificate Exam is divided into 5 sections; Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing and Use of English, and it is important for teachers to assess each of their students individually and highlight which area they need to practice in order to successfully pass the exam. Being advised of one or two skills on which they should focus their efforts will motivate them and provide them with a specific and achievable goal, rather than the overwhelming task of improving every part of their English.

The particular strengths and weaknesses of students at this level can vary greatly depending on their circumstances; as the FCE exam is the first of many official and internationally recognised English exams, a lot of those who take it are very young and have never left their own country or spent time in a native English-speaking environment outside the classroom. In these cases, many of the students have lots of experience doing grammar exercises and gap fills at school, but due to shyness or lack of opportunity have done very little freestyle speaking practice with native English speakers – only having the opportunity to speak with their classmates. It is often the case that these students have a good level of grammar, but continue to speak in an unnatural style in which every word is pronounced in their native accent because pronunciation practice is often omitted from the syllabus, as the rules are irregular and complex. Consequently, many students might feel they have a better level of spoken English than they really do.

Conversely, there are others who take this exam that have lived in an English-speaking country or in a location where they are required to speak English on a regular basis, and therefore have a reasonable level of spoken fluency, but their command of grammar continues to be low due to a lack of formal education. In the real world, non native speakers can still function and communicate very well with natives by making such errors as ‘I live here for 5 years’ (instead of ‘I have lived here for 5 years’), and ‘I went to the university for 3 years’ (instead of omitting the definite article). They will still be perfectly understood because the information they wish to convey is still clear, but if these kinds of mistakes are made in the exam then marks will be deducted. These kinds of errors are especially important to be aware of in the ‘Use of English’ section.

If candidates are made aware of the particular area of English that they need to improve on, then they can practice doing exercises specifically related to this skill. It is advisable to encourage students to practice doing these exercises in exam conditions, within the exact time frames that they will have to face on the day. Of course, many people can write a good essay if they have enough time and the opportunity to check words that they don’t know in the dictionary, but this is not an option in the exam. By learning a selection of specific discourse markers and conjunctions that they are confident using, they can just recycle the same vocabulary in each of the sections.

These tips will undoubtedly assist candidates to focus their efforts on the specific areas they need to improve in order to have the most chance of successfully passing the exam.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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