Teenagers and exams

Progress tests, end-of-term exams, end-of-year exams and official exams to name a few. Most educational systems around the globe require us to constantly assess and evaluate our teenage students’ level of English. 

Samantha Lewis

So how can we help them be prepared and get top marks? It stands to reason that the better prepared our teens are, the better they will perform under exam conditions. This does not only mean preparing them linguistically, but also equipping them with appropriate exam strategies. Here are a few ideas to develop your students’ exam technique. You can also find information and specific exam strategy training for teenagers on LearnEnglish Teens.

Establish effective study skills

One of the most useful things we can train our students to do when they begin a new course is to adopt good study skills. Most students will benefit from taking time at the beginning of a new course in establishing such skills.

An organised notebook

Training students to keep organised notes during class is crucial. Suggest they divide their notebook into different sections, for example, general class work, homework, vocabulary, grammar, skills work and pronunciation, etc. Give time in class for them to take notes and monitor and correct what they are writing in their notebooks.


We all know how important it is to review vocabulary, but we should also help our students organise their vocabulary notebook rather than just writing a random list of words. Use different techniques to record vocabulary such as mind maps, tables, labelled pictures or translation. At the end of each class, ask students to record new vocabulary and expressions on word cards and keep the word cards in word boxes or word bags. Use the word cards to begin each class with a vocab review game such as pictionary, charades, taboo or getting students to make up stories with the words. Once most students in the class know the words, remove them from the bag to make room for less familiar items and maintain the process throughout the course. By the end of the course, your students will remember many of the words and expressions. This is a useful technique at all levels and can certainly help students remember tricky expressions and collocations that they will need to know when preparing for higher-level exams such as the FCE, CAE or CPE.

As well as extending their lexical knowledge, it is important to help teenagers deal with unknown vocabulary in exams. Develop strategies in class which allow students to work out the meaning of unknown lexis, for example by using the context, analysing parts of a word they may understand, thinking about the connotation of a word or understanding the meaning of affixes.

Spelling tests

Many native English speakers had spelling tests when they were at school to help them remember how to spell certain words. Every week select ten new words with tricky spelling and get your teens to learn them for a spelling test at the beginning of the next class.

Exam format and content information

Students will always perform better in an exam if they know exactly what format the exam will take. Give your students as much information as you can about the format of the exam. How many papers are there? How many sections are there in each paper? What types of tasks are there? What are students expected to do in each task? What content do they need to revise for each part? How long do they have to complete each part? How is the exam assessed? etc.

If you are setting the exam, provide clear instructions for each task and, if possible, an example to illustrate what to do. Make students aware of how many points are allocated for each part and the time available to complete it. While you are administering the exam, write the start and finish times on the board and let students know when they are halfway through the exam and ten minutes before the end of the exam.

Formal exams

Being aware of exam format is particularly important when preparing students for official exams such as PET, First for Schools or CAE. Sitting a formal exam can be nerve-racking as students often have to go to an unfamiliar school or exam centre. If students know exactly what they will be asked to do, they will feel far more confident on the day of the exam. At the beginning of your exam preparation course, get your students to complete a past paper for each part of the exam and correct it. This will give you a clear idea as to which areas the students need most help with. During the course, provide students with as much practice as possible, particularly in those parts of the exam they need most help with. Set up a rewards scheme whereby you award points for completing past papers and students can trade the points they collect for prizes, such as deciding what activities they’d like to do during a certain class. Direct students towards websites where they can get extra practice such as https://www.flo-joe.co.uk/.

Mock exam

Monitor your students’ progress carefully and a few months before the exam, set a mock exam. Students should carry out the mock exam in as similar conditions as possible to the actual exam and ideally it should be marked using the same criteria as the exam itself. Use the results to decide whether you think a student should sign up for the official exam or whether they should wait. Use the results from the mock exam to explain your decision to parents if necessary. Official exams can be expensive and if students are not ready to take the exam, it is important that their parents understand why and what the students need to do to prepare for it. Only advise students to take an exam if you feel they are capable of passing it.

What information is in the coursebook?

If students are using a coursebook, it is useful for them to be aware of the information they have at their fingertips. Coursebooks often include a plethora of information that many students may not be aware of. At the back of the book you can often find a language reference with explanations and examples of key grammar and vocabulary items, a phonemic chart or phonology reference with examples of familiar words to illustrate different sounds, a glossary of phrases to be used when speaking, a writing reference to help with different styles of writing tasks, a list of irregular verbs. Throughout the coursebook material there are often boxes which highlight particular language points, tips to develop learning strategies or even exam techniques. There may also be useful reference material in the workbook.

Design a quiz to make your students aware of all the information they have in their books. Ask questions such as ‘On what page can you find an example of how to write a story?’ or ‘What study tip is given on page x?’ etc.

Listening exams

In listening exams it is highly likely that there will be words students won’t understand. Develop listening strategies which guide students to continue listening and not stop listening every time they hear a word they don’t understand. Do exercises to make students more aware of the sound of contracted verb forms. Encourage students to keep calm and use their common sense and background knowledge of the topic to imagine which words are going to be mentioned in the audio. As well as doing as much listening as possible in class, encourage students to develop their listening skills at home by listening to podcasts or songs. Websites such as www.lyricstraining.com are great resources for students as they develop their bottom-up listening skills as they listen and transcribe their favourite songs.

Speaking exams

Students often get very nervous before speaking exams. However, there are a few things you can do to improve their performance. Make sure students are familiar with the format and style of tasks in the speaking exam. Give students opportunities to practise similar task types in class before the exam and make sure they have suitable communicative language for each part of the exam. Encourage students to interact when communicating by indicating understanding, asking for clarification and asking their partner’s opinion.

Get your students to use as much English as possible in class. The more used to communicating in English they are with the teacher and their peers, the easier they will find speaking English in an exam. Provide students with a glossary of appropriate classroom language phrases at the beginning of the course and encourage students to use the phrases all the time. If they feel embarrassed or are reluctant to do so, use a rewards system to get them into the habit of communicating in English in class. Make speaking English in front of their classmates as ‘normal’ an activity as possible. Plenty of pair work, group work and mini class presentations can help students normalise speaking English in front of others under normal classroom conditions, and consequently not feel so embarrassed or ‘on the spot’ doing so under exam conditions.

Use manual or online voice recorders for students to record and listen back to themselves in order to monitor their speaking performance and learn how to correct their own mistakes.

Writing exams

During a writing exam, encourage students to write on every other line so that when they check over their writing they can add and change things without the piece of writing becoming messy and difficult to read.

Do timed assignments once or twice a term during class time. This is an opportunity for students to use their English resource and develop their exam techniques such as answering the task appropriately, using their language resources appropriately, dealing with timing, handwriting and reviewing, checking their work. They need to get used to what 120 or 180 words looks like on the page, so that they don’t spend half the exam counting words in order to keep to the word count.

Some students mix upper and lower case in their handwriting while others have handwriting which is difficult to read. These are things that need pointing out to students so that they can work on them.

Ten minutes before the end of the exam, encourage students to stop writing and review their work. When you correct written work during the school year, use correction codes so students become aware of their typical mistakes and familiar with correcting them. Then they can prepare their own personal checklist of what to look out for when checking their work in an exam.

Exam season

Generally speaking, during the exam season, talk to students about the importance of eating healthily, drinking plenty of water and getting enough exercise and sleep. Healthy study routines also include taking breaks, doing exercise and pacing themselves.

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