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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 4; Issue 4; July 02

Short Article

Humanising Exam Classes

Alex Case, Central School of English, London

This article aims to look at how you can humanise your language exam class, with specific reference to the Cambridge FCE and CAE (although most of it is relevant for any exam). Some may think it strange to put the words 'humanise' and 'exam class' together some even seem to think of them as opposites but I think it is useful to examine how (or if) it's possible. Why? Firstly, my exam classes seem to have the best atmosphere of any of my classes, with students frequently coming back to let me know how they've got on and to continue with their English by joining other (exam or non-exam) classes. They also seem to stay in touch with each other more than in other classes. So, why should this be? I'm not quite sure. The humanising ideas below must help, but more than anything I think it's the feeling of being a team tackling a common challenge. Of course, a war also brings people together and I don't think that's a good enough reason for war, so I'm willing to accept I might not have convinced the doubters. Your school or students might demand an exam class, however, in which case you have to make the most of it. I hope this article will give a few ideas how.

Use whatever you can find in the exam that matches your own humanistic aims.

For example, the Cambridge speaking exams Part One involves talking about yourself and is therefore a perfect excuse for classroom 'getting to know you' activities. Parts 3 and 4 involve giving your opinion, leading to classroom discussion on any number of points, especially as in the CAE students must often discuss things they've never even discussed in L1. The fact that these things come up in the exam can persuade exactly the students who put up most resistance to a humanistic approach. The same is true of most of the ideas below. The marking scheme in the exam can, surprisingly, also help the teacher. Playing up the emphasis on 'interaction' is a good justification for examining pure communication rather than concentrating on the language, especially as this is often a student weak point and the easiest to improve. Work on body language, eye contact, listening noises etc. quickly improves both their performance and the relationship between the students.

Lose the textbook.

More than in any other class, I find it's easy to convince the students and the school management that a textbook is counterproductive. Instead, I ask students to buy a self-study book such as FCE Language Practice (1) and give them advice on which units to tackle for homework, checking their own answers. Language work in the classroom is then a direct response to student questions and difficulties.

Adapt/personalise the exam.

For example, the CAE listening involves lots of note taking. A great warmer for this is to ask students to prepare a mini-presentation which they will present from notes of (15) words only. Topics like 'my best holiday' work well. As they make their presentation to their partner, their partner takes notes. They then edit the notes down to the most important (15) words. Students then compare the 'note-taking' words with the original ones to see how much they match. By the end of the activity they know their partners better and have listened intently to them. The activity leads on naturally to discussion of what kind of words they'll need to concentrate on in the exam and/or an exam listening on a connected topic.
Similarly, other listening, writing and reading tasks can be chosen by the students or to match their interests. You have to make sure students use things outside their usual topic ranges, however, as they will have to tackle this in the exams. This can be

Build the team

All students have exam stories and exam tips which they'd love to share, and many of these are relevant to any exam- for example, 'With multiple choice don't change the answer unless you are certain it's wrong'. Analysing students' individual difficulties with different parts of the exam leads naturally to lots of help, tips and encouragement from the other students. Relaxation and confidence building tips and activities fit in perfectly with this. A more competitive version is students writing exam questions for each other to try fun and useful for analysing exactly what's being tested.

Just do it (if you can justify it)

I find the structure of the exam actually makes me more creative and experimental in the classroom. I also find it has got me used to justifying (if only to myself) everything I do in exam and non-exam classes. If you can take an idea and adapt it to something that will have some kind of direct effect on your students' exam performance (in any paper) in 3 months' time, then there seems no reason to hold back. If not, there may of course still be a good reason for doing it, but I find that the discipline of thinking about the exam factor first helps me really put the justification straight in my mind.

I hope I have at least partly convinced you that 'Humanising exam classes' is not an oxymoron, and that you'll give some of the ideas a try not least because if you doubt that value of the exam classes you are giving, students can often end up feeling the same. Bringing these two worlds together, however, can build a creative tension which I really enjoy.

(1) 'First Certificate Language Practice' Michael Vince, Heinemann 1993

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