Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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Remember, English for exams is NOT authentic!

Basically, good English is not always good for exams. However, this is not a bad thing. Let me explain.  (Also, if you are not preparing for an exam, keep reading because not all of this post is about English for exams.)

What is authentic language?

Authentic language is real language. Authentic English language is unplanned and unchanged language from native speakers. It’s the language that is used between two fluent speakers in a natural conversation.

What is the purpose of an exam?

The purpose of an exam is to test and assess language ability. You have to show how much you can do with your English in short period of time for the speaking (11 minutes for IELTS, 14 minutes for FCE, 15 minutes for CAE, 20 minutes for the TOEFL speaking test) and a limited number of words in your writing (400 words for IELTS, 330 words for FCE, 480 words for CAE, 525 words for TOEFL).

So within this short period of time you really have to show off (meaning to demonstrate) your English and use all the different forms you know as well as a good variety of vocabulary.  Remember, if you don’t use the language during the speaking test then the examiner won’t know that you have it.

Good English does not always pass!

Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister
of Britain (1940-45, 1951-55)
(Picture from Wikipedia)
Here is part of a very important speech in British history.  This speech by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain during most of World War 2, was incredibly important in motivating the people of Britain to continue fighting during a time when Britain was losing the war.  I don’t want to give you a history lesson but this speech was possibly the most important speech in Britain in the 20th century.

However, this speech recently failed an English assessment!  Read and listen to the most famous part of the speech here.

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans, 
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds, 
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, 
we shall fight in the hills; 
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The computer system that marked the speech didn’t like the repetition. The speech uses the phrase “We shall...” at least 12 times. The repetition was a very important and useful part of the speech, but for an English exam it is not good. Repetition is a tool that we use in spoken and written English to emphasise a point and it is used a lot in speech writing, especially by politicians. However, for English exams, it does not help you because it only shows a small part of your language knowledge.

Have a mental checklist

Make checklist in your mind for
your speaking and writing.
(Photo from Flickr)
So it is a good idea to have mental checklist.  A list in your head of things you should try to include when you are speaking and writing in the exam.  Here is a short list for you to start with (there are plenty of other things to add):

  • Conditionals (e.g. If you learn how to use these different forms of English, you’ll have no problems in your speaking and written exams.)
  • Passive Voice (e.g. This blog post was written to help learners of English understand and prepare for their English exams.)
  • Relative Clauses (e.g. This blog, which started in February 2011, exists to help learners of English.)
  • Adverbs (e.g. Both the teacher and the students were 'terribly pleased'* when everyone passed the exam.)
  • Comparatives/Superlatives (e.g. The CAE test is definitely designed to be more difficult than the FCE test but the CPE is certainly the hardest test of them all.)
  • Reported Speech (Gordon said that the CAE test was definitely designed to be more difficult than the FCE test but the CPE was certainly the hardest test of them all.)
So all of these are useful parts of English to use in your speaking and writing to show the examiner what you can do.

If you are not taking an exam, this is still useful

Yes, even if you are not doing an exam, focusing on these parts of English is still very important.  It is important for your accuracy to practise these parts of English separately sometimes.

Here are some videos to explain.  The first video shows a martial arts drill.  A drill is an exercise of repetition, where only one action is practised and repeated again and again so that the student can focus and improve on one specific area.  This is not an authentic fight but it is an important part of martial arts training.

You can see that this action alone would not be very useful in a fight.  However, when you put this action together with other actions then you can get something like this! (One of the most exciting martial arts fights I’ve ever seen! - Just click on play, it will start at the exciting part.)

So from this martial arts example, it is easy to see that the same rules apply to language learning. You've got to do the drills, practising your conditionals 'over and over and over' (meaning again and again and again), practising your use of passive voice over and over and over, practising your comparatives and superlatives over and over and over. This way they become better and better, you use them with more accuracy and fewer mistakes.

Then when you put them all together you get a grammatically accurate piece of writing or a grammatically great conversation.

* "terribly pleased" - Although 'terrible' is a negative word, we can use the adverb 'terribly' to mean 'very' in a positive way.  So this actually means "very pleased" and it is a positive sentence.  You can see the same use with 'awfully'.


  1. Oh man! (yeah, showing a lot of surprise) What a nice topic!!! In spite of not having a good vocabulary and making a lot of mistakes, I have to say that your topic comes in handy for me! It is very motivating and encouraging! What is really funny Gordon is that I was thinking how to get my first certification in English yesterday, and what I’ll have to do or study to achieve my goal. There is no doubt that I will follow through with your checklist and advice as a whole. I’m a fan of Martial Arts, and you know what the best part of the movie was? In my opinion, it was when they were massaging their legs to soothe the pain away :-)

  2. Thanks for the kind comments Marcelo. How is the First Certificate work going?


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