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15 ways to make EFL exam tasks easier

Although in basic terms our job as an EFL exam teacher is to get students used to the real format of the exam, there are many reasons for not always using realistic exam texts or exam tasks. One is that it can ruin their confidence and cause panic each time they see an exam from […]

Although in basic terms our job as an EFL exam teacher is to get students used to the real format of the exam, there are many reasons for not always using realistic exam texts or exam tasks. One is that it can ruin their confidence and cause panic each time they see an exam from then on. Another is that they might learn some basic tactics such as picking out just one word from a speaking exam question that helps them cope with the exam but holds back their longer term language development. A third reason is that the particular point you want to concentrate on that day might get drowned out by other problems and student questions. Here are 15 ways to simplify exam tasks to lessen those problems:

1. Use the same task again
The easiest way of making an exam task manageable is just to give exactly the same task as the day, week or month before so that students can answer it from the conscious and subconscious memory. This can also help students learn when and how much to trust their instinctive feelings about what language looks right in each gap and how much to overrule that with their book knowledge.

2. Use the same text several ways
A similar way of using students’ memories to Use the Same Task Again is to use the same text first for a reading comprehension and then for a grammar or vocabulary exam task. This also works for reading texts as a prompt for writing tasks, and doing an exam listening task with an example of a speaking exam and then answering the questions yourself.

3. Restrict the range of language
By having a multiple choice close that just tests, for example, noun plus preposition, we can make the language more memorable whilst making the task more manageable. This could also help students notice what kind of language they should be looking for next time they try an exam task with a more typical mix of language in it. The easiest ways of writing such tasks as close to the exam format as possible are to type out an exam text with the gaps in different places or to take grammar practice sentences from an exam workbook or textbook and rewrite them as a whole text.

4. Emphasize the subskill
With reading and listening tests, you can concentrate students’ attention and make it easier by rewriting the texts and/ or tasks to make it particular practice of, for example, scanning for capital letters and numbers, listening to people spelling out words or getting a general gist from information from several parts.

5. Mixed up answers
Another very basic technique is just to give the answers mixed up at the bottom. This works particularly well with cloze tasks where the students have to add one word to each gap, but something similar can also be done with multiple choice (by telling them how many “A”s etc. there are in the correct answers) and with matching tasks (by telling them which extra options are not needed).

6. Specialize
Spend one week, one month or every Monday particularly concentrating on one thing until students can take the confidence from doing that well into the other parts of the exam. You can organize that specialization by part of the exam, language point (e.g. many different exam tasks rewritten to include lots of Present Perfect), or subskill (e.g. guessing vocabulary from context in many parts of the exam).

7. Cut down on the number of options
Start off with a real exam multiple choice question but with only one distractor, then work your way up over the following weeks until A, B, C and D are all there. You can make the very first try even easier by including just the distractor that is most obviously wrong.

8. Make every question multiple choice
Multiple choice questions allow for easier guessing than other task types but are also better practice of avoiding trick questions. Open cloze questions can easily be made into multiple choice questions by giving four of the answers from somewhere in the exercise as options for each gap, and the same thing can be done with multiple matching exercises such as adding the headings to paragraphs. In all cases, though, it is better to write the multiple choice questions more carefully so that each question tests a common confusion. To make the task and concentrating on one language point per question, you could try making two of the distractors obviously wrong and only one a real trick question. After the students have tried the exam task with the extra multiple choice task you wrote, they can try it again without later in the lesson, week or term as real exam practice.

9. Slow it down
With a listening exercise this is literally possible as you can use a speed function on a good classroom cassette recorder to slow the speech down just a little so it doesn’t sound weird but is easier to understand. You can achieve something similar by pausing the tape several times to let students’ brains catch up with the tape. With other exercises you can just start off with the time limit 50% longer than the exam and cut it down little by little over the weeks until you have them completing it even quicker than real exam times.

10. Give them the answers and they explain why
For example, circle the correct multiple choice option and get them to underline the parts of the text where that information is.

11. Tell them what is wrong and they explain why
As easy practice of avoiding distractors and other questions meant to trip them up, you can add all wrong answers to an error correction exercise and ask them to explain why each one is wrong. They can then see if they can get the right answers to each question.

12. Just one answer wrong
Give the students a completed exam task such as a listening sentence completion exercise and get them to listen for which of the answers you have written in is not correct. Each time you do this you can increase the number of wrong answers to listen out for.

13. Let them answer by certainty
Ask students to answer the questions or call out their answers not in order but starting with the ones they are sure are correct. As well as boosting their confidence, this can also help them learn to trust their instincts with language, focus their self-study efforts on language they are unsure about and focus on questions they can answer easily if they run out of time in the exam.

14. Exam task, non exam text
Use a listening, reading or speaking task from a lower level textbook and add an exam task to it.

15. Exam text, non exam task
Use an exam text for easier and more interesting tasks like being given the text cut up and putting it in order. When they have finished that task and have got to know the text well, they can then do the exam task with the same text.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet May 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • Sulwanri says:

    Thank you for the lesson provided here. The best !

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Teflnet : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Exams : 15 ways to make EFL exam tasks easier