FCE Oral Interview & ELT Pics

For part 2 of the FCE oral interview, it is necessary to practise comparing and contrasting photographs. If you have taken a look at the past paper examination books, you have probably discovered that the photos chosen are not always that telling of exact details of place and what the people in them are up to. My own students usually complain they do not know what else to say about them.

I usually point my students to Flickr for finding striking photos that will ignite their imaginations. I use some of my own photos in class too, but I try to encourage them to surf and find new images.

What to bear in mind when choosing photos:

-You aim at stretching yourselves to speak about a variety of topics.
-You can follow tags to find similar images to pair.

The idea is to get you to be fluent about any topic, not just your favourite ones. You should try to relate to the photos as well as guess and predict what's going on. This exam task is, in my opinion, a step before creating a story.

Think of the story setting or conflict and you get the picture!

The is a drawback. It is hard to find a pair of closely related photos to compare and contrast. Doing it on your own is time consuming.

How to solve this?

I've found this initiative that Sandy Millin explains in her blog. Several EFL teachers have been collecting photos for classroom use and organized them in sets according to topics. These are over 2,000 photos from all round the world and they cover the vocabulary range you need.

Ceri Jones has an idea about annotating the photos on an interactive whiteboard to enlarge your vocabulary. That gets interesting. But why not do it in Flickr? Students could choose themselves whether to click on further vocabulary or ideas for their description on a need-to-know basis.

See this example:

I think it's great that teachers can share these photo prompts online, but it would be wonderful to see students creating notes on them and sharing the learning!

Author : Claudia Ceraso

The Interactive Communication Skill

The Speaking Paper of the Cambridge First exam offers opportunities to talk with your partner without the intervention of the examiner. Those are moments when you are in total control of your say, the turn-taking, initiating and responding for about 3 minutes.

There are phrases that add up to making it all fluent and natural. Without those phrases, we sound like words read aloud from a book. You need to make a bit of effort to acquire them, These are expressions that range from:

  • agreeing
  • disagreeing
  • asking for an opinion
  • asking for clarification
  • rephrasing
  • summing up
Here is a presentation that lists quite a few examples:

Perhaps one the challenges when using these expressions is not feeling like an actor or actress performing a part. Think of what you say in your own language instead of the English words. Mind you, I do not mean you should attempt a word-for-word translation. What needs translating is the situation. What do you say instead?

Once you are aware of what you naturally say in those situations, it is only a question of practising and directing your attention to those colloquial links in our interactions. Having interactive skills means you can effortlessly initiate, respond and react to what your partner is saying. Remember the old adage: practice makes perfect!

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Our Two Facebook Spots
To: All fcebloggers, my dear students, teachers and people who generally love learning.
From: Claudia- (also known as fceblog)
Subject: It's official. We have two Facebook spots!

Dear All,
This is not strictly new. In April 2009 I decided to open a couple of places in Facebook to keep in touch with FCE students. It surprises me to see people finding it on their own. I thought it was about time to announce it here as well.

The FCE Blog is extending its online presence.

Welcome everyone to the group! This is a new online adventure. It's about leaving digital footprints. It all started in March 2006 with this blog, then a Corpus wiki, now Facebook... We'll see how this develops.

I thought it would be a good idea to start by joining some of my former students, now FB friends, who have always been a source of inspiration. Thank you all for joining. For the new FCE generations, I guess it is better to have a meeting point which does not oblige us to befriend each other to have a conversation.

-Why Facebook? you ask.
-Why not?

OK. Several reasons.
1- Although Facebook was not created to support learning, I know there are many lurkers who like this blog, but do not actively choose to participate of a blogosphere. There is no need for them to do so. They are spending time connecting and networking on Facebook. Learning is a conversation, I would like to extend this conversation of autonomous learning to where you are already.

2. Privacy
Why befriend the teacher? Why befriend all of my new classmates when I hardly know them? Facebook groups allow us to stay connected, yet not sharing all of our online space visibility.

3. This is about you
This blog has been my own printing press.
The wiki, my own class
Facebook group is all about you.

4. International voices and collaboration
So I look forward to seeing your interests, hearing your voices. If we find a resonance, we'll stick together.
Hope it becomes the spot where an international project springs (with a little help of a teacher somewhere...).

I have always been pleasantly surprised by people wanting to connect in order to learn. I'm ready for more. What do you say?

All best,

Twitter: fceblog

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Breaking the ice

It is that time of the year again. I am about to start a new Cambridge English First couse and I am thinking of the first lesson. A plan for students I have not met yet. A quick search for pages to practice lead me to this article listing possible questions for the Oral exam Part one.

Take a look.

Quite complete in my opinion. Now... what would your answers reveal about you and your new classmates?

Which questions would you ask your teacher? That would be an interesting scenario...

Toast to another year of learning from my students.

Author : Claudia Ceraso

FCE Speaking Paper: Useful Phrases
In our previous post on Speaking Paper Part 2, we discussed the content of this part of this exam:
-what kind of information to give
-what you are expected to do with it

Now I'd like to focus on a strictly linguistic aspect: the form. How to say it.  What words and phrases can you use to link what you say? The ideas of this post apply to all parts of the oral interview.

'How you say it', as opposed to how many structures and how much vocabulary you use, is technically called Discourse Management: to what extent can you give logical, well presented ideas.

Remember: no one is counting how many mistakes you've made to give you a pass or a fail. You will be awarded marks for everything you succeed in doing in terms of communication.

Ascención Villalba has shared this presentation which outlines and highlights the language you can use in FCE Speaking. I think it is quite complete and worth studying in detail:

Fce speaking part from Ascension Villalba

What's the goal? To approximate to using the language in that presentation. Beware of memorizing or forcing the expressions in your speech. It's unnatural and not a mark of learning. Try these phrases on as it they were new clothes. Select what fits best; make sure you have enough to change for the sake of variety.

The blog where it was originally published has some posts with tips and links . Take a look at the links on the sidebar of Skills for FCE.

On a final note, I just want to say that I love bringing other teacher's goodness to my own students in my class. 

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Grammar Exercises
Sometimes I wonder what visitors expect to find in this blog for First Certificate. I imagine them googling and landing here in search of learning, tips and practice.

Just think. All of those students alone with a computer searching for exercises to improve their English. Just like you. Now, isn't it a pity we don't share our findings?

This morning I woke up with world domination plans and thought it would be fantastic to pull the results of those searches and share them.

Like it?
OK. Let's take over the world!

The action plan
1) Create a delicious account. See this post about online bookmarks with delicious.
2) Save all of the practice exercises you do online. We are also looking for songs to illustrate grammar points.
2) Share away. Be sure to use the tag tagtastic for all bookmarks to be included in this grammar exercises project.

How fantagtastic!

Some help to get started
Where shall I start looking for exercises?
Here is a binder with some websites specialized in ESL or EFL exercises.
How do I find songs to help me learn grammar?
My students think of them all of the time in class. They make spontaneous associations while I teach grammar. If your memory is not so musical, you can try searching "example sentences" + lyrics + "your favourite band" in Google.

Thoughts? Questions? All welcome.

Related posts:

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Cambridge First- Statement of Results
Here is a question I often get from my students:

Do you ever get to see the test and your mistakes?

My answer in plain English:


You have to bear in mind that you are sitting for a test at the end of a school course. Although you may be doing a specific course or studying at your school to sit for First for Schools, this is a certification process. You have chosen a university to confirm you possess some knowledge of the language. The tests belong to the assessment body now. They will most probably be used for research purposes.

So, what do you get as a feedback?
Every student sitting for the test is issued with a Statement of Results, which looks like this:


Whether you pass or not, you will access this statement of results online. If you pass, you will receive a paper certificate at you examining centre. That certificate is valid for life. Do remember to go and pick it up. It is issued only once. If you lose it, I guess you will need to sit for the test again!

Author : Claudia Ceraso

FCE Set Texts 2012
We have talked before here on the blog about the tips for the preparation of the set book option in the writing paper.

The set books for FCE 2012 are:

-Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thakeray (Any edition)

-This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart. (OUP)

Some useful links on Vanity Fair
  • The Wikipedia entry on Vanity Fair provides a succint plot and characters overview. The links at the bottom of the page are a good way to start some finer research on it.
  • The Cliff notes. Although they are not meant to prepare for the FCE exam, the character analysis and sample essays are debate worthy and a good introduction to writing for the set book option of the Writing Paper.

You can get the book online for free or download it in pdf format here or here.

-Is there a film based on the book? -You ask.
-Yes, there is.

Trailer (2004)

This Rough Magic is a book which is copyright protected. So you'll have to get yourself a copy. Here is a pdf with a short test + answers to help you with the book comprehension.

To end, I'd like to say that the links here are meant to help you get into a world of fiction and by no means replace reading the original book. Let me remind you of what Borges used to say about reading: it's supposed to be for pleasure and not just because your teacher told you to do it for homework.

Attitude to reading is up to you.

Related posts

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Cambridge English First - Oral Exam Part 2
This is not the first time I have written about the oral exam. A quick Google search today has pointed at a lot of teachers writing about the FCE, so it is time to link to them and the great job they are doing to help their students learn.

Understanding English shares a couple of videos on  the oral exam. By the way, thank you Gordon for your kind words about this blog and for introducing Simon and Marcela. We have been exploring their blogs with my students.

Let's take a closer look at part 2. This is the part where you are supposed to compare two pictures and answer a question about them in one minute. Then, your partner will be asked a short question about your picture (30 seconds) before his turn.

I asked my students today what they find challenging about this part. Let me share their answers:

-The pictures are not that inspiring. At times, it is hard to improvise ideas about them.
-As you speak, you become more aware of the language you are using. You keep monitoring yourself and that is kind of "tense".
-Sometimes, you find you need the "right" word or expression and you cannot find it so...ahem, you need to say something else!

Fair enough. I'd say, try to think about this test as a game with rules that we can play clumsily at first and get better with  practice. Check out this previous post for ideas on how to practice on your own.

Practice and tips, of course.

This is a page for teachers, but you will find there a list of 38 useful phrases to use in part 2. There is a full description of the format of this part as well as detailed advice on the language you may be expected to use.

If the previous page has too much detail for you, I'd recommend a visit to FCE Pass. Find a brief collection of phrases arranged by function: description, comparison, expressing differences and answering the question. There are photos for practice, too.

This pdf document highlights useful phrases for asking for clarification, correcting yourself and the language of speculation, which is very important in this part.

Lastly, I'd like to recommend this video of part 2 with advice from a teacher to their students as they perform for part 2. This is not an example from Cambridge, it is useful practice, though.

More? Okay.

Related post
See this previous post for a description of the language needed for the complete oral test.

Author : Claudia Ceraso

End of Another FCE Year

The end of the school year is approaching for my FCE and BEC Vantage courses. They will be sitting for their exams in a couple of weeks. For both, teachers and students alike, these are days with lots of work mixed with reflections and a sense of farewell, which is never the part I like. fceblog

While my FCE students were speaking in class today, I couldn't help noticing how much they've grown. Do they realise? They sound much more confident with the language in spite of the inevitable errors here and there. They look calm and yet excited about the challenge ahead. I think that if they could access to a film about the exam date details, they'd ask to watch it! Only to perpetuate insecurity and exam nerves. But that is far from what I want them to focus on.

I needed them to stop thinking about exam dates, rooms and strict regulations. So I asked them if they would like to be part of my next year class. I said that with a years' experience of sweating towards improving their foreign language skills, I consider them experts who can provide valuable advice to my next year students. So, why not Skype them in sometime?

Most of them said yes immediately. Others were pondering whatever that Skype call could look like.

I expanded. As my new courses will share the inherited writing Corpus wiki, future students may like the way they write and wonder how well they did at the exam, what kind of tips they would be able to give, etc. In short, they could be either interviewed or consulted as mentors.

The look on their faces when they heard the idea is still on my mind.

Hey teachers who also read this blog,
Have you ever asked your students to teach with you next year?
Do. It's worth it.

I must say is I'm glad this course started with success and ends with a seed of a project.

I want to give a special thank you to all of my 2010 FCE and BEC Vantage students for their enthusiasm, patience and commitment to carry on. You've certainly been a pleasure to work with. Remember the door of the blog is open for you to carry on learning at your pace. If you feel so inclined, leave us a comment.

For some, I can add that I'll catch up with you all on Twitter or the Facebook page.

Related Post

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Cambridge First-The Speaking Test Updated for 2015

The Cambridge English TV Channel in YouTube keeps updating samples of FCE Speaking tests. As you know, the oral test will undergo a few changes. Pay attention to Part 3 of the test where the examiner asks the candidates to do something together. So far, that part has been of 3 minutes with visual prompts. As from 2015, it will take 2 minutes of discussion of written prompts and then the interlocutor will ask you to evaluate the options together for another minute.

In my opinion, this is much clearer for students, since time goes by faster or much slower when you are under the stress of a test and some students tend to hurry to conclusions way before the three minutes have expired.

So here it is. These are Florine and María

You can also read a pdf document that Cambridge issues to explain the candidates' performance part by part.

So, are you ready to sit for it?

Author : Claudia Ceraso

The Dreaded Vocabulary Gap

Is it possible to say exactly what I mean?

There are those moments at speaking exams -or real life as well- when you just cannot land on the word you need. You either get stuck or nervous or both. How to deal with those dreaded seconds is the subject of this post.

For some reason, students of a foreign language assume that there is always a better, more precise choice of word than the one they can first think of. My guess is we tend to be more self demanding in the exercise of finding appropriate vocabulary in a second language than in your mother tongue.

At times, we know we have studied that word and we simply forgot it. Forcing your memory can be fruitless and frustrating.

When speaking, we need to have some resources to deal with our temporary or permanent linguistic gaps. Here some tips:

-Is there a more general word? For example, flower can be more general than jazmin or daffodil.

-Can you recall an opposite?

-Can you describe it? "It's a kind of.."

-Can you compare it? "It's similar to...but different because..."

-Can you give an example of what you mean?

See? There are options to those seconds of uncomfortable silence.

Last but not least, you can still have the control of your speech by voicing what is going on. Phrases like, "The word is on the tip of my tongue"; "I know it, but I just cannot remember it now"; "I'm not sure this is the right word"...etc.

Remember: native speakers of English also have word gaps in their knowledge. So next time you run dry for a word,  please don't suffer or start apologising. Just make it ok and carry on.

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Learning Vocabulary Tips

I got a letter from Simon, a reader of this blog, who says:

" My biggest problem is my small vocabulary. [...] Do you have any tips for me to improve my English faster?"

So I thought it was about time we revisited the topic of vocabulary learning.

Before I give you a list of recipes, please remember that whichever techniques you choose, it's important that you keep at them. Vocabulary learning -just as most of language learning- is like gym. Think training. Think how you'd prepare yourself if your objective was to grow muscles or be physically fit and you'll be on the right track. So, no magic or quick fixes here.

Let's see.

There is, above all, a memoristic aspect to vocabulary learning. That's the glue that makes you retrive the word if you mean to add it to the words you normally use. So, if you choose some of the memory training techniques below, try to make a list of words which are highly frequent in your everyday English. Why? Because you'll be likely to need the word when you speak, therefore, you'll go beyond the memoristic game to real learning in a meaningful context.

So outside context, you may create:
  1. Word lists
  2. Post-it notes on your desk
  3. Flashcards
Here is a video that exemplifies the technique. By the way, it's not necessary to stick the post-it notes to the ceiling!

Then, you may want to add some sort of context to the words by adding associations. Here you may do;
  1. Related words
  2. Synonyms
  3. Antonyms
In this website, you'll find what I mean well exemplified. gives you a template (pdf) like this to work on.

Synonyms are a great way to learn words. You never know which one sticks to your mind first, but, at least, by giving your brain choices you create other association possibilities that may spell success.

However, this is a word of warning, our brains are not that prepared to learn antonyms when both words in the pair are new to you. Trying to learn "tall/short" at the same time is not a good idea. Try it with a list yourself. You'll probably doubt which is which for a long time. Many students confuse words like "before&after" even in advanced levels.

Next, you may try to group words linked to a topic context:
  1. Parts of a bicycle (Make your own)
  2. Objects in your bedroom
  3. Brainstorming a topic. Which words come to your mind when you think "fashion"? 
I find all of these useful when the starting point is words in my mother tongue and then look for the foreign equivalents. Then, you may systematize all that in word maps. The kind of maps you find in Lexipedia, for example. This is particularly useful for the Use of English Paper.Check out these flashcards.

Onother helpful hint to learn words is to vary the senses you use to learn them.
  1. Go from the photo to the words
  2. Listen to songs and find the lyrics
  3. Write them, feel them. Don't be ashamed to try a poem with a set of words! Play games.
Finally, the contextual techniques, which can be summarized as;
  1. Read
  2. Read
  3. Read
From any text you read online, you may create a word cloud to help you retell it by using the image only. You may just drop words and use them as a story prompt, if you feel more creative. What story would you make with these?

One last word, you'll find sharing and teaching the words a powerful source of learning. So go ahead and teach someone what you now know. Remember the muscle training principle applies to words: use them or lose them!

Related Post
Phrasal Verbs

Some research on vocabulary learning

Author : Claudia Ceraso

What is B2 Level?
Students often ask how to describe their level of English language in a CV. To say words like "advanced" "near native" are not only high sounding, but also purely subjective and generally inaccurate.
The EU has solved the issue of subjective qualifications by providing a descriptor of levels.

Take a look at this video introducing you to the Commom European Framework of reference. 

Now the new Cambridge scales are far more specific as of 2015. We have discussed the statement of results before. Now watch this video to understand what you can expect from your statement of results, mind you, not the Certificate.

Now, back to the title question, what is B2 level?
B2, as explained by the British Council , describes an independant, fluent user of the language in familiar and unfamiliar situations. Read the full description in that link. You can also explore how your level compares to others and how you score in an IELTs exam.

Related post

Author : Claudia Ceraso

FCE Listening Practice through Dictation
The word dictation probably brings to mind images of old, dull teaching practices. However, dictation has long been proven a learning device for foreign language students.

To mention but a few benefits, dictation can:
-help you obtain a list of words you usually misspell
-give you practice in note taking (FCE Listening Paper, part 2)
-foster thinking in the new language. Every learner's dream, isn't it?

Now, none of these benefits will happen unless you are motivated to practice dictation. If you choose how to practice it and try to vary the exercises, you'll focus more on its benefits rather than getting bored in a few minutes.

Here is a choice of websites to browse.

This site gives you three options of practice: jotting down the first letter of a word only, the whole word or a fill in the blanks with a bit of context to help you.
Here you will find dictations with real life English videos. British accent throughout.

Perhaps you'd like to try dictations from texts first. Then, the graded dictations at can be the place to start.

For a quick practice at the word level only, try

How can this practice help me develop listening skills?
Many students complain that listening is one of the most difficult parts of the test. Indeed, English has an isochronous rhythm that languages like Spanish do not share. Dictation can help you at the level of the sentence, the words, the division of a chunk of speech into sensible units.

For the FCE level, however, all of that is taken for granted. You will be asked to make assumptions, establish connections and not simply recognizing sounds and words. So, if listening is your stumbling block, why not get some dictation practice to help you break such a big task into manageable portions?

Image source:

Author : Claudia Ceraso

A new class and a blog anniversary
Dear Students,

Every school year is a new beginning. New faces. I am trying to remember all of your names. A lot of ideas I would like to share with you. Precisely sharing is what this blog is all about.

We have known each other for a month now and I must say I am inspired by your presence. I really enjoy your willingness to participate, your curiosity and positive attitude. Be sure us teachers need that kind of inspiration like food. It keeps us going.

I am also pleasantly surprised to find a lot of you are interested in art. Some of you also speak Italian, which I am struggling to learn. One of you mentioned enjoying art museums. There are music lovers who also play music. This is just a start. We will certainly discover more amazing things as we get along.

Standardised exams do not sound like a lot of fun. I know. The interesting thing is that to certify your knowledge is outside your school or job requirements and everyone is learning here in my class out of their own will. I believe that as a group we can balance learning certain rules of speaking and writing in a foreign language without forgetting that rules can and should be broken at times. You can remind me of these last words before the test ;-)

I mentioned the idea of blogging some of our class discussions instead of relying only on the classic speaking mode. Some of you liked the idea but needed help to choose a blogging engine. Let me tell you something: stick to those ideas that can be shared. Stick to your writing style even if it does not exactly fit the exam format. That can be learnt later. Blogging tools? We will find a tool. That is the easy part. By the way, pens and papers are among my favourite technology.

I like blogging. This FCE blog has turned 10 years old last week! There have been times when I blogged very frequently and times when I went silent for months. Maybe not totally silent because there is Twitter or commenting at other blogs... You see, the Internet is a very interesting place.

This blog home is still open. It is not homework. It is up to you.

Look forward to seeing you next class.

All best,


Author : Claudia Ceraso

Happy New Year
This blog has been hibernating for quite a while. I still bring up old (yet not dated) posts in my FCE course. They know the rules: this is not homework.

The  FCE course this year was such a good time. I remember the first class in March. Nobody knew, but it was my first day of work after a long leave of absence due to family health. Being back at the chalk-face (excuse the archaism) felt like my model class back in my pre-graduation days. 

Everyone in my class had the self-demanding, voracious learning vein already inbuilt. I did not have to foster it, rather the opposite: I had to make them see their results for what they are worth. Not sure I persuaded them. They will probably be convinced when they see their exam results in January.

My students made my job easy, fun. Martina, one of the students, gave me a warm hug the last day. Before saying goodbye she told me "I had fun and I learnt a lot this year".  Felt like success to me. It was also a bit of a relief, because I remember her glued to her phone screen most of the time. I feared she was a bit bored.

I learnt a lot too. Particularly from the freshness of the responses from teens. A reminder of how much I still enjoy this FCE class, which I started teaching when my current 2017 students were being born. 

(Wait a minute. I am re-reading that last sentence again).

Now as this year -as well as this post -is coming to an end, I am reminded of how much I enjoy blogging. With a twist this time. I am writing this on my mobile (wink for Martina) while I am on my fixed bike. That's some innovation for me.

Look forward to my students' messages next month. For those coming to this blog for tips,  I will be back to you soon.

Happy 2018 everyone! Long live the blog!



Author : Claudia Ceraso

My FCE Class 2012

Dear New Students,

I thought I would stop planning my first lesson and take a break to write to you. Writing before I meet you this afternoon, that is. This is an introductory letter with a very wide audience and a late arrival. What do I mean? Some people have already read this because they have subscribed by e-mail or RSS to my blog, but the specific addressee of this letter, you, my new student, will only know about its existence after you meet me in class and I point you to this blog url as a kind of homework. Well, not quite.

This blog is not homework, but an invitation. There is no proper way of reading this. See the menu or help yourselves. Read it all or just a bit every other day. Either way is equally perfect. You decide.

This blog is all about learning, developing autonomy to study and reflecting all along. Exams and certificates are papers. Communication with the world is magic.

Every year, every new start of a course is something exciting for me. This is how I see my challenge with you:

-you have enrolled in this course either because you want to know more English at this level or because you need to present a certificate to a future employer. Maybe some both.

-I particularly do not like teaching exams. I like teaching English. More accurately: I enjoy learning with you. Yes, teachers learn a lot in the process of preparing lessons for you!

My challenge? How to balance the two extremes. (I can feel many a teacher nodding at this point).

In my class I will always be inviting you to explore on your own, to be curious, to read voraciously. Are you ready?

I have been taking a good look at the new book we will use this year and I am glad there is lots of writing practice. Writing these days, writing when you don't know how far a Facebook post or a forwarded email gets to, is difficult. You need to think a little bit like bloggers do: you do not always control how the message is received or who reads it or what for!

When you write for an exam, you also need a split target reader in mind: an imaginary friend, a story reader or an employer receiving your application letter. At the same time, we write for a teacher, an exam corrector who is interested in your skills to get a message across.

It doesn't matter if you write on or offline: you always write for people you know and a lot more people you do not know.

Enough said for starters. There is so much I want to share with you, but we have time till the course ends in November. We'll meet in class or online soon.

All very best,


P/S: Oh, one last thing. I can imagine you saying "Wait, tell me about the exam!"

Here is a presentation a teacher called Hellen has made. She summarizes the task you'll have at hands.

View more PowerPoint from Helen Collins

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Punctuation matters. Period.

Is that all?
Well, you may say:

Don't stop.


Don't, stop.

There's a difference, right? When I read, I don't like wondering what you meant. I want you to spell it out to me.

Writing is about making it easy and enjoyable for the reader. I usually tell my students that when they plan a paragraph, they are signalling a road for the reader to have a pleasant journey.

Extending this journey metaphor...

"Think of punctuation and mechanics in terms of driving your car. Punctuation and mechanics provide direction and signal the information to which you need to pay attention. Without punctuation and mechanics, phrases and sentences would run into each other and would be unclear, and your writing would go virtually nowhere. The purpose of punctuation and mechanics is to make your meaning clear by telling the reader when to pause, when to stop, when to take notice, etc" (I found it here.)

The power of punctuation is better explained by examples. Then you need some general rules. Above all, you need exercises!

The Purdue University website has a good menu to cover the punctuation you need to know.

If you find that too much, you may wish to do a quick quiz instead.

In the middle of your writing, you may need to consult a guide about specific punctuation marks. This one is quite comprehensive. This one is faster and has exercises.

A quick cheat-sheet to have near you while you write could be this Oxford site.

Last, but not least...

Too much? OK.


Image source:
Author : Claudia Ceraso

Did you know?

Many of the students sitting for the FCE exam are afraid of writing stories. You know that in your part 2 of the Writing Paper you get a choice of rubrics to write about. Stories are, in my opinion, the freest and most creative opportunity the exam gives. We need to unlearn so much guided or repeated practice using typical starters and endings in letters. We need to go out of our comfort zone. To tell a story, we are always putting a lot of ourselves out there. And that's scary, yeah.

How to start? I do not have enough imagination...


Think of this:

"The scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better." ? Stephen King

Inspiration 911

Here is the site where I found Stephen's quote. It's an emergency line for those in need of getting ahead in their writing, but suffering from writer's block. Do you need a setting for your story? A verb? Do you need to kill a character?

Now, would you let yourself be inspired and write a story? Take a look at these beautiful photographs. She's Dominoe.

My last year students did beautifully. Today we are writing again. You can read their versions in our class wiki. The wiki is not worldwide open, but you can post your version of the story in the comments here, if you like.

Stories help us getting connected. Connected to ourselves, to othe reader and the author as well! Alan, the author and owner of the real Dominoe, read the class production and wrote this post in return.

Here you can and hear Alan telling his original story.

What I enjoy about re-writing Dominoe is how a dog can wake up our imagination, how we can all become a new owner that breathes another life to it. So here are our frisbees to Dominoe. Hope you enjoy them and join our storytelling.
Author : Claudia Ceraso

Speaking Paper- Part 2
In Part 2 of the Speaking Paper, you are given a couple of pictures you will have to discuss on your own for about a minute. This is the long-turn. It is not a dialogue and you are expected to give an extended answer to one question.

I'd like to share with you some of the frequent doubts my students have on Part 2.

  Should I describe the two pictures?

As you will have to start speaking as soon as you see the pictures, you most probably will describe what you see first. This is good to get a general idea, to place yourself and to avoid saying "in picture one" or "in the first picture", which are vague and poor ways to refer to them. Forget about merely pointing at them with your finger. Instead, you could give the pictures a title, something descriptive such as, "the picture with the elderly woman" or "the picture which shows a doctor", etc. That gives you a change to use more precise language, which suits your B2 level.

  -Should I answer the question right at the beginning or towards the end of the minute?
Throughout.Everything you say must have relevance to the question. That goes back to the first issue, you're not supposed to describe just because. You are not asked to have right answers, just ideas. So what you will do is constantly speculate about possible answers. The question the examiner reads at the beginning is printed on top of the set of pictures. This is there to help you. Make sure all your ideas are pointing to it.

 -My problem is that I run out of ideas. I don't know what to say.
Students who say this do not like talking about small topics. They like important ideas. Hey, you are not presenting at a conference! This is not a creativity contest. This is just a snapshot of casual conversation. Your ideas are good just because they are yours. Show us you want to communicate them and that you want to be understood by detailing and expanding on what you mean. There are no wrong answers. There are probably wrong attitudes towards the task. I know it's hard to do when you get nervous in the middle of the exam, but an attitude of someone interested in having a conversation and honestly sharing what you think is the path to success.

Sometimes students run dry because they assume the question is to have only one answer. That's not true. There may be several possible answers and you give your hypothesis. The important thing is you address the question, not that you arrive to the most definite reason why. That would leave you with nothing else to say in 30 seconds. Instead, be ready to discuss alternatives.

 -How can I practise for this part?
What this task requires the most is confidence. This takes practice. You do not need any specific exam materials to do this. Any photograph which includes people will do. At first you can just time yourself while you describe any photo. Once you are at ease with filling the minute, try to answer one of these questions:
  • Why are these people in these pictures?
  • How are they probably feeling?
  • What do you think these people enjoy about ...(whatever they are doing)?
-Where do I get pictures?
Google images will do. The syntax could be something like this: "people + holidays", or +jobs +memories +sports +home. You name it. If you run out of search terms, go to your coursebook and use the title of the units as a guide. They refer to the vocabulary and themes you are to talk about with fluency at the FCE level.

This is just a start. Yet a key step. Practise frequently!

 Photos shared under a Creative Commons license by lukemontagne on Flickr

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Paper 5: Oral Interview
FCE Oral Interview ELT Pics
Author : Claudia Ceraso

Spelling (Yeah, it\'s important)
Students are sometimes surprised to learn spelling mistakes count when you are an advanced student of English. They prefer to focus on more difficult structures as if they were the only important things. Spelling is a detail, right? Well, this is what studying for standard exams can do to your priorities. Remember it's not the exam, but your English what counts!

Let me put it this way:
If you write with fairly good structures and vocabulary, what does bad spelling say about you in that context? Probably carelessness. There are so many tools that will help you identify poor spelling with a red line underneath that not doing anything about it is plain lazy.

Now watch this (you may have received the sample text via email),

So, why does spelling matter?
Becuz badd spilleng is hrd two undstnd wen u reed it. Because when you write, you do so not just for yourself but for a reader. Good communication is not an intention, it is the real effect we make on another person. Little time to write or our haste to pass a message quickly are just excuses unless you are texting from a busy street. Bad spelling is communication noise.

OK. Let's get down to learning.

Google can be the first place you go to check if a word exists. We are assuming you already suspect you are mispelling it. Most of the times, we may be unaware of our mistakes, so you probably need a tool to help you with two things:
-identify the mistake
-suggestions for correcting it

You can try cutting and pasting your text here or here to get a report with suggestions. That's easy.

However, spell checking tools are not enough.

Homophones -words with the same pronunciation, but different spelling and meaning- escape the scrutininzing eyes of the tools. There are a lot! Check them out.

Mastering spelling takes time and patience. Somehow, you need to keep track of your frequently misspelled words. Boring, I know. Maybe it can be fun, too. I really like the way the people at help you to learn. You can create your own tests based on the words you have problems with. There's plenty to do in that site.

Do you make any of these frequent spelling mistakes (Hush, but native speakers also do!)?

Last, but not least. There are differences in spelling depending which side of the Atlantic Ocean you are at. With so many sources to read English, you are probably mixing British and American styles. Are you?

Happy spelling!

Author : Claudia Ceraso

Set Text for Cambridge English First: Edgar Allan Poe

I love Edgar Allan Poe. As a teenager, I remember reading and enjoying the tales intensely. Those were days when I only read in Spanish, but Poe can survive a translation. However, I am afraid I cannot say the thrill of reading poe can survive an abridged version. That is what is recommended by the exam centre lately, abridged editions. In my opinion, most of my students at FCE level can read the original version and get a real taste of what Poe is about.

The tales have been a continuous inspiration for writers, TV and cinema. Last January 19th, marking Poe's birthday, published a post including three animations of the story The Tell-Tale Heart. Check them out and do make sure you explore the links at the end of that post where you can find Poe's books and audio books. A treasure on the Internet sea.

Author : Claudia Ceraso

FCE Set Texts 2011
The Cambridge set texts for the 2010 and 2011 FCE exam are:

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (Black Cat or any edition)
Michael Chrichton: Jurassic Park (Macmillan or any edition)

Both recommended texts are graded readers. You may read one or both. These books are not discussed in the oral exam at all. They are the basis to answer a choice of optional writing tasks in Part 2 of the Writing Paper.

The Woman in White
Fiona Joseph has a great ten-minute podcast to introduce you to the book The Woman in White. Her tips are spot on. You should be very well prepared to choose one of the set text writing options, which can be an essay, an article or a letter.

Jurassic Park
This book is still copyrighted and unavailable online. You can find chapter summaries and notes here or here.

The range of set books recommended by Cambridge for the FCE exam has been full of classic authors. Most of the books are read in their unabridged editon. If you are one of those students who loves reading and needs advice with titles to quench your reading thirst, here is a good reading list created by OM. They also provide free downloads with information about the authors as well as some of their most famous books.

One final thought...

Apart from the recommended abridged readers, I would advise you to include some original work in your personal reading list. But most importantly, choose books you like! If you find a novel or story never ending, perhaps it's time to go and discover other titles that confirm reading can be a great pleasure.

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Author : Claudia Ceraso

Text X-ray
Essay Reading and Writing

Reading comprehension is quite a challenge for some students. First of all, it is hard to distance yourself from your own culture and the possible interpretations that can force into a foreign text. It can be learnt, though.That's something that takes a lot of reading in original texts or dialogues.

Next, we need to recognize the anatomy of a text. You need to learn to develop an X-ray view of a it. That is to say, learn to see the logical nodes, the progression of ideas, the links. Forget about the details or the specific content. I'm talking about learning how it is that a text flows naturally while making sense.

So the idea is to learn to identify this with the aim of improving our capacity to read and eventually write a sequence of organized paragraphs. This link from Victoria University of Wellington will help you to do just that.

What you will learn:
-Identifying topic sentences
-Rearranging sentences to form a paragraph
-Incorporating sources
-Types of paragraphs: introductory, body, and concluding paragraphs.

This online 'course' might take about two hours of your time to complete. It's simple basic knowledge of how to go about an essay or any article paragraph. This is a recognition exercise before you try your hand at writing. At FCE and BEC Vantage level, I'd say this knowledge is sort of taken for granted.

Make sure you get the basics! Improving reading and writing go hand in hand.

Hat tip to Carl Dowse for sharing the Academic Writing link in his Business English wiki.

Image source:

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Author : Claudia Ceraso