ESL Blogs


European Day of Languages (EDL)
What Languages Mean to People

This two-minute video was shot in the streets of London on the 26 of September 2006. It is a survey, but the street is rather noisy so I transcribe the questions on the video.

Do you know today is the European Day of Languages?

Do you think it is important to speak other languages?

Is English the most important language to know?

Would you like to speak other languages?

What percentage of the population in the world speaks native English?

What will you use English for?

Hey! What would your answers be?

On a side note-
Sometimes, we dream the whole world could speak the same language. How simple things would be, right?
OK. Suppose your wish is granted. But that unique universal language is neither English nor your mother tongue.
Now tell me:
How much do you think the world would lose for not understanding you?

Now you know what you are missing.

Related Post
Check our previous post celebrating the EDL:
701 Reasons to Study a Foreign Language

My side note reflection is one I heard on a fantastic presentation called Cultures at the far edge of the world, by the explorer Wave Davis. I got there via an EFL teacher, David Deubelbeiss.
Find the interview video at YouTube.

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Wed, 26 Sep 2007 13:15:00 +0000

Formal and Informal Language
Formal and Informal Language

The point is this. You may write correctly and be out of place. We are not writing to pass a test (only). We write because we want to communicate; we want to get results or a reaction from the other person.

At this level, you need to understand the difference between:
  • correct language
  • appropriate language
In a nutshell, when you are correct, your sentences are well formed. You are making use of good grammar. When you are appropriate, your choice of words and expressions adjust to the effect you want to make on a given person in a specific situation.

Sounds complex?
For example, it is not the same to ask "where do you live?" at a job interview or at a bar when meeting friends.
Watch this (just 25 seconds).

See? It is very different.

The style, the register, can vary in a not-always linear scale going from very formal to colloquial.

What can be somewhat difficult is for a non-native speaker of a language to become sensitive to those differences in a variety of contexts. To get that 'feeling' of a language, some people say it is necessary to live in the country where English is spoken.

I'd say, not necessarily.

Here's why. To get that grasp on a language, you have to become perceptive to situational variables. It is not enough to say, "I've heard it. So it exists." It is vital to hear it in context.

So how do we learn this?, you ask.

Build context to what you hear. Learn "When to say it".

OK. But how?

Every time you see films, or travel, or read in English pay attention to the following:
  1. Who is speaking? What is his relationship with the other person? (Friend? Boss?)
  2. Where are they speaking? (At the office? At home?)
  3. What is the purpose of the conversation? (To get a job? To invite to a party?)
You need to attach this information to the language you want to learn. It's crucial.

Now, please do not expect a clear line to divide everything. A letter of application is formal by definition. However, if you want to get a job as a DJ, you would not be so formal as to get a scholarship from a university. There are degrees. Nothing is final in a language. But there are patterns you can -with time- distinguish.

It is this attitude to listening for context that will teach you more than trips. And practice of course! So let's go...

Some links:
Here are a couple of downloadable pdf worksheets (with answers) from the BBC.
These are a collection of handouts and exercises detailing characteristics of formal and informal writing.

The Corpus Wiki has a page to enlarge on all this.

Related post: English Grammar

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Fri, 17 Apr 2009 00:59:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Sat, 29 Oct 2011 19:53:00 +0000

Exam Day: The CIS
I've noticed that Cambridge past papers books bring sample answer sheets at the end. However, there is no sample copy of the CIS, which every candidate must complete before the start of most Cambridge Suite exams.

What is the CIS?
CIS stands for Candidate Information Sheet.

Is that a part of the exam?
No, it isn't. Actually, it is a survey about the exam candidates. Your answers in the CIS will not affect your marks.

What kind of questions does it include?
You'll be asked about the following:
  • age group and gender
  • reasons for taking the test
  • whether you are working or not
  • whether you have taken any international exam before
Turning over the page, there are two more questions:
-What's your country of origin?
-What is your mother tongue?

Do I have to write a lot?
You'll be given multiple choice options, so there is nothing you have to write. You simply choose as appropriate.

I do not have any copy of the CIS with me. This is all I remember after invigilating today. Have you taken the FCE recently?
Help me complete this post with your comments.


Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Sat, 12 Dec 2009 18:47:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Mon, 01 Aug 2011 02:54:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Thu, 31 Mar 2011 14:48:00 +0000

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.

Related posts

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Thu, 05 May 2011 17:42:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Sun, 25 Apr 2010 00:43:00 +0000

Cambridge Results Online ... And then?
So, how did it go?

As from 1st February you can consult your Cambridge exam results online. If you need guidance on how to access your scores check out this previous post.

You may be certain that at this point I am very curious about my own students' results. However, I am quite confident they have learnt things that I cannot really measure. They are not recorded in standard ways. And yet, they mean a lot to us.

But I do need to know and learn myself from your results. They will help me to evaluate part of our experience together and do better next time. So here is what I would like you to do. When you access your results, you will see a pdf page with the details of your performance in all areas evaluated. That is your student's profile page. You are the only person who can access it because it is password protected. Please save it to your computer and send it to me by email.

I am also opening a wiki page called Exam Results 2007. You know the wiki rules: make that page yours. Feel yourself at home. If you are not one of my students, leave a comment here and join our conversation.

I wonder... I imagine you've been anxiously waiting for this day to come and know how you did. What do these exam results mean to you? What is next?

Photo credit:

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Fri, 01 Feb 2008 14:06:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Wed, 29 Aug 2012 17:18:00 +0000

Bookmarks are Tagtastic!
How can our bookmarks bring us together?
We all love surfing the net and discovering great sites. Then we bookmark in our browsers to find them again, we want to share with friends via e-mail (so last season!) and then... chaos. You like bookmarking so much the collection of links is unmanageable. Or worse, some computer crash makes you lose months of work at collecting! Ouch.

Wouldn't it be great if we had access to the bookmarks of people round the world studying the same you are trying to learn? Wouldn't you like to contact people who have saved the same sites you did? Like-minded people around make a difference.

Ok. Let's do it!
The trick is this. Forget about the Internet as a source of information. The Internet is folks trying to learn just like you. When we decide to share, we can create a meeting, a folksonomy. We can find each other.

Two key words here:
a) -the tool. You'll need an account.
b) Tagging -the action. You'll associate key words to your favourite sites. What they are about and why they are important to you. Rule for good tagging: The more, the merrier!

In this 3-minute video you will see where, why and how to tag.

Video source for us is fantagtastic!

I've always loved bookmarking. I think it was my first natural step towards online learning. Apart from my fceblog account to connect with teachers, I have created an account for my class. You can find it here:

My students are creating their accounts and joining our network. If you are a student, save the FCE Blog in your bookmarks, write a message in the description box and we'll find you.

Would you like to see what we are doing?
Here is our wiki page on bookmarks.

So let's tag away!

Special thanks to ijohnpederson for helping me shape this idea.

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Sat, 03 Nov 2007 19:07:00 +0000

End of School Year 2009
Dear Students,

Yesterday was our last BEC Vantage class. Today is our last FCE class. I always have mixed feelings about ending a course. We've shared learning and laughter, for which you'll certainly be missed. On the other hand, I am glad for your achievement. As you know, language schools are not obligatory in Argentina, so it makes a difference to see people choosing to stay in class, motivated in spite of being tired of compulsory school exams for some as well as office work for others.

I won't say something like: "Sadly the day has come for us to say goodbye..." because we are now connected in so many ways. I proposed a wiki and a blog, but some of you have surprised me with Facebook invites and even Twitter. You see, you've disrupted my online world this year. I welcome it.

Last week we had a wiki recorded conversation about self-assessment. Your responses are material for my reflection. I want to do better next time. First thoughts on some things you taught me this year:

-It is not easy at all to internalize the criteria for correction used by international exams. It is sometimes too abstract to picture in examples.
-When you write outside the exam rubrics, with freedom of number of words or wider choice of topic, you show your real voices. You can even make grammar mistakes a teacher would have thought you wouldn't make at this learning stage. I think these cannot go unseen or unheard in a language class.
-You like teacher's corrections. Even if there are many. Even if they make you tired of thinking.
-You like reading what other students have done in the past. You look for real models.
-You love investigating online. I've never seen so many hits to the online dictionary sites during class time.

Now not all learning comes from the things I've heard or seen from you. There has been a silence this year about past papers. Anxiety levels to practice strictly in exam conditions went down.I've noticed you are all more interested in specific questions you have. You seem to follow your own learning paths. This is not the case with online followers of this blog, who tend to ask for links to past papers and listening practice. I wonder if that is a difference between studying with a teacher or studying on your own. It makes me re-think my teacher role. What is a teacher there for anyway?

To end this letter/post... (snif, snif)

Thank you for participating so much. I am grateful for every anecdote you shared. Thank you for being so curious, alert and fun. It has been my pleasure to be your teacher.

Wishing you every success in exams and life,


PS/ Do let me know how you did on your exams! I'll be looking forward to hearing from you.

To the online readers of this blog, please share your exam experience in the comments.

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Tue, 01 Dec 2009 18:13:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Tue, 09 Mar 2010 20:42:00 +0000

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.

AscenciĆ³n 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)
Publ.Date : Tue, 23 Oct 2012 20:25:00 +0000
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