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THE FCE BLOG by Claudia Ceraso
Updated : Fri, 27 Mar 2015 18:54:23 +0000

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

 Related posts:
Paper 5: Oral Interview
FCE Oral Interview ELT Pics
Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Mon, 10 Sep 2012 16:57:00 +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

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

Tandem Learning
Finding your Learning Mates

I often hear the question...
Where can I practise my language skills with native speakers of English?

I can almost see you nod.

Using Skype, it is very easy to contact anyone to have a chat without being worried about your landphone bill. So first things first, get yourself a Skype account.

Avoid fatal mistakes.
Not everyone who speaks English likes being requested contact details in Skype just for the sake of practice. I'd say it is best to choose like-minded people first. People who are after the same objectives you have. Let's say, potential online friends.

Guess what...
People with like-minded ideas tend to get together somewhere in cyberspace. Key words to google here are
Tandem Language Learning

What is that?
Simply put,
I remember many years ago my then boss (and also my teacher of Greek) talking about something called tandem learning.The basic idea was that students learning each other's language could team up, taking turns to speak in their own language, then swop to the language they were learning. So, for example a Greek student would spend the first half of the lesson chatting or working with a German learning Greek and then in the second half of the lesson they would swop roles." From Teacher Dude's wiki.

Now you wonder if you can learn like this. Well, it is important to give your expectations a reality check.

It is not a formal class. So don't expect the other student to give you detailed grammar explanations of your mistakes. That's what teachers are for, right?

Why is tandem learning valuable?

Two things:

1)It is a unique chance to get first hand knowledge of the target culture. It is amazing to discover how different things can be in another country. It can help you see yourself for what you are: a global citizen.

Collaboration and sharing. That what it is. Both partners should benefit equally from the exchange. You'll have to negotiate!

2)It is an autonomous learning experience. You decide when, how long, what about. You are responsible for your own learning, your goals, materials and methods.

Some tips

Here's a great site to help you plan your lessons. You get the same topics and questions in 10 different languages, so you can easily organise the bilingual halves of the lesson.

It would be super if you decided to create a blog to record the experience. Take a look at this post from Carla Raguseo's and her Spanish and English Exchange.

Nice, don't you think?

OK. Now that you got it, let's find a learning mate!

Sites to get started

Language Learning in Tandem
Friends Abroad
My Language Exchange
Language Exchanges

Highly recommended

Kan Talk is a place to choose topics to talk about, then the people. Yet, tandem learning needn't be just a conversation project, it could also be about writing. Like this.

One last thing....
Remember to protect your privacy. If you do not do this with your teacher helping you, do give those sites a good look first.

Happy learning!

Image credits Tandem by laRuth Two tandems by miichan
Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Sat, 05 Jul 2008 19:43:00 +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

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

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)
Publ.Date : Mon, 08 Apr 2013 00:32:00 +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

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)
Publ.Date : Thu, 25 Sep 2014 23:21:00 +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

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)
Publ.Date : Fri, 01 Jul 2011 02:38:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Thu, 25 Sep 2014 23:23:00 +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

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)
Publ.Date : Tue, 13 Sep 2011 22:24:00 +0000

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:

Related post:

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Sat, 16 Apr 2011 19:24:00 +0000

Last week I asked my students this:
If you were writers, what would you write about?
I got some puzzled faces for an answer. At least, I got them to wonder.

Perhaps the word writer has an aura of profession that a few gifted people can pursue. This post aims at demystifying writing and -perhaps- bring it to your door.

Today 20th October is the 1st edition of the National Day on Writing. Clicking around their tips for writers, I came across this guideline called Determining What to Write About (pdf).
The guide is short and worth reading through. Here are three samples.
1) I find this advice very useful for writing stories for the exam. Some students focus a lot on big events worth telling, which only lead them to writer's block or the impossibility of doing so in roughly 140 words.
"Think about 'small moments' of life to expand and explore rather than creating large, involved stories"

2) The other complaint I hear from students and teachers who correct compositions is the predictability of the ending. When the story is too fantastic, we know the cliché closing line: abrupt waking up from a nightmare. You needn't try to be that original anyway.

"[...] Most of the time authors decide what to write about from examining their personal lives and interests or by examining the work of other authors and making parts of existing material into something new and different."

Notice that it must be new and different. That is what leaves plagiarism out.

3) The number one obstacle when learning to write for an exam is probably losing the pleasure of writing. You have to find a way to get into your writing. It's a personal road.
My favourite quote from the guide is definitely this one:
"Choosing topics or experiences that you care about will develop a sense of 'you' which only you can create."

So before I end this post, let me share new options for reframing my original question...
I should think of asking you:
What reading topics are so interesting that they make you lose track of time?
What are you keen on? What would you like to know more about?
What is your passion?

If you could share a bit of the learning you've made reading something you love, what would that be?

For more inspiration on pre-writing:
Developing Ideas for Writing from the State University of New York.
Study Guides and Strategies for more than just a pre-writing stage.
The guide at Purdue University for writing at advanced levels.

New questions for you (because I am curious):
Writing on paper or at the keyboard? Do you know that there are electronic versions of the exam? OK. That's for another post.
Do you identify with the opinion of the blog picture author?

"Call it brainstorming, prewriting, or jotting, this is what I usually do before I start writing. I think a lot better and faster with a pencil and a notebook than I do at the keyboard. Sometimes it's specific thoughts, other times it's free ideas. A lot of times I take a conversational tone with myself while taking notes."

Image credit

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Tue, 20 Oct 2009 20:25:00 +0000

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)
Publ.Date : Tue, 06 Mar 2012 19:10:00 +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 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)
Publ.Date : Fri, 19 Nov 2010 02:29:00 +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

Thank You 2007 Students
End of 2007 Academic Year

Dear Students,

In an hour we'll meet again one last time. I wanted to write this post to thank you for sharing this learning experience with me. I also remember the people who had to drop the course. You certainly have taught me much more than you are aware of.

I would love to share some good news. Our last post on got a fantagtastic response. I want to thank this user for sending us excellent resources that I will use in future posts. So far the account is empty and it seems to have been opened just to share those links!

Our open classroom spirit is felt by teachers also. I want to thank Carla Arena and Alison for their collaboration spirit and ideas. I think you'll see our Collaborative Projects section of the wiki grow in 2008.

What will happen to our wiki?
I hope it grows and grows.Our wiki is a heritage project. By which I mean, that future students will
a) Benefit from your extensive production (so far over 160 pages). Your samples will be their study material. As such, they are as valid as the coursebooks you have used.

b) Edit your work. Our Collaborative Edition section is a work in progress that future students can improve, mix, remix, add...

However, this is not just for the benefit of others. Although your portfolio samples will be protected from further edit, discussion forums remain open. Forever.

By subscribing to your own pages, you will learn what students-to-come think of your work. You might as well learn over their shoulders by reading the conversations your work inspires. You see, same time and same place are no longer requirements to learn together. When we are online, we are in a third place.

I am happy you now know how to tag, RSS and open wikis. I hope you continue playing with Netbives and Flickr. Remember to think before you post.

I know, I know. This is the time for another kind of advise. For the killer exam tips and nervousness management! I hope that by now, you feel that, although a challenge, this exam is doable and you are well equipped to succeed. Now we know that what we need is not a collection of tricks, but some knowledge, a set of tools and sensible use of them. I hope that more expert voices, such as my last year students, drop their comments here and we all learn from them as well.

Oops! Time is up and I must cease.

Much love and success to all my students -past and present.

Author : (Claudia Ceraso)
Publ.Date : Thu, 29 Nov 2007 20:08:00 +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

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