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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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