Test preparation needn’t be boring!

What does “test preparation” mean for you? All too often, I suspect, it means working through endless past papers and practice tests. Of course your students need to be familiar with the test format and ready on the day for the kinds of tasks that they will be confronted with, and working through some practice tests under exam conditions is the right way to achieve this. (We call this “doing a mock exam” in the British school system). But there can be so much more to test preparation.


Doing a test is, necessarily, a solitary experience. The individual test taker is alone, cut off from all contact with other people or sources of help, communicating only with the test paper. The classroom, by contrast is a rich learning environment, where learners can interact with each other, with the outside world (through, newspapers, video, the Internet), and with a friendly expert: the teacher! I would like to suggest ways in which you can take advantage of this richness to conduct activities which are more stimulating than doing practice test but which nevertheless develop the skills which the learners will need in the exam.


The basic approach is to take an item that occurs in the test, identify the skills that learners need in order to answer successfully, and then think of ways in which you can exploit the classroom environment to develop those skills.


Let us take, as an example, the integrated reading and writing task which forms sections seven and eight of PTE General. What test takers have to do is

  • Read an authentic text, usually one that is quite rich in information
  • Complete a set of notes using essential information gathered from the text
  • Write a text of their own using some of this information.


So the skills required are

  • Reading for specific information
  • Writing to communicate specific information.


Let us think how we can practice these skills in the classroom. One concept that is always good to bear in mind when approaching this question is that of the information gap. An information gap exists whenever one person has some information which another person needs. It can be a powerful stimulus to communication and the success of the communication can be judged according to how well the gap has been filled. This is a two way process; it depends on the skills of one person in formulating and communicating the information and on the skill of the other in understanding and interpreting it.


One way to create an information gap in connection with this test item to divide the class into two groups and give the text to one group (let us call them Group A) and the test task (in this case set of notes that the test taker has to  complete) to the other group (Group B).  



  1. Ask group A to read the text and make their own notes of what they consider to be the important in formation. Tell them that they will have to communicate this information to their classmates without being allowed to see the text.
  2. Meanwhile, ask Group B to read the incomplete notes, make sure they understand them, and formulate questions which they can ask in order to find the missing information. For example, if the notes contain the sentence


“As a result of text messaging people are developing more powerful ………………. .”


They should be able to form a question such as “What are people developing as a result of text messaging?”


  1. Within each group, encourage learners to work together. They should come to some agreement as to what the main points of the text are, and what questions they need to ask.


  1. Next, group the learners in pairs so that each pair has one member from Group A and one from Group B. In each pair, person A tells person B what they consider to be the essential information in the text that they have read. It is important that at this stage person A no longer has a copy of the text, so they cannot simply read aloud from it or show it to their partner. They have to process the information themselves and communicate it in their own words, using their notes. Person B completes the test task with the missing information, asking the questions they have prepared in order to make sure they haven’t missed anything.


  1. Finally, the learners should complete the writing task which follows in section eight of the test. This can be done as individual homework, or collaboratively, with students from Group A and Group B working together. The advantage of working collaboratively is that, like the information gap, it makes use of something which is available in the classroom but not in the exam room: the capacity of students to learn from each other. It can also be the occasion for additional speaking practice (the extent to which this is conducted in English will depend on your students’ motivation and your management of the class; but even if some of the communication is in the students’ own language it will still be beneficial for them to work together, contributing ideas and making up for gaps in each other’s knowledge.


At the end of this process your students will have practised all the skills that they need to succeed at this part of the test, and benefited from some useful additional communicative practice, while engaging in activities that are more interesting, more motivating and ultimately more effective than simply working through one more practice test.




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