Do you teach… A) the book B) the exam C) English D) your students?


(This post is a bit of a break from the norm – it’s some thoughts, ideas and questions aiming towards a resource for planning, rather than an activity.)

It’s exam time at my school (Academia Britanica, aka IH Huelva), and my FCE and CPE students and I are preparing for the exams with a view to the Cambridge exams they hope to take later this summer. I have noticed that by using the book to form the structure of our classes (adapting and personalising it, of course) we may have left some weak areas of grammar or exam technique unpractised for some time.  I get my students to evaluate their own learning (the last time was in January) and I try to include some of their requests: eg. more exam practice, phrasal verb focus, etc, and I realise I am effectively dancing about like a headless chicken trying to serve different masters and failing really to serve any of them successfully. The commands from these masters could be summarised as follows:

  1. teach the book (which we have to use to justify them buying it)
  2. teach the exam (they need to learn some exam skills in order to do well in the exam and do it with confidence)
  3. teach English (that’s really the end-game, right?)
  4. teach the students (surely the only true masters I should have?)

So how do I go about pleasing all my masters without losing my head? I’m the one in charge of this ship after all, aren’t I? In this post, I’ll consider each of the four areas above and then try to bring them together into some sort of cohesive answer (or question!).

1. Teach the book. We all know about personalising the activities and making the texts in the book relevant to our students. I’ve learnt lots of great ways of doing this from colleagues and at conferences and I implement them frequently.  Hopefully, the book follows a sensible course which introduces the students to the different exam activities and allows them to practise them with enough regularity so that they don´t forget the technique. However, no coursebook can be perfectly relevant for every student.

“If the teacher follows the course book as a script rather than using it as a resource (as many teachers do), then the learner is often reduced from an intelligent, individual human being with views, attitudes, and emotions to a mindless language learner whose brain is dedicated to low-level linguistic decoding and encoding.”  (Brian Tomlinson, Connecting The Coursebook)

We teachers need to know our students in order to sensibly select appropriate tasks from the book.  We can do this by dedicating some time (preferably at the start of a course, but it’s never too late) to finding out about what they’ve previously studied, what their goals are and what interests them.

2. Teach the exam. When preparing for exams, there are three things I can think of that the students need us teachers to do:

  • Teach them how to do the exam activity. The technique should be practised and then elicited every time thereafter when the students are about to do a similar activity.
  • Give them lots of opportunities to practise the exam activities. Hopefully the coursebook will help you out here. Often an exam-style speaking activity can be prepared using discussion questions from the book, or using the pictures.
  • Give them timed exam practice! The students need to – and usually want to – put themselves to the test and see how they do when they put what they’ve been learning into practice. It can be motivating and confidence-building. 

This needs to be an integral part of the course but  it can’t be the whole of it – it’s not real communication, after all!

3. Teach English. There’s no doubt that the students need grammar, vocabulary and skills practice. There is grammar in the exam (I went to a great talk by Roy Norris on this topic at ACEIA last year), and there are grammar exercises and activities in the book. How much time should we spend on it? Some say we should set grammar for homework and check students’ understanding with an activity in the next class.  We need to allow opportunities for recycling the vocabulary that comes up, not only from the book, from from conversations that emerge in class. With regards to skills, the students need time and support devoted to the study and practice of reading, listening, speaking and writing.

4. Teach the students. We need to consider what each student’s goals are and what they need to practise in order to improve their English and pass the exam (and we should consider what topics interest them in doing so). Regular needs analysis is a good way to find out what´s required, desired and expected, as is simply paying attention to the areas our students have trouble with.  It can be useful to encourage learner autonomy, so that students help themselves to learn and expand their knowledge. Similarly, self- or peer-assessment can be valuable activities to allow students to think about their own learning. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, students are people! The relationship between teacher and student can have a significant impact on the student’s learning. So, how can we bring all this together when we´re trying to plan our next lesson or two? What should our aims be? How can we take control in the face of these demanding masters?

“…teachers need to understand the constraints on their practice but, rather than feeling disempowered, they need to empower themselves by finding the spaces and opportunities for manoeuvre” (Lamb 2000, p.127). (quoted in Reinders, From Coursebook to Sourcebook)

Well, I’m afraid to say I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts, and I would love to hear yours if you have more.

Find out what the students want and need to learn Ask them to think about their individual goals and agree common ones. A needs analysis such as the one I wrote about here is simple but effective.  Find out when they want to take the exam as early as you can.  We could also ask our students to look at the grammar listed in the contents of the book and to tell us what areas they think they are weak on.  

Get to know the students Find out what interests them and what they enjoy doing so we can adapt the book and choose activities appropriately.

Vocabulary revision Decide how regularly vocabulary revision can and should be included in the students’ timetable.   

Skills timetable Decide how often the students should produce a piece of writing and whether it should be an exam-style task or not. Same goes for reading, listening and speaking tasks.

Exam practice. Decide how often our classes need to practice an exam activity. Every class? How many times? Decide/find out if it matters if the practice is standard exam style or if we change the way the students use the text (eg. making a reading a jigsaw reading).

Timed exam practices Decide with our classes how often they would like to do a timed practice and stick to it. Renegotiate when necessary.

Keep records of exam practice This is an idea from my good friend and excellent colleague Gary Williams. He has a spreadsheet showing the different parts of each of the FCE papers which is updated with the date and page no. every time the class practises one of them. It has just occurred to me that it might be motivating for each student to have a similar table to note it down for themselves, along with their score and perhaps a tip for themselves on what to do next time to get a better mark. That way they can see their improvement over the course.

I’m sure there’s a million things I haven’t thought of here, but it seems like what would really help satisfy all demands is careful planning of the structure of the course in advance, say 6 weeks at a time, incorporating exam practice, as well as relevant grammar, vocab and skills practice, taking into account our students needs and goals. Can it be done? How do you do it?

[The day that I publish this, my 39th post, also marks 6 months since I started the blog – and what a great experience! What started as a way for me to store my resources somewhere more portable than a folder has turned into a way to learn from and make connections with other teachers, not to mention expand my resource catalogue and think carefully about what I’m doing and why. It’s also been an excuse to do some doodling from time to time.  A Hive Of Activities has been more popular than I could ever have imagined – it’s received over 100,000 hits and has 260 followers (thanks in large part to Teaching English – British Council)! Thank you to everyone who has checked out the blog, subscribed, commented, or made helpful suggestions (you know who you are!). I am greatly encouraged by your support!]



  1. Susy Ordaz · · Reply

    One of the best articles I have read in a very long time. Most of what you wrote I incorporate in my lessons but some of the pointers given were absolutely precious and I must start working on them, the excel sheet was one of them. Much success to you and my very best.
    Thank you

    1. Thank you, Susy! I’m really glad you found it useful. When I’d finished writing it, I wondered if it was actually all really obvious. But I posted it anyway! Thanks for your encouraging words!

  2. Daniel Ajibadeck · · Reply

    I would be most grateful if you could make your resource available to me.Thanks so much for your usual cooperation and understanding.

    1. Which resource do you mean, Daniel?

  3. Rebecca Mac · · Reply

    My students love it when I don’t use the course book. Especially my adult students. Many course books are so exam orientated that I find that if I were to only to use a course book, my lessons would just be factory lines of exam-trained puppets just jumping through hoops. This is isn’t at all meaningful. The point you make about getting to know students is very important. By doing this and tailoring your lessons, you guarantee high levels of student engagement. Negotiation and needs evaluation are key. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Rebecca! It’s interesting to hear how other people feel about and deal with this issue.

  4. Rebecca Mac · · Reply

    Sorry for my typos! I blame my I-Pad! *This isn’t meaningful…

  5. Emma, I’m so glad you decided to start blogging. You share great activities, and posts like this show that you really care about your students. There are some really useful tips here, and it’s made me rethink (again!) how I approach my FCE class. I particularly like the idea of keeping a record of exam practice.
    Thanks for sharing,

  6. Thank you, Sandy! I’m glad I started too. I’ve definitely noticed my teaching has changed a lot for the better over this year, and it’s mostly because I’ve been reading lots of blogs and also writing a few, both of which have lead me to think carefully about the ‘how’s and the ‘why’s of teaching. Also, I love it when people say nice things!

    1. All the reasons I love blogging too 🙂

  7. Thanks so much for this post! I have just started teaching in a private institution that caters to international students. I was feeling frustrated because I am teaching 16 teenagers what is supposed to be General English but the textbook is FCE Result. Your post really helped me sort out my priorities and it made me think how to reconcile all these “masters”.

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful! Good luck with your class!

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