Something old, something new…

Reblogged from Oxford University Press:

cpe-readingMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the first part of a series of two blogs on the topic.

The time has come for those involved in the Cambridge English: Proficiency preparation process to face the latest challenge: preparation for the revised (and abridged) version of the examination which is to be released in January 2013. On celebrating its centenary, the Proficiency exam revolutionises tradition. Training students for such a prestigious certificate is never facile. However, the one aspect I admire in the new Cambridge English: Proficiency is that it seems to keep a much more logical and coherent transition from the Advanced level examination.

New in the revised Proficiency, paradoxically, are the very deeply rooted tasks of lower level Cambridge exams. Nevertheless the question remains: up to what extent and how are teachers and students expected to adapt? Vast as the field may be, in this blog I will focus mainly on the key changes and on what they entail in terms of exam preparation, and will introduce some guiding tips and ideas for teachers to employ in class.

Approaching the Reading and Use of English paper

Paper 1 – Reading and Use of English will consist of 7 parts, out of which the first four test candidates’ grammatical and vocabulary prowess, then the next 3 parts are dedicated to Reading items. There will be 53 questions to be solved in 90 minutes, so your students will need extra practice in managing time successfully, while still maintaining accuracy, attention and thoroughness.

The Reading Component

There is another element of surprise insofar as there are no similar tasks throughout this paper. Thus, reading comprehension tested through multiple choice items is now reduced to a single part, but multiple matching will be introduced to Proficiency. Does this sound familiar, by any chance? Anyone who has prepared students for the Cambridge Advanced will have felt their heart skip a beat. That’s right, multiple matching strikes again! Multiple matching The challenge of this task resides in the discipline and strategy one employs when solving it. The task presents candidates with a text divided into several sections. A list of 10 questions/ statements requires them to find the correlation to each one in a section of the text. Teachers ought to make students aware of the importance of a strategy which should be practised before the actual examination. There are a few stages to help with the task:

  • First, advise students to underline the key information in the 10 questions. Not all the words in the question are relevant and the danger they present is that they might even distract attention. Highlight significant concepts!
  • The next step would be to actually begin reading. It is not a matter of in-depth reading. Skimming should be enough and a close reading should be used only when in doubt between two sections.
  • Remind students that multiple matching does not also imply multiple reading. Their attention should be undivided. Recommend taking each section at a time in the attempt of answering as many questions as possible through a particular fragment, provided that the key words underlined in the questions have palpable contextually synonymic counterparts in the suspected section. No over-interpretation!

The Use of English Component

Of the 5 parts currently constituting the Use of English paper of C2 level only 3 will be kept: the open cloze, the multiple-choice cloze, and word formation. The gapped sentences are history! I expect that those of you who have prepared for the Cambridge Advanced feel the breeze of the revised Proficiency examination, which becomes less of a mathematical configuration (remember trying to find the one word that fits all three contexts?) and less of a poetic quest (students will be happy to know that comprehension questions are out of the way), but more of a test of skilful language use… which is why the key word transformations are back.

Key word transformations

The key to solving this type of task is the key word itself, which must remain intact, however structurally changed the original sentence may need to be. The challenge is two-fold: the meaning must remain the same as in the given sentence while, at the same time, the grammatical changes ought to be correct and natural. So how can you help students tackle this task?

  • Exposure to the language is a main aspect, since it develops flexibility in using it. Take every opportunity to show or elicit from students the various ways a statement may be rephrased in.
  • Practice makes perfect, it is generally argued and it is quite true here. Practising this kind of exam task will increase students’ dexterity in this respect.
  • Last, but not least, encourage students to challenge each other. Being given a certain sentence, a student could come up with a word to be used in rephrasing the given statement. This way, teachers are able to stimulate active processing. Essentially, the first student tries on the shoes of the test builder, by fully grasping the principles behind this type of exam item, while the other student takes on the responsibility of solving the puzzle.

Approaching the Writing Paper

Students will spend only one hour and a half, instead of two hours, on this paper due to the fact that the minimum word count will be reduced from 600 to 520. There will also be less variety, in that Part 1 will only be a compulsory discursive essay, while for the second part candidates may have to choose an article, a report, a letter or a review. Good news on this front, therefore, less text types to prepare for! Further on, I am going to focus on the newest type of task, which makes for Writing Part 1.

Writing Part 1 – what’s in two texts?

Thankfully, the Proficiency examination is usually not the first Cambridge English examination students have sat. This is the reason why they may already be very familiar with what is required of them.

Part 1 has always been the compulsory one, much like in figure skating – there are certain tricks the assessors must notice in the candidate’s performance.


The new Part 1 is a follow-up to that former Use of English task which dealt with summarising, organising information and evaluating its merits, as they are now offered by two texts of around 100 words each.

Naturally, candidates will need help pinpointing the essential information in a text and analysing it compellingly. Encourage them to use highlighters in order to stress out significant information, whether it is presented in a contrasting or complementary manner by the two given texts.

‘So, what makes an idea essential?’, your students might ask. Well, both texts are linked by a common topic, theme or subject. Whenever an idea is brought to the table by both of them, that is when students need to pay attention. The arguments may be divergent, of course, even if related to the same aspect and the dynamic between the two texts may not always be transparent. It is the students’ task to make connections, to identify the two ways in which an idea is presented.

‘What next?’, I hear students ask. Once they have broken the message of both texts down into main points and have found the connecting/contradicting viewpoint in between each pair of ideas, it is time to finally get down to the writing. What is extremely important for students in this part 1 is that they understand they must be first excellent readers and only afterwards excellent writers.

Teachers now face the challenge of having to train students to select the main pieces of information and to also use them successfully in their own written discourse.

  • Help students disintegrate a piece into its basics, into the main ideas and then reintegrate them into their own frame of thought.
  • Play detective games, where students must first identify the relevant information offered by the witnesses, then present the two sides of the story, only to conclude with their final pleading – the moment when they weigh both versions of the truth and give their own view and interpretation. There’s your piece! Now, write it down!
  • Individual or group projects are also useful in this respect; cut-outs offer the possibility of recycling what’s given into one’s own project.

Careful with the language! Accuracy and appropriateness are both of the essence. What is paramount, other than a high flexibility and versatility of language use is signposting its functions. A writing task will always ask students to comment, argue, recommend, suggest, persuade, and so on.

Make sure your students have the right tools at hand: language for making recommendations, for instance, or language for persuading. These are the “buffer”-words that will allow their writing piece to function. Concrete arguments and ideas are merely the material that revolves around the way this raw material is put to good use.

Obviously, there also needs to be diversity amongst this kind of preparatory statements. If you are trying to teach language for suggesting or recommending, set the scene for it. Ask students to picture themselves in a therapist’s office. What would they tell the therapist to make his/ her job more difficult and what would they reply, as therapists, to the requests of the patients? What would they recommend and, most importantly, how would they introduce the ideas and smoothen their way into communication?

And finally…

Writing Part 1 is challenging because of its very essence: focusing on both the WHAT  and the HOW. The greatest novelty in the revised Proficiency examination is the fact that there are two steps to solving the task: reading comprehension and relaying information in a discursive piece, while also analysing and interpreting.  It is, however, the chance for students to be personal, to weigh in their own thoughts, too. The candidate gets to feel like a true contributor to a matter of interest, therefore, as a final word of advice, ask your students to speak their mind and to think critically, with every opportunity you might have in class.