How to prepare for the First Certificate Exam
Preparing for Cambridge exams is not straightforward, especially when you get to B2/C1 level. I will try to explain why in this article and give you advice on how to prepare for the First Certificate (FCE) exam. This article focuses on some general ideas, methods and advice to help you pass the FCE. If you want more specific advice for tips and technique on the different exam sections, see these pages: Speaking, Listening, Reading and Use of English. Our total experience of teaching has shown us that although we may want a simple solution or rule to a language problem, this may not always exist. This is partly due to language constantly evolving, but also because of language itself. For example, we say:
"I am interested in learning English" - why is the preposition "in" used here?
This is an example of a collocation. Collocations are words which are frequently put together. Normally there is no reason for their position next to each other. It is often just because these are the words people have used together for generations. It is how the language has evolved.
The Cambridge English: First (FCE) and the Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) examinations have a lot of questions testing your knowledge of collocations. These exams test many things, including your awareness of expressions, phrasal verbs and grammar. These language areas are particularly tested in the 'Use of English' paper.
The First Certificate exam is effective at testing your overall awareness of the English language. Having good strategies for each section of the exam are important, but strategy alone is not enough. You can find useful exam strategy advice here. You also need to be aware of, understand and be able to use lots of vocabulary, expressions, phrasal verbs, grammar etc. For this reason, it is important to prepare for the exam in a number of different ways.
The importance of your environment
You can prepare for the exam to a large extent just by surrounding yourself in an English environment. I always think the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. I lived in Italy for a year and a half. For the first 6 months I lived with lots of other students in an international environment. Everybody spoke English to one another as the common language. This meant that not only did I barely improve my Italian, but my English got a bit worse as well
I really like to get good at things I find difficult in life. Learning a language was one of those things. When I was in school I studied French for 8 years more or less. Now I cannot say more than a few words and I certainly cannot have a conversation in French. So, when I moved to Italy I told myself I wanted to learn Italian and after 6 months of barely improving I changed my environment. I moved into an apartment with 2 other Italians who didn't speak much English. I started working with Italian children, watched films in Italian and generally tried as much as I could to immerse myself.
Face to Face conversation
The other two people living in the apartment were not great friends, so they did not speak to each other very much. So, most of my interaction was through one on one conversations. These situations are good, particularly when you are talking to the other person in a quiet and calm environment. In these situations the person can teach you and explain how to say things. This can help you're vocabulary and grammar through general conversation. It can also help improve your listening skills. It is easier to understand someone in this environment also because you can read their body language. Italians in general are very expressive with their body language, which made it easier for me
I understand that many people might not know any native speakers. Nevertheless, there are a number of online services which offer language swapping. The only problem is that most native British English speakers have no idea about English grammar. This may seem ridiculous, but it's true. Even if they were taught in school, by the time British people become adults they will have forgotten almost everything about the language. There are a number of reasons for this, but if you simply want evidence, ask a grammar based question to a British person you know (not an English language teacher). Simply asking “when do you use the present simple tense...” should be enough to realise that they won't know! So, even if a British person can tell you a better/more common way to say something....they will not be able to tell you how/why you make that mistake or explain how to avoid it in the future.
Understanding your mistakes and knowing how to avoid them are vitally important to learning a language more quickly and effectively. This information is also really important if you want to pass the First Certificate exam. This is because the questions in the exam test your knowledge of how the English language works. Again, this is tested through grammar based questions in the 'Use of English' section, but also in the 'Writing' section. You will have to do lessons with an English language teacher in order to understand and stop yourself making the same/similar mistakes in the future. I offer online lessons where I can help you. They are not the cheapest on the internet, but at least you can be confident that I know what I'm talking about. If you are unsure of my experience, qualifications etc. you can find out more about me here. Or simply have a look at any of thearticles I have written on this website and you will have a good idea. Click here if you want to book lessons with me.
Listening to other people
While I was living in my Italian apartment, my housemates changed. For the last month I was living there, two other Italian guys moved in. They were good friends and very warm and welcoming people. This meant in the evenings when they both returned from work, we all spent most of our time together in the kitchen. We would cook together, chat, watch the occasional film, go out drinking together etc. This was really useful for learning the language. I was listening to Italian people speaking to each other. Listening was one of the skills I struggled with the most. Even after living there for a year and a half I found it very difficult to understand the television and films. However, living with those guys and listening to their conversations helped me massively. I think I learnt more Italian in that one month than in the previous year that I had been there.
Again, you might not be living with or know people who speak any English at all. But you might be able to find some English people where you live. If you live in a city, this is more likely. You could check facebook and other websites to see if there are any English people living near you. Otherwise, you can still listen to the radio and watch television and films in English. I will discuss the benefits of these with regards to the FCE exam in the next section.
Radio, television and films
Whether you know English people or not, you can still listen to English radio, watch English television or watch English films. You can also do most of these things via the internet, as well as practice your reading skills. I recommend the BBC news website. You should also buy and read books. Children's books are always good for learning and increasing your vocabulary. Immerse yourself in as many of these things as you can.
In the First Certificate 'Listening' section there are a number of recordings where you have to listen to two people having a conversation. How well you understand the overall context and specific details of these conversations is tested through multiple choice questions. You can find more detail about preparing for the 'Listening' exam section here. Listening to other people talking will also be useful for picking up expressions, collocations, phrasal verbs etc. which are all tested in the 'Reading and Use of English' section.
Strategies and Lessons
Having a good strategy for each section of the exam is really important. I discuss specific tips, techniques and strategies in detail in the following blog posts: 'Listening', 'Speaking', 'Reading and Use of English'. I advise reading these before taking the exam, it is a collection of really useful information.
The most effective way to prepare for the exam in my opinion is with a teacher. You can book individual or group lessons with me here or find out more about my FCE courses here. Most teachers with FCE experience should be able to give you all the information you need about the exam. They should also be able to train you so you know good methods for how to complete each section of the exam. A good teacher should know and inform you what the examiners are looking for. Unfortunately, you cannot learn all of this in just a couple of lessons, but hopefully your teacher will be flexible and be able to target your areas which need most improvement.