Teaching to the test: can it be a good thing?

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teaching to the test pearson elt

Depending on your standpoint, ‘teaching to the test’ is either an effective way of ensuring that classroom teaching conforms to a standardized curriculum, or it is a restrictive pedagogical shortcut designed to ensure that students pass their exams.

But which is it? And how can we ensure that exam-focused courses are advantageous to language learners?

Criticisms of teaching to the test

Teaching to the test certainly gets a bad rap in the ELT community. In the worst case scenario, we imagine overworked educators drilling students on specific questions. Or we think of teachers focusing on test-related knowledge to the exclusion of the students’ own objectives and emerging learning opportunities.

Some argue that even when teaching to the test is well-intentioned, it is reductive in that it ignores the richness of the English language. This style of teaching sometimes promotes learning by rote (memorization) and this can be considered superficial because although this promotes recall, it does not necessarily involve understanding.

The argument goes that while students may come away with reams of memorized materials and certain academic skills, they are left without important listening, speaking and everyday communications skills – as this article in The Japan Times suggests.

However, while some of this criticism is certainly well placed, a considered and student-centered curriculum with exam-based assessments can be a highly effective framework for learning.

The target skills and communicative goals laid out in an exam course can help learners measure progress. They can also instill a sense of achievement and provide meaning and motivation in every class.

Nevertheless, the difficulty for teachers is two-fold: how can you design an exam-focused curriculum that tests useful skills and motivates students? And how can you select learning objectives that align with student level and ability?

Using the GSE to support exam teaching

Ultimately, the learner’s goal is to obtain a degree of communicative competence in English and improve on it. As the student progresses, their learning objectives get more complex. For this reason, teaching to the test can in fact be an effective way to focus learning and ensure students have a solid foundation in the language.

To this point, the Global Scale of English (GSE) is a new English language standard that runs from 10–90. It helps teachers easily measure learner progress and to plan classes and curricula that emphasize all four key skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Learners also benefit, as the GSE clearly outlines what needs to be achieved within each CEFR level, breaking it down in such a way that it helps learners see progress more often and stay motivated.

Overall, it is an extremely helpful way to support your exam classes because it provides a base of communicative objectives and ‘can-do’ statements from which to work at each level.

Moreover, the useful Teacher Toolkit helps you choose learning objectives for your students, ensuring that while preparing students for an exam, your classes are comprehensive and your materials are well adjusted to the students’ level.

Take a look at the GSE Teacher Toolkit and learn more about how it can help you design exam-relevant lessons.

Pearson exam resources

Gold B2 First

Pearson’s Gold B2 First New Edition balances Cambridge English exam preparation with communicative aims in a fun and personalizable course.

It’s suitable for students all over the world helping them to prepare for the B2 First exam, by increasing their confidence, competence, and key skills without over pressuring them.

What’s more, it offers a progress test every three units and three full practice tests (two of which can be downloaded).

Gold Experience

Ideal for teenage students, Pearson’s Gold Experience 2nd Edition is the new edition of the engaging exam preparation course that incorporates contemporary and age-appropriate CLIL-centric themes, and develops 21st century skills and independent learning skills, to help provide an all-round education.

This new edition includes additional levels (A2+, B2+, C1), each with nine core units and a review unit, digital practice and presentation tools, an improved assessment pack and more.

Practice Tests Plus

Practice Tests Plus are practice exams with additional help which facilitate exam-focused classwork, and allow teachers to expose learners to specific question types and formats, which are designed to help students feel comfortable when it comes to the real thing.

The latest editions for B2 First, C1 Advanced and the revised Young Learners exams include video examples of the speaking test and additional material for classroom exam preparation.

Take a look at Pearson’s exam preparation materials:

A final word on teaching to the test

While teaching to the test can be limiting and demotivating if purely focused on memorization and question drills, it can also have positive outcomes for the students if done thoughtfully.

When classwork is focused on well-considered learning objectives – selected in accordance with the GSE and its resources – students will be well prepared for their official exams, and confident that their studies are at the level promised.  This will also help them develop level-appropriate and transferable communications skills and then benefit from these in the long-term.

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