How to get your students through the higher level Cambridge exams


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I’ve been teaching for one of the biggest language schools in Spain since 1995 and examining since 1999, so I thought I’d give you an insight into The C1 Cambridge exam (and to some extent, the B2 First exam ) and give you some tips on how to get your students to do well in them. For me, getting students through exams is where I get that rewarding buzz as a TEFL teacher. 

Before we start, it’s worth noting that some university courses in Europe now require students to obtain C1 level in English (ie this Cambridge advanced exam) before they can be awarded their degree!

As newly qualified TEFL teachers, you are unlikely to be given C1 level classes in your first year or so. However, you should know that more and more employers are looking for teachers with C1 teaching ability rather than B2. In fact, it is often a cut-off point when employers are going through CV’s so having helped a student pass this level can really change your employment prospects in a big way.

Below are 5 general tips about how to get your students to pass this level, then there are 5 more specific tips about the individual papers of the Cambridge Advanced exam.


Although it sounds obvious, students who do not pass C1 are those who use B2 vocabulary and structures the whole time – even if they use them perfectly. Students need to show they have knowledge of C1 language and really start to sound like native speakers. Sometimes students prefer to use English that they “know is correct” thinking they will be penalised for errors, but that is not always the case. Compare “I like computer games” (no evidence of advanced English) to “I’m a bit of a geek when I come to computer games” (“I come” should be ” it comes” but the student impresses).

Here are a few examples of things they will definitely be able to use somewhere in the exam so you get a better idea:

B2 or less                                                                                                      C1 or more

Young people                                                                                               Youngsters / the youth of today

Very important                                                                                            Absolutely vital/essential

To consider                                                                                                   To bear in mind/ take into account

That is probably true                                                                                   That may/might well be true

People think that                                                                                          Many people presume that / it is widely presumed that

I don’t mind (noise)                                                                                     I am not particularly bothered by (noise)

Millions saw it                                                                                               It was seen by millions

Computer companies                                                                                   Tech firms

New companies                                                                                             Start ups



The vast majority of students who fail do so because of the listening and reading parts of the exam. This is because surprisingly few actually listen to and read any authentic English outside the classroom. There is no excuse for not watching a Netflix series, getting your daily news from a news website in English, listening to an internet talk radio station every morning while making coffee. Remember it’s what they do outside the classroom that really counts. The successful student has 3 hours a week of class plus 15 hours a week of passive, enjoyable reading and listening to authentic material. The failing student has 3 hours a week of class, does half an hour of homework a week and dips into Shakespeare on the metro.


Students spend hours doing exercises from workbooks but forget that to learn a language, you have to commit things to long-term memory and in my experience that involves looking at things between 10 times( if you are a genius) and 30+ times ( if you are a very experienced student). Doing stuff in class a couple of times and once for homework and revising it a little before an exam is simply not enough for the language to be at the front of your brain, ready to use. In Europe, at least, most school kids study up to B2 for the university entrance exam, so anything up to that level won’t be new material. They get used to hearing and using the same old everyday language. Everything after that is new though, so it requires more effort on their part. Structures that prove difficult are often best learnt through ‘ Block learning’. Sentences which are true for them and their surroundings are great ways of memorising structures.


Had I seen Maria, I would have told her ( 3rd Conditional with inversion )

Would it be alright if I opened the window? (would it be alright with past tense to refer to present or future)

It was built by the Romans (passive)

White trainers are all the rage these days (alternative to “fashionable”)

They have a negative attitude towards working (alternative to “they don’t like”)


Far too many learners spend hours doing, for example , word formation because they enjoy it but as doing readings is boring, it tends to get ‘overlooked’. They need to practise all the skills, especially those they find difficult. There is considerable discipline involved in attaining C1. Remember you need an average of 60%.


Too many of my students do not have / will not get a notebook. One the size of a pocket diary should do to write down useful advanced structures and vocabulary. It should be carried with them and looked at while in the metro, on the bus, or, as one of my business executives recommended – while you are on the toilet!  A vocabulary topic can be covered on a couple of pages, so one like ‘Holidays’ or ‘Travel’, for example, could include useful words and expressions they have seen, such as:

Holidaymakers, to go sightseeing , to sample the local cuisine, to be swamped with tourists, to stroll up and down, to hit the shops, to have wifi (why fhy not wee fee) problems…

This will especially suit learners with visual memories. 

Try to get them to use their notebooks to write down new things they know they would use in an oral exam or in an essay and remind them to look at their notebook as often as possible. They shouldn’t cloud their books with things they already know.

Get them also to use their “voice memos” app on their phone if they don’t have their notebook on them – they can “say” what they have read or heard.

Post -it stickers around the house on cupboards, walls, doors and mirrors can help phrases to sink in too. “I’m absolutely ravenous” stuck onto the food cupboard?



Time is your enemy. In the Advanced exam you have 4 readings and 4 grammar/vocabulary parts to do in 1 hour 30 minutes, which is far more demanding than the First Certificate (B2) and Proficiency (C2)exams, where you are only given 3 readings to do. Most students say the reading part is not really a problem but that’s because they often take 20-25 minutes to do one at home. In the official exam, however, you can only take about 12 minutes, otherwise you will be short of time! They need to be taught the specific techniques and practise as much as possible, which is not popular. Practice makes perfect really is the case here. Many southern European students do excel in the skill of reading though, so that is a good start.


This part is considered one of the easiest by the majority because it is practised more than some of the other parts in workbook and course book exercises that you do in class. Some of the questions are “sentence transformation”. The student is given a sentence such as: “He set off late but he arrived on time” and the word “despite”. They must rewrite the sentence so that it means the same, using that word.

Students should be reminded that sentence transformations carry double marks and all the texts should be read quickly a couple of times before they even think about answering.

A global understanding of the text is a huge help when individual gaps or options are looked at afterwards


This paper is not hard if students have practised the different types of composition at home over the course. The compulsory question is an essay and the structure of which is very fixed at all the levels with Cambridge. As a teacher, I often have to spend at least half a year reminding them that this type of composition is formal ( as with most of the compositions ), so there are no contractions. Some find it hard to accept the 3-2-1 rule; that’s to say 3 options to discuss are given, of which you must choose 2 arguments and clearly conclude with 1 of the two. There is no sitting on the fence here in their conclusion. “It can only be concluded that…” “the argument that….. cannot be taken too seriously because…”. “on the one hand..” “ the counter-argument is….” are of course crucial.

Another typical problem is repeating words( especially nouns) from the question. If you are writing about shopping on the internet, half your class – the ones heading for problems in the exam – will use the word ‘ shopping’ at least 6 times, which as you may know is about 3 or 4 times too many. Always get them to think of synonyms for the key words in the question.


For many, this is probably the hardest paper. A UK native of average intelligence would be hard pressed to pass this part. The more practice you do in class, the better quite frankly. I suggest you do at least 8 extra exams in class, which is a total of 32 individual listenings. The most feared part is of course part 4, where they have to complete 2 tasks at the same time. My advice here is that they first focus all their attention on the 2 questions, which are the same for every speaker. They should make notes and look for the answer among the many options later. Trying to listen and read written answer options while concentrating on 2 questions at the same time is just too much to handle even for a native. If your students are doing this, they will really mess up this part. In any case, if you do enough practice in class, your students will quickly realise their shortcomings and begin to improve their technique. Guessing meaning of unknown words from their context is an important skill of course. Eg “ I find your argument utterly ridiculous” along with listening for gist as well as for detail activities.


In many ways, this is the most nerve-wracking part although in fact it is not the most difficult skill at all if they come to the exam prepared. Whilst they might be unlucky with the last 2 interactive parts of the exam as regards the topic ( horrible ones include more conceptual ideas like motivation or positivity) if they go in having some good vocabulary prepared for typical C1 topics, they will feel far more confident. Typical areas include : health, work, life choices , technology, the environment, leisure and entertainment or personality. Remember they will have to compare and speculate about things several times so learning structures for these 2 is crucial.

First Certificate                                                                                                        Advanced

He is / looks tired                                                                                                   He must be exhausted

He is nervous                                                                                                           He is bound to be feeling anxious

This option is better                                                                                               This one is far better

I didn’t understand                                                                                                I didn’t quite catch

Perhaps as a final note, I should talk about homework and how much time I think you should spend doing mock exam questions for a year’s course of 3 or 4 hours a week. As regards the former, I normally give a composition most weeks and 1 or 2 hours of exercises from the workbook or exam questions, the majority of which should be given over the weekend.

I nearly always spend the first 10 minutes or so in class going over the homework, writing up essential answers on the board and answering students’ problems. This can solve the problem of groups whose students trickle in bit by bit, which is very common for evening classes. As regards practice exam questions, I would personally recommend doing at least 1 or 2 listenings plus another exam question depending on what has been covered in the coursebook. If you have been teaching them the technique for one of the Use of English exam questions, then do another timed practice in class from the Practice Exam book.

I would say 20% of class time spent doing exam questions – including oral work – is about right. Obviously, as you approach exam dates, this could be more.

Well I hope this is useful. Remember that once you get the reputation for “getting students though exams”, every local language school and student will want your services!

Good luck out there!


Paul Dunsford, 20 years of examining students, Bilbao, Spain, 2021

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