8 top tips to help prepare your students for their language exams

Students working on an exam

One of a language teacher’s primary goals is to equip their students with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel in their language exams. Preparing students for this challenge clearly requires careful planning, effective language teaching strategies and a supportive learning environment.

But since every language proficiency test is slightly different, this blog post will highlight some common tips and tricks that can help your students get top marks. Whether they’re taking IELTS, AP, DELF, JLPT, CAE or other exams.


1. Understand the exam

To effectively prepare students for language exams, it is crucial for language teachers to have a thorough understanding of the exam format and structure. Familiarise yourself with the exam requirements, sections, and time constraints. This will enable you to design targeted practice lessons and activities that align with the exam’s objectives.

Ensure that your class knows what skills are going to be assessed in each exam and what preparation time or supporting resources (e.g. a dictionary) can be used. Help them to understand the mark schemes and assessment criteria – these highlight what the examiners are looking for and what an answer needs to include to get a specific grade.


2. Identify students’ strengths and weaknesses

Conduct an assessment to determine each student’s strengths and weaknesses in different language skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This evaluation can be done through techniques such as diagnostic tests, individual interviews, or class observations. By identifying areas for improvement, educators can personalise their language teaching approach and provide focused guidance.

Importantly, students can pass some language tests (e.g IELTS or TOEF) regardless of the specific score attained. Other exams have different components and requirements depending on a student’s ability level. If your student needs a particular grade to meet a job or university requirement, then they need to know where they are now and where they need to get to.


3. Develop study plans

Having worked that out, help your students build a revision or study plan to get there. Collaborate with them to create an overview that outlines the key topics and skills to be covered leading up to their exams. Include clear goals and establish a timeline to ensure comprehensive preparation. Encourage students to create a study schedule, allocating time for revision, practice self-assessment and their hobbies.


4. Teach exam strategies

It’s vital that students are fully prepared to respond to challenges that might arise in their exams. Knowing (and practising) a few key strategies can be incredibly helpful in tackling different exam sections effectively. 

Why not dedicate some class time to teach students exam-specific strategies such as time management, skimming and scanning techniques for reading comprehension; note-taking methods for listening tasks and structuring essays for writing tasks? Take time to also develop prep skills and some key holding phrases / conversational tactics to manage speaking tasks successfully. Regular practice of these strategies will boost students’ confidence and performance.


5. Engage in authentic practice

It is essential to provide students with ample opportunity to practise exam-style questions and tasks. Incorporate authentic practice materials into lessons and revision sessions, including past exam papers, sample questions, and online resources. Mimicking exam conditions in the classroom, such as timed exercises and strict assessment criteria, will help students become familiar with the format and enhance their performance under pressure.

Given the different requirements of language tests, it is obviously important to focus on the skills and question-types that your students actually need for their exams. Given that the JLPT only focuses on language knowledge and listening / reading ability, for example, there’s little point building students’ written or spoken language skills.

In any case, such practice also helps students identify areas where they need to revise a little more or even to actually start their exam preparation!


6. Foster effective study habits

Educators should also guide students on building effective study habits such as active listening, extensive reading, and regular vocabulary building. Encourage them to maintain a vocabulary journal, engage in conversation practice with peers and actively participate in language activities both inside and outside the classroom. The promotion of useful self-study resources such as language learning apps, podcasts and online language communities can also support effective revision.

It’s also important to help them to take a healthy approach to their exam prep. It’s vital that students avoid trying to do too much at once and so encourage them to balance leisure and revision time equally. Showing them how to create a revision timetable will also make them much more productive and motivated in the long run, increasing their confidence, and helping your students revise more effectively.

Perhaps most importantly, your words and actions have real power and so encouraging them to persevere and succeed can really instil a positive mindset. Of course, a key part of this is watching out for signs of anxiety or stress and then responding quickly and  compassionately to help address them.


7. Provide constructive feedback

This blog has often highlighted the power of feedback in effective language teaching. At exam time, it really matters and providing timely and constructive feedback can make a huge difference to your students’ performance.

Unquestionably, the educator is best placed to offer an objective perspective on each student’s strengths and areas that need improvement. Communicate these clearly to your students and help them to identify ways to address any problems or difficulties.

Now is also the time to be available for individual feedback sessions. Perhaps Simon has never really understood the difference between the present perfect or the present perfect continuous tenses? Put an intervention in place to help him to get that clarified and understood. 

Oh and those practice exams you did for Point 5 above? Mark them quickly and get them back to students ASAP. Their efforts are wasted if they don’t know what they got wrong and where to focus their revision energies next.


8. Listen to the experts

Delivering exam success has been the subject of a huge amount of academic study, so why not use what works and implement it in your year-round teaching approaches?

Strengthening the Student Toolbox by John Dunlosky, a renowned researcher in educational psychology, is one such study. It focuses on evidence-based learning strategies that can enhance students’ study habits and improve their academic performance. Dunlosky highlights several key strategies but we’ll just cover three of them here – all offer important insights into effective revision / study techniques. 

  • Spaced Practice: This strategy involves distributing study sessions over time, rather than cramming everything at once. By spacing out practice sessions, Dunlosky argues, students can better retain information and improve long-term memory.
  • Retrieval Practice: This refers to helping students actively recall information from memory, rather than passively reviewing it. Examples of this technique include flashcards, practice quizzes and summarising information without notes.
  • Interleaving: This approach sees students alternating between related topics or skills during study sessions, rather than focusing on a single subject for an extended period. Students might, for example, use a single piece of text for reading comprehension, which then leads into a written response or a peer conversation. Better learning is promoted by fostering comparison and contrast, which Dunlosky suggests, leads to improved understanding and transfer of knowledge.

Implementing these strategies, and using the other tips detailed above, can empower students to become more effective learners, improve their retention of information and, hopefully, to achieve better results in their exams. Good luck!

Whatever language you teach and whatever exams your students might be taking, Sanako’s market-leading tools are here to help. We’re constantly innovating and looking to use technology to enable language educators to teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. It’s why the world’s leading educational institutions choose Sanako as their preferred supplier to support online and in-person lesson delivery.


If you are interested in learning more about how Sanako products support language teachers and students and would like to see how they could benefit your institution, click here or the banner below to learn more and to book a FREE remote demo.

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