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Giving your students a boost. How preparation techniques for best performance in sport can be adapted to ensure optimal performance in Cambridge ESOL examinations.

First delivered at the 3rd Pan Epirus Conference on Language Learning, Preveza, June 18-19th 2011, under the auspices of PALSO Preveza-Lefkada.

By Stephen John Taylor, Cambridge ESOL Consultant-Presenter.

In addition to providing the world’s most recognized and popular language examinations, Cambridge University is also known for its prodigious sporting reputation and has produced many fine athletes, including more than 50 Olympic medalists (6 in 2008 alone), including the legendary Chinese six-time world table tennis champion Deng Yaping, the sprinter and athletics hero Harold Abrahams (of Chariots of Fire fame), the famed mountaineer and possibly the first man ever to reach the summit of Mount Everest, George Mallory, and the inventors of the modern game of Football, Winton and Thring. Currently, foreign players at Chelsea FC work towards gaining KET, PET or IELTS as appropriate. Sport, language learning and Cambridge University are therefore indelibly linked.

The main thing a sportsperson and an exam candidate have in common is that both are performers expected to deliver their best on the day. A footballer, for example, needs to deliver his best performance every time he steps onto the pitch for a match, and it is the same for anyone facing the challenges of the examination environment. An ‘off day’ could mean the difference between passing with flying colours, just scraping a pass or failing spectacularly, with the consequent negative effects for both the candidate and the FLS, as well as the exam body. In other words, we all lose. Certainly, we’ve all had students we’ve considered to be sure passes who surprise us all by failing or underperforming, and therefore it is clear we need to reduce the possibilities of our candidates having ‘off days’.




In essence, sports coaching and examination preparation actually share the same characteristics when it comes to doing this. The lack of time to train is one of the biggest challenges that an athlete faces. They convince themselves that if they could just fit in a bit more preparation, they would certainly swim faster, bike faster, race faster. The same goes for exam candidates (and, unfortunately, many teachers) - if they could just fit in one more test, one more set of phrasal verbs, another vocabulary list, they would certainly do better. In truth, however, science and experience prove that you will perform better if you choose clear goals, and maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of your training, giving each practice session a time and a focus. In sport, for instance, one might focus on endurance, force, speed or strength, while in examinations vocabulary, grammar, or composition skills could be the focus.


We all know the adage ‘Practice Makes Perfect’, but perhaps we should be thinking more of ‘Selective Practice Makes Perfect’. It is entirely unrealistic to expect students to learn long word lists, for example. Excellent publications such as Vocabulary for First Certificate (Barbara Thomas and Laura Matthews, CUP 2007) reduce such lists to manageable proportions and link them with useful related vocabulary, in context. This is intelligent focusing that leads to improved performance.

We can also avoid unfamiliar material being an obstacle to the learning focus by using the same material for different learning points, e.g. Listening Test tapescripts, available for free at  Suggested ideas for exploitation include:

  • Giving students the tapescript and asking them to write different questions
  • Erasing the questions on the tapescript and asking the students to predict what they are
  • Givig students the complete tapescript and asking them to identify the distractors
  • Using the tapescript as a reading and pronunciation exercise
  • Using the tapescript as a role play and asking the students to continue the dialogues in character



Now, let’s look at 5 key sports preparation tips and see how we can adapt them to our students.

  1. Obtain as much information as possible about the course you will be racing on. Then train in similar conditions.
  2. Never underestimate the weather!
  3. Use the gear/equipment in training that you will use on race day.
  4. Be careful with what you eat and drink so your digestive system and metabolism are in perfect working order.
  5. Have clear directions to the venue and know the timing for your travel to and/or from it. Remember, if you are late for the start or have forgotten your equipment you may not be allowed to compete, or even be disqualified!

Suggested answers:

  1. Become very familiar with the exam format and what CESOL requires of you. Practise in real time with authentic tests (from CUP and/or Know about answer sheets, word limits, etc.
  2. Wear suitable clothing, try to get to venue (and stay) warm and dry in winter, cool in summer. Take water with you in any season.
  3. Use pen for writing and practice making corrections without blanco. Use photocopied answer sheets and pencils for the rest. Use A4 paper for writing practice.
  4. Don’t change dietary and sleep habits, drink Red Bull, etc. Do nibble chocolate between papers, and regularly drink water to increase oxygen supply to brain. Visit the bathroom before the exam begins or during breaks to avoid distracting discomfort.
  5. Know where the venue is and how you are going to get there. Take IDs and arrive in plenty of time to avoid last minute panic and upset. Consult Cambridge Rules & Regulations. Learn about mobile phones, pencil cases and blanco.


We do not perhaps take as much time as we should ensuring students (and parents) are informed as to how to best help candidates succeed by catering to their physical needs. It is not just academic preparation that we should be providing.


To achieve peak performance, coaches use a variety of sources such as nutrition, psychology and fitness. Teachers should follow the same strategy, using a variety of sources such as course books, the Internet, official past papers, their own material, Cambridge Teacher Website, etc. Short and long term goals should be realistic and achievable, i.e. after FCE, don’t take a wild leap at CPE, try CAE first! Finally, knowing what you want to achieve and what motivates you can make a huge difference. Teach students WHY they are taking English exams, and what benefits there are to both learning English and achieving CESOL certification. English is the 1st choice foreign language in Europe, over a billion people speak it worldwide, more than 80% of the Internet is in English, and English is the preferred language for Commerce and Science. CESOL gives you international recognition, better career prospects and facilitates UK university entrance.

With the proper motivation and support, your students can achieve the very best.