As a language professional working exclusively with higher-level clients, it’s inevitable that this topic darkens my door on a semi-regular basis:
“I’m thinking about preparing for the Cambridge Proficiency exam”
“Do you think it would be worth me getting the IELTS?”
“I think working towards my C1 exam would give me something to aim for.”
So, I thought I’d try my best to address it here (and then just send people to this blog from now on!)
I’m going to lay my cards out on the table right now: I’m not a fan of exams. I’ll go into some detail as to why I’m not a fan in this post, but I do want to be clear from the off: this is not an unbiased assessment of the pros and cons. It is, in fact, a fully biased assessment of the pros and cons.
But, while I’m not a fan, it’s clear that exams do serve a purpose. So why don’t we start there?
What English exams are good for:
1 - English Exams can be absolutely essential for lots of practical things like getting a visa or getting into a university program or getting a job.
It is one of the (often numerous) hoops that you might have to jump through to achieve any of those things.
Do I like it? No.
Do I accept it? I really have no choice.
Do you have to do it? Yes, I’m sorry, but you do.
This is where research is your friend. What kind of qualification is this institution looking for, and do they have any specifications? Often there will be expiry dates put on your qualifications (e.g. You must have completed this exam within the last six months) and they may have breakdowns for level by skill (e.g. A Masters program might look for an IELTS Band 7 overall with a minimum 6.5 in Reading)
Then you need to be realistic about how long this is going to take. If you only need to brush up on exam technique and the particularities of different papers, you may be able to prepare pretty quickly. If you don’t have the level yet that you need, that’s going to take much, much longer. (Yes, sometimes years.)
2 - English Exams can give you an idea of your level
This can be very satisfying. You’ve studied for years and now you have the C1 certificate. Well done!
In this way, exams can be a form of validation and a confirmation that all the effort you’ve put in has been worth it.
This isn’t *nothing*.
Validation is important. A pat on the back is important. A sense of your progress is important.
Is it worth the price and effort of taking an exam?? Well, that’s up to you…
3 - English Exams can give you something to work towards
When you reach a high level of a language, knowing how to keep moving forward is really difficult. You might even feel like you can already do most of the things you want to do, so it can be hard to prioritise the next steps.
This is where an exam course can be really tempting.
A program of target language and skills that are *officially* C1 or C2!? Wonderful! I’ll just go and learn all of that, and then I’ll feel much better about everything.
Again, if you don’t find exams stressful and boring, and you quite like the rhythm and routine of exam preparation and exam classes, and you’re looking for something to do on Monday and Wednesday evenings for the next six months…by all means, prepare for an exam!
Just know that exams won’t magically solve any problems you’re facing in English. And you won’t “know everything” when you’re finished.
If that kind of thing is fun for you, though, have at it.
So, what’s the issue with English exams?
For all these advantages - and you may have noticed that I only actually found one advantage and really eeked out the second two! - I don’t often recommend my clients or followers take English exams (with the one clear and obvious exception being if Point One above applies to them).
So let's break down some of the reasons I am Not A Fan™️ of English exams:
1 - They promote the study of English as an end rather than a means
English, for exam coursebooks, students, and teachers, very often becomes a 'thing to be studied'. You very quickly end up reducing a writing text down to the grammatical structures and vocabulary choices rather than as a text with an audience, a purpose, and a message to be conveyed.
Could this just as easily be a criticism of 99% of English teaching around the world? Well, yes, probably.
But exams, in my experience, make it much harder for a teacher to choose to move away from this model. We know that if you can incorporate more adverbs (or phrasal verbs, or inversions, or...) into your English, you will almost certainly score more highly. So why would we try something else?
This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, I guess. Being able to use those elements more fluently is great!
My issue is that English gets reduced to a series of jigsaw pieces you can artificially jam together to get more points. You have it confirmed that the goal of English is not about doing anything with it, but rather simply a skill to be performed.
(I say 'confirmed' because it's likely this is precisely the belief you've been indoctrinated with through your schooling.)
2 - The English presented in English Exams is not hugely helpful...
What's worse is that the jigsaw-style English presented in these courses often isn't hugely helpful for you and your life.
The question of which language items get tested in exams is an interesting one (and I'd love to hear from people who've been involved in this process to get your experience!) but it faces one major difficulty at the advanced level: 'advanced' almost always means 'infrequent' or 'niche'. So, how can we select language items which might accurately reflect someone's knowledge?
A quick aside: the major international exams do not test language in a "what does this word mean?" or "when would you use the Present Perfect?" kind of way. It's not explicitly testing explicit knowledge. But I would argue that when a multiple-choice answer relies on your understanding of a particular idiom, then it's still a vocabulary test, just dressed up in the guise of reading comprehension.
What we end up seeing in exams and their accompanying preparation materials is a kind of English that is simultaneously highly specific and almost entirely devoid of any kind of specificity.
There is no geographical context that the exam writers can assume people to have (these are, after all, international exams), so the language prioritised is often that which is common among native speakers of the UK, US, and Australia. Within that, "strong" accents or regionalisms are often ignored because, again, it cannot be assumed that a learner in Saudi Arabia is familiar with Geordie patter, regardless of their proficiency. Equally, vocabulary and structures associated with any group outside of the dominant cultural norm (e.g. vocabulary from African American Vernacular English, or Black British English) are dismissed as well.
Now, given that English as a Lingua Franca is increasingly recognised as A Thing, it could be successfully argued that learners have no need for such geographically-specific language. And I'd agree. But this then doesn't account for the emphasis placed on highly idiomatic language which is tested in the exam.
Which leads me nicely to my third grumble:
3 - International English exams imperfectly prepare for real life
It is very difficult for me to know what exactly the CAE prepares you for. This gets even more difficult to identify once we reach a C2 level.
The reading and listening texts are incredibly dense and one of the most frequent complaints I used to get from students was "I understand everything they're saying but I don't know the answer."
I could relate! I felt exactly the same a lot of the time. Yes, sometimes the multiple choice answers came down to a clear point of vocabulary, but it just as often felt like splitting hairs.
The academic IELTS texts are notoriously dull - the life cycle of an acorn, anyone? - but then the length of the texts, and the multiple choice answers required don't help build any of the academic skills actually needed while studying at university. Many non-native English speakers at universities in the UK are required to complete internal English language programs once they're enrolled (often for lots of money on top of their course fees).
Now, a clear counterargument to this is to say: well, exams aren't supposed to prepare people for university, or their workplace, or their life in the UK, or whatever it is that people need to do with English after their exams. They're proof of general level, not a skill-building program. They give a rough indication of proficiency, which tells employers, immigration staff or university admissions teams that this person has the language foundation needed to begin, and they'll go on to develop the specific skills they need for their context in due time.
4 - English Exams are almost universally oversold
This is a marketing problem. But it's a big one, and one which seeps into classrooms and preparation courses all over the world.
If you're taking the exam, or thinking about taking it, you almost always have some sense of "this exam is going to change my life." It may be explicit or implicit, but it's almost always there:
Once I complete my C1, I'll find it much easier to understand people.
When I'm an advanced speaker, I'll be able to handle myself more confidently in English.
I'm on track to get a 7.5 in my IELTS, I think university should be pretty do-able.
Again, I refer to Point One in my pros section - if you need the certificate to get into university, get a visa or qualify for a job, then obviously this life change is tangible and real for you.
Where the trouble comes in is in the crushing disappointment that so often follows the exam when you realise that you still have a whole bunch of learning ahead of you.
Yes, you got into uni, but you still need to learn the skills required to actually do well in it.
Yes, you got the job, but you still need to learn the skills required to actually do it.
Yes, you passed the exam, but it turns out your neighbours' accent is still pretty much unintelligible.
As I say, this is a marketing problem. Sometimes it's really explicit, with institutions or individual teachers drumming up custom by promising the world to their learners via exams. More often it's a case of omission: teachers and students are simply so focused on the exam that they fail to talk honestly about what happens afterwards.
5 - English Exams are a money-making machine
My final issue with exams is that the exam industrial complex is massive and dominant and has won over the majority of governments and educational institutions with their promise that their exam will guarantee that the right candidates are let through the gates and the wrong ones are kept out.
And they keep people coming back for more.
It would be perfectly sensible, I'd argue, that if your goal was a C1 certificate, to prepare for B1, B2, and then C1 before taking a single exam. But the reality is that many language schools will promote taking (and paying for) the B1 exam (PET), and then the B2 exam (FCE), and THEN the C1 exam (CAE). One certificate for the price of three.
Also, in my experience, students regularly take IELTS earlier than their teachers recommend 'on the off chance' that they manage to secure the marks they need. When they fail to reach those scores, they book a test again for the following month and try again.
So...what's the solution?
You thought I had solutions?? No way. This situation is miles above my pay grade!
From a personal perspective, though, I've made a couple of decisions:
I've stepped back from preparing students for exams myself. I don't teach language at all anymore, and I certainly don't do exam preparation.
I spend a lot of my time on social media and in face-to-face environments re-educating learners on what learning English can (and, in my view, should) be. I try to popularise the idea that exams are not the be-all-and-end-all of language learning and that they don't solve all your problems.
In my coaching, I help my clients unpick where exam-based learning systems have caused some unhelpful beliefs to grow for them and support them to develop a new understanding of English and their English in particular.
But what about you?
If you're a non-native English speaker, what's your experience been of these big exams? Am I over-blowing the problem here? Are they really not as bad as I'm stating? Perhaps you agree with what I'm saying?
If you're a teacher, what's your view on the big international exams, and how - if you see some issues with them - do you try to do something a little bit different in your classes?
And if you work for one of these big exam companies, what's your perspective on this conversation?
Leave a comment!