Teaching Exam Classes in Spain

Exam classes, CEFR Levels, certificates and coursebooks in Spain

B1, B2, C7, R2D2??? What’s going on with certificates in Spain?

We could argue that the financial crisis has certainly benefited the ELT industry in Spain and there’s high demand for English classes for various reasons. In students’ words:

  • I’ll be more employable with more and better qualifications, such as English
  • I’ve finished uni and there’s no work out there: let’s continue studying something useful, such as English
  • I’d like to work abroad and I need to demonstrate my level of English
  • After all this blood, sweat and tears studying for my degree, in Spain I still need an English certificate to be able to obtain my qualifications

So, when you get a teaching job in Spain, you’re likely to be favoured if you are familiar and have experience in teaching Exam Classes.

Most common exams are Cambridge ESOL and Trinity College London ISE. Since a B1 level (Pre-Intermediate) is the minimum level required for any purpose, even beginners and elementary level learners generally aim at obtaining at least a B1 certificate, and they want it ASAP.

Let’s have a look at the exam names, levels and what Cambridge English says about each of the CEFR levels, which describe competences in reading, listening, speaking and writing:

CEFR Level Trinity ISE Cambridge ESOL


C2 – Good User: the capacity to deal with material which is academic or cognitively demanding, and to use language to good effect, at a level of performance which may in certain respects be more advanced than that of an average native speaker

C1 – Competent User: an ability to communicate with the emphasis on how well it is done, in terms of appropriacy, sensitivity and the capacity to deal with unfamiliar topics.

B2 – Independent User: the capacity to achieve most goals and express oneself on a range of topics.

B1 – Threshold User: an ability to express oneself in a limited way in familiar situations and to deal in a general way with non-routine information.

A2 – Waystage User: an ability to deal with simple, straightforward information and begin to express oneself in familiar contexts

A1 – Breakthrough Level: a basic ability to communicate and exchange information in a simple way.

I’ve always found these definitions and general descriptors a little vague and subjective, and I’ve only managed to understand the levels by teaching exam classes and using coursebooks focused on exam preparation.

There are different types of coursebooks where we can get this information:

  • General English coursebooks are used in bridging courses, ideally a year and a half before the students sit the exam. They cover the grammar, vocabulary and skills a learner should be able to master and perform reasonably well, but you won’t find any exam exercises. For instance, a B1 level is generally the equivalent of a Pre-Intermediate level, so any Pre-Intermediate coursebook will indicate what we need to teach, namely what’s required from students at that level.

  • Exam Preparation coursebooks are ideally used 8/9 months before the exam takes place (October to June). For example, if our students are interested in taking the Cambridge ESOL B1 exam, they need to prepare for PET (Preliminary English Test). Some examples of books for PET preparation are: Objective Pet, Ready for PET and Compact Pet. In Spain, most schools use Complete PET simply because it covers precisely what’s required in the test, including exercises, especially for Spanish Speakers and it’s an example of the Official Preparation Material published by Cambridge University Press (CUP). All CUP is based on the Cambridge English Corpus “a multi-billion word collection of written and spoken English. It includes the Cambridge Learner Corpus, a unique bank of exam candidate papers”. These coursebooks compile the vocabulary and expressions for the specific level, as well as the most common mistakes made by candidates in the exam.

  • Finally, Exam Trainers and Exam Paper Books are often used for Exam Training Classes, where students acquire the techniques to perform well within the constraints of an exam. I don’t recommend using these books in initial courses and it’s very important to let your students know that there’s no point in practising exams before they’ve actually acquired the level: Students won’t get enough practice to acquire the language and skills involved in the exam and teachers can’t cover the syllabus so quickly. It’s a waste of very valuable preparation material. When it’s used before they’re ready, the students could manage to memorise the answers but it’s very unlikely (if not impossible!) to find the exact same question in two exams.

Let’s compare 2 similar sample questions in different FCE exam papers. Students are required to use SUCH accurately in each exercise but it would be really hard for them to get the right answer if they can’t use it properly and don’t know the grammatical principles behind it:

  • I didn’t realise that the beach was so far from the campsite.


I didn’t realise that …………………………………. long way from the beach to the campsite.


  • Raymond has so much skill as an artist that his drawings look like photographs.


Raymond is …………………………………. artist that his drawings look like photographs.

Helping students to improve their English should be any teacher’s main goal. Exams must be only a refection of the learners’ linguistic and communicative skills but they involve a lot of pressure for both students and teachers. Here’s a list of things to remember when teaching exam classes:

Learning and learners come first: Even if exam classes are exam centred, don’t forget that in order to do well in an exam, students need to learn.

Communicate with your students: Inform your students about the exam and what’s expected from them. Tell them about their progress regularly and explain why you think they need to work more on some areas, or wait a little longer to sit the exam.

Work on your social role: Be approachable, supportive and provide extra practice material for students to study independently.

Any more ideas? Please, share with us…

References (coursebook photos)

Heydermann, E.; May, P. & Mayhew, C. 2013. Complete PET: Student’s book. Madrid, Spain: CUP

Latahm-Koenig, C.; Oxeden, C. & Seligson, P. 2012. English File: Pre-Intermediate: Student’s Book. Third Edition. Oxford, UK: OUP

May, P. 2015. First TRAINER: six practice tests with answers. Dubai, United Arab Emirates: CUP