My name is Scott and I have a bit of a confession to make: I’m a Cambridge addict. This may seem a bit odd to many people, as both FCE and CAE are often regarded as dry, boring courses to teach. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, but on the basis of this misconception, I’m often asked why I like these courses so much as well as why students should bother putting themselves through the rigours of a Cambridge course.
This week in the evening FCE course provides the perfect example to illustrate the answers to both questions. I asked my students why each of them is doing the FCE course and/or the exam. Some of them said that their primary motivation was to improve their English. Others provided more pragmatic reasons, such as the fact that in Europe a Cambridge certificate is the most widely accepted and highly regarded evidence of English proficiency among employers and educational institutions. For the majority of them, however, the driving force was a combination of the two and, unlike many English language test courses, this rationale is well founded.
What makes the Cambridge exams different and the reason why both of these objectives is entirely achievable is the fact that they are level-specific and designed to be the culmination of an intensive course of study which covers every aspect of the language: reading, writing, grammar & vocabulary, listening and speaking. Each of these skills is covered with fairly equal emphasis, giving every candidate the opportunity to improve dramatically in each area.
This week, my time with my class was spent primarily on listening and speaking and while each of these areas is practiced with the exam in mind, the strategy for each ultimately comes down to getting better at English. There are no tricks or ways around this. To succeed in these exams, you really just have to be good at English. In terms of speaking, for example, we discussed how to very quickly organize your thoughts using discourse markers and cohesive devices as well as language for comparison, contrast and speculation, both of which are key skills for speaking in any situation. We also covered how various tenses, expressions and structures can be used to describe habits, typical behaviour and generalizations. While each was done with a specific part of the test in mind, they are also extremely helpful in other areas. An understanding of discourse markers and cohesive devices, for example, is crucial for writing and for active, predictive reading and is therefore instrumental in the development of both of these skills as well.
So ultimately, what is the value of the Cambridge courses and exams? It is their comprehensive nature, their holistic approach to English and the interrelatedness of the skills involved. It also lies in the fact that at the end of the course there is a sort of grand finale: the exam itself. So whenever people ask me this question I can’t help but think of a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal…”.