HOW TO PREPARE FOR YOUR ENGLISH TEST or ESL EXAM. Remember, test success is not just about English.
Do you need to prepare for an English test? Do you need to take an IELTS, TOEFL, Cambridge, GMAT or other exam to enter university, graduate from high school, or immigrate to an English speaking country? Or do you want to display a Cambridge proficiency score on your CV? Whatever your reason for taking an English test, the tips below will help you succeed.
Of course, your success starts with good English fundamentals – reading, grammar, vocabulary, listening, writing and speaking – but that’s just the beginning. English test preparation is also about test taking strategies. The good news is that almost all ESL tests have a lot of things in common. So whether you’re taking an IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, CAE or the Lezen/Luisteren Engels toetsen (MAVO, HAVO or VWO), these tips will help you.
SECTION ONE: Prepare for your English test by knowing the 3 QUESTION TYPES
1. Know the English test question categories
Your first task is to choose a preparation book or digital resource that contains practice tests. This book will help you learn everything you can about how the test is structured, especially the kinds of questions you will face. ESL tests commonly use 3 sorts of questions. We will look at each of these separately and provide universal testing tips to help you succeed.
- Multiple choice and true/false or yes/no
- Gap Fill
2. ESL multiple choice questions: prepare to choose
Most exams that test language skills are (primarily) in a multiple-choice question format, aka (=also known as) MCQs. MCQs are the most common question type across all exams worldwide, and are also probably the question format you are most familiar with. However, just because the format is familiar doesn’t mean that it’s easy.
True/False and Yes/No questions also fall under the multiple choice umbrella – they’re exactly the same in format, just with fewer options. MCQs ask questions and offer several answers to choose from. There may be one or several correct answers, with the other choices being there only to confuse you and steer you off course. So how can you stay on the straight path to the correct answer?
3. Read. The. Question.
The most important tip for answering these questions is to Read. The. Question. Sounds simple, right? All the information you need will be in the question and the text/listening provided. So make sure you focus on the question and the information it asks for. We recommend highlighting key words– these are typically words that have content, such as verbs, nouns, people, places, etc.
Start with the question, NOT the text. Read the question very carefully.
When you know the key information from the question, go to the text and search for the information to help answer the question. Don’t even look at the answer options yet – they are only going to slow you down and distract you.
Once you find the answer in the text, or hear it in the audio, only then should you go back to the answers and choose the one that best fits with the information you have already found.
This way, your attention is on the information you know with certainty from the text, rather than the possibilities that have been created to confuse you. Once you find an answer that fits with the information from the text, then you can choose your answer and move on. Focussing your attention on the information you have found will not only guide you to the correct answer, it will also save you valuable time – something that we could all use more of in any exam!
So your precise sequence for each question is–
A. The question: read it very carefully
B. The text: read it with focus, looking for the answer
C. The answers: now read the multiple choice answers provided under the question. Does one match the answer you found in the text?
D. Make the best choice / best match, remembering that paraphrasing and synonyms may be used
4. Paraphrasing: the ESL test trap
So far, so good, eh? Just match the information correctly and don’t get distracted by deliberately misleading answers. OK.
But the correct answer won’t always be a simple match-up of words between text and answer choice(s). In fact, choosing an answer just because you found the same words in the text is the easiest way to choose an incorrect answer – and test designers know this. The correct answer is often paraphrased based on the information in the text, meaning that synonyms and other phrases will be used to communicate the same meaning with different words. So once you have found your answer in the text, make sure you choose the option with the same meaning as the text – and not just the same words.
Do you need a test prep course? Would you like to discuss ESL test prep with a teacher? The English Center provides private test prep courses Live Online and in person in Amsterdam and Den Haag. Contact us about a free consultation and get customized training to help you succeed.
5. Prepare for your English test with vocabulary
Words and their meaning are another common type of question for reading tests in particular. You may be asked to choose the correct synonym for a word or phrase from the text. This question is simply testing your vocabulary knowledge, and if the test asks about a word you just don’t know, you may feel hopeless, but don’t give up! There are some strategies you can apply for vocabulary question types.
6. Context. Context. Context.
Much like the MCQ question, it’s important to focus your attention on the text and the section where the key phrase is found. If you don’t understand the word or phrase on its own, look at the paragraph or sentence where you found it. Try and get a basic understanding of the context. Is it something positive or negative? Are we talking about a process or development? What ideas are being expressed, and how do they connect? Do they agree or contrast with each other? Try and think of your own synonym for the word. Then move to the options, and assess them based on what you think best matches the meaning of the word or phrase in the text.
If you are also stuck on the options, there are some things you can do to try and “whittle down” (=reduce or narrow) the choices for yourself, and they’re similar to those used in understanding the text.
Are the words positive or negative? Are they describing a process? Do they agree with, or contradict information in the text? Once you make your choice, substitute your choice with the word or phrase in the question. These question types show how important it is to have a wide vocabulary and be able to recognise a wide variety of languages.
Word knowledge is truly the “magic bullet” of second language success.
7. Fill the gap questions
Vocabulary knowledge also comes into play with the third of our question types – fill the gap, which is also known as “cloze reading.” Rather than a word or phrase being provided in the text, you must select the correct option to fill in a gap in the text. This can be a real pain if you simply don’t recognise or understand the words given as answer choices.
The technique for this question is very similar to the vocabulary question. It is important to first pay close attention to the information before and after the gap. A common error made by test-takers is that they stop reading once they get to the gap. Don’t do that! This habit will cause you to miss crucial information and context needed to answer the question.
So carefully read the whole sentence where the gap is and try to think of what kind of word belongs in the gap. Adjective? Verb? Phrasal Verb? Also, think again about the overall meaning and context of the words around the gap. Are they positive, or negative? Does the sentence show a development of an idea or process? Do all parts of the sentence agree, or is there a contrast between different parts? Understanding this context of the gap will help you infer what kind of word belongs in the gap.
Then evaluate the options in the question the same way you did with the vocabulary options – based on the context. This gap-fill question also includes another important component to pay attention to – grammar. When you choose an option, make sure it fits grammatically with the sentence. Does the verb match with the subject? Are there any prepositions to pay attention to? Is it the correct word form (noun/verb/adjective/adverb)? Substituting your choice into the gap and then reading the full sentence will give you a good idea about whether it fits with both the grammatical and lexical needs of the sentence.
Extra Tip: Reading your answer aloud (you can whisper it to yourself) can help you “hear” if you have the right word form.
SECTION TWO: Prepare for your English test with these test success strategies
8. Practice, practice, practice, but with which book?
Choose a test prep book and use it. There are many good test prep books on the market – just find the one that suits you best and dive in. Or consult with your teacher and let her recommend a book.
9. Start to prepare for your English test ASAP
Give yourself as much time as possible. This is not the kind of test that you can prepare for the night before you take it. Make test preparation part of your healthy lifestyle, like going to the sports club and eating healthy food.
10. Prepare for your English test with practice tests
So now you know what questions to expect and how to best answer them, but in general, how do you best prepare for your exam? Well, naturally, the first tip is to practice, practice, practice! Many tests offer a practice test version. Invest in your success by getting these tests and using them. Doing as many of these practice test questions will help you feel familiar with the format of the test, as well as honing the strategy that is most likely to lead you to success.
Would you like to discuss ESL test prep with a teacher? The English Center offers private test prep courses Live Online and in person in Amsterdam and Den Haag. Contact us about a free consultation and get customized training to help you succeed.
11. Timing: are you the tortoise or the hare?
By timing yourself on practice tests, you will learn if you are going too slow, but also if you are going too fast. Some test takers are so worried about completing the test that they finish early and waste valuable time that could have gone to better reading, processing, review and editing.
Other test takers take so long on tough questions that they do not finish ALL the questions. And as we said earlier, MCQs should never be left blank. If you guess, you may get it right! So whoever are you, the tortoise or the hare, be sure to use your time wisely.
12. Put it in a nutshell: summarize
To help with reading fluency and comprehension, try timing yourself as you read an exam text, and then summarize the key information in 1 or 2 sentences. This “global comprehension” of a text is often the most difficult part of reading in a second language, and can easily “slip you up” (=cause errors) when the pressure is on.
13. Learn to skim
Adding timing to your test prep also allows you to practice the reading skill known as skimming, where you read a text quickly to get an overall understanding of the information without focussing too much on smaller details. Time is of the essence in an exam, so only allow yourself to do intensive and detailed reading of a passage when it’s required to answer a certain question. Skimming the text also allows you to get an idea of where information is found in the text, so when you have to go look for a smaller detail, you’ll have a better idea of which section or paragraph you should go back to, once again saving precious time.
14. Prep for your ESL test by growing a memorable English vocabulary
Prepare for your English test by strengthening your word retention through word USE, also called productive speech. As they say, “Use it or lose it.”
Outside of exam practice, vocabulary building is the most valuable preparation for ESL exam success. But “learning” vocabulary is not enough – recycling that vocabulary over and again is essential to be able to commit the vocabulary to long-term memory. This is why memorizing long lists of vocabulary isn’t that effective – with memorization, you’re rote learning not committing the information to your long-term memory.
So when you learn new words – use them! Either in individual activities, or in communicating with people you know. Accessing and producing that vocabulary over and over again will ground it in your memory, ready for use when you need it in an exam. And of course, one of the best ways to improve your reading in a second language is to read!
15. Prepare for your English test by relaxing with a good book
Reading non-exam texts will help develop all the previous skills we talked about – vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. But don’t panic and think you need to tackle the works of Shakespeare, or struggle through James Joyce’s Ulysses! When you read, keep it to things you enjoy and find interesting. If you’re interested in tech, read about the latest announcements from Apple’s press conference. If you’re fascinated by economics, check out some articles from international publications like The Economist or The Wall Street Journal.
Tip! Pay special attention to linking words and phrases. There will be loads of them in any book your read, and they are absolutely necessary for accurate comprehension of written content.
16. Watch an English movie or TV
If you are not a big reader, do not despair. While reading remains the top recommendation for vocabulary building, watching “runs a close second.” (= is almost as good). Are celebrity gossip and reality TV shows your cup of tea? Follow some scandalous stories online, on TV or at Netflix. Just choose entertainment with an authentic text (that means not created specifically for second language learners), and engage with it properly.
Choose English Subtitles so that you can not only hear but also see the words. Keep a diary or spreadsheet of words you don’t know and look them up later. Or, even better, use the pause function to find them right when you need them. Your smartphone is a great dictionary. Use an app or just type in the word in your browser and you will get the meaning and often the pronunciation, too!
Finally, you can go full karaoke with our video app. This app lets you WATCH LEARN and SPEAK thousands of videos at all levels and in all content areas. This app is a top recommendation for building vocabulary. Read about the video app now.
17. Prepare, but be willing to guess
Remember this the next exam you’re taking a test – the text will always contain everything you need to answer the questions. But if you really have no idea about the answer, particularly in a multiple choice test, the best strategy is just to guess! Almost none of the internationally recognized English exams work on negative marking, so even if you get it wrong, you won’t lose any points. With a typical 4-answer question, guessing gives you a 25% chance of getting it right, compared to 0% if you leave the gap empty. So when all else fails, take a chance!
Passing your English test should never be a gamble, however. So be sure you do not “go it alone.” Get some smart help!
18. Prepare for your English test by working 1:1 with an English test preparation teacher
We help clients prepare with personalized test preparation courses built around the learner – your goals, English level, learning style and schedule. Contact The English Center today to schedule a free intake appointment.
Brenda de Jong-Pauley
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