Tests of English language proficiency are most always high-stakes exams. Taking an English language proficiency exam can be an extremely stressful life event as failing to achieve your target score can mean that your dreams for the future are at least temporarily put on hold.
Here are some pitfalls that you should avoid when preparing for a test of English.
It’s human nature to procrastinate. We get it. It’s difficult to juggle the demands of family and working life. You had good intentions. You always meant to improve your English, to study independently after your kids go to bed at the end of the day, or to enroll in an English language class, but time always seemed to get away from you. By the end of the day, you are exhausted. I’ll do it next week, for sure, you tell yourself, but next week comes and surprise! You are still busy and exhausted. Eventually, it’s crunch time, but now you only have one month, two weeks or ten days left to study before your test date.
We get frantic calls from students in this situation all the time. With such a limited amount of time, we can likely only provide an overview of the CELPIP exam and performance expectations for each skill area. However, a brief overview of an exam is often not enough for most students. In most cases, students need to practice and apply the skills they have learned. For this reason, we encourage students to wait to book a test date for at least three months after they begin their test preparation studies.
Have Unrealistic Expectations
We also get a lot of calls from students with unrealistic expectations. Some of these calls come from individuals living overseas who are trying to immigrate to Canada, and who want to increase their chances of being accepted by submitting outstanding English proficiency exam scores with their permanent residency application. Absolutely, you can improve your test scores with study and hard work. Unfortunately, however, it’s simply unlikely that you will achieve an upper-advanced (i.e. basically the equivalent of a native English speaker) benchmark without complete immersion in an English-speaking country for some years.
You are also unlikely to increase your benchmark level significantly in a short time-frame. Familiarity or lack of familiarity with a test format can account for an increase or decrease of one benchmark, but after that, it really comes down to your basic English ability at the time of the test. Experts say that it takes approximately 250 hours of study to improve one benchmark level. Therefore, if you studied full-time (*in most Canadian language schools, full-time studies consist of 25 hours a week) you can anticipate it would take 10 weeks, or two and a half months of studies to move up one level. However, most adults have other obligations and can only study part-time, so consider that it may take twice as long to achieve the same goal.
Overestimate your Ability
You studied English for years in your first country, or you work in a position where you speak English every day. You are sure to ace the exam, right? Not necessarily. We would venture that even native born English speakers would have trouble achieving decent scores if they went into an English proficiency test “blind.” Standardized English tests score specific language skill areas and you need to know what these specific skills are. It’s essential to prepare and be knowledgeable of the format of the test you are about to take. Even if your English language skills are high, you run the risk of failing to meet your goals if you aren’t familiar with individual tasks and performance expectations on an exam.
Don’t be lured by a false sense of security due to how well you get by at your Canadian workplace either. You may be able to understand everything your boss, coworkers, and customers communicate in this environment; however, in many occupations this involves a narrow range of English vocabulary and language structures, which are repeated day-in and day-out in a niche area. Taken outside of this familiar context, many English language learners find their comprehension levels are a lot lower than they had grown to believe.
Underestimate your ability
Although it can be risky to overestimate your language ability prior to taking a test of English proficiency, the opposite problem can be just as detrimental to success. We’ve found many immigrants or immigrant candidates have a very defeatist attitude when it comes to English proficiency examinations. A mythos of sorts has grown around exams like the CELPIP, CELTA, TOEFL and IELTS — the myth that these exams are impossibly difficult. Before they even begin their preparations, test-takers hear countless stories about students who have repeatedly “failed” these types of exams.
Consequently, the prospective test-taker becomes discouraged before they even begin their preparations. Unfortunately, this negative thinking is counter-productive and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conveniently, the test-taker has an “out” and an “excuse” for not studying strategically, as they become convinced the test is simply “unfair” and is designed to fail candidates.
Think you can learn “tricks” to “beat” the test
No test of English proficiency is perfect. It is simply not very natural to “perform” our best under test-conditions, but barring examiners following an individual around with a clipboard and a scoring rubric while observing their day-to-day interactions, tests of English are here to stay. Whatever their limitations, good tests of English proficiency have evolved over time and do a decent job of providing a snapshot of a candidate’s English abilities.
Individual exams and exam questions are frequently evaluated for test reliability. Many modern tests have been updated and revised to align with current teaching methodologies to reflect authentic “real-world” tasks. Many examination bodies, such as Paragon Testing, who administer the CELPIP exam, have revised their scoring methods to align with national language benchmarks. Consequently, few English proficiency exams feature discrete grammar questions anymore as these types of test questions do not reflect true language ability. As any experienced language instructor knows, the ability to memorize grammar rules and complete rote English exercises is a poor indicator of real communicative skills.
Yes, there are formats and techniques that test-takers can learn to perform better on an English proficiency exam. These strategies can and should be taught to test-takers. However, there are a myriad of other skills that candidates need to learn in order to achieve a high-level score, such as the ability to use the correct tone in an email, the ability to produce lower frequency vocabulary in written communication or speech, or use high-frequency vocabulary naturally, like a native English speaker does, the ability to emphasize the correct syllables in difficult words, or to use intonation effectively to convey a message…. the list goes on and on.
There really are no short-cuts to learning English. It’s a skill like any other skill. You can’t go from playing Chopsticks to Chopin on the piano in six weeks, so individuals or schools who guarantee that you will “pass” an exam in this time frame (and you should ask them what exactly they mean when they say you will “pass” the test as most English proficiency tests do not have a pass/fail threshold) are simply not being honest. Steer clear of schools who advertise gimmicky “tricks” to “beat” the test.
Some people are very disciplined and focused when it comes to learning. They apply their previous academic experience to the task of preparing for an English proficiency test. They can analyze test tasks and set relevant learning goals. They have good research skills, are resourceful at accessing quality resources on the Internet, and can use these materials to devise an independent study plan. Finally, these individuals are consistent in following through with their plan and engaging in reflective practice.
However, many individuals are less “bookish” or academically inclined. Their school days may be long behind them, and perhaps they struggled with their studies even then. Faced with a looming test, they randomly buy some test-prep materials and perhaps even flip through these resources, although maybe they don’t do the text exercises (if there are any exercises). Or perhaps they complete some online practice tests, but really only get a sense of their reading and listening levels because they have no one to provide them with feedback on their speaking and writing. In fact, they don’t even bother completing these sections of the practice test because, “What’s the point of speaking to a wall?”
Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you feel you can go it alone, there’s no reason you shouldn’t study independently. There are many resources available to help (some free and some for a fee). However, if you don’t approach your test-preparation studies with a structured game plan, you are probably wasting your time. Yes, it costs money, but sometimes engaging the services of a tutor or enrolling in a test-preparation course is the most efficient way to reach your goals.