THE FCE BLOG by Claudia Ceraso

Friday, October 20, 2006


The FCE Listening Paper: Overview and Online Practice

What is listening comprehension?
Listening skills go beyond understanding the meaning of individual words. At FCE level, you will not be asked to simply prove you can understand what someone says. The test has been built to focus on certain characteristics that are always present when speaking in real life:

  • Purpose: We always listen for some reason, not just to practice as you may have done as a learning exercise.
  • Expectations: There is some idea in our mind to anticipate what we will hear. The topic, the purpose, even general knowledge of the world can help you prepare your ears.
  • General idea or detail: As learners, we would like to understand exactly how things were said. But in every day life, we discriminate whether we need to understand one specific word -a name for instance- or just get the gist of it.

It will help you a great deal if you become aware of what is being tested in every part. It will also soothe your nerves!

Listening Paper Overview

How long does it last?
The test lasts for about 30 minutes. There are five extra minutes of silence at the end of the tape for you to transfer your answers onto the answer sheet.

This Cambridge ESOL link will show you a brief overview of the listening test. Have a look at the duration, number of questions and distribution of tasks.

What skills are tested?
This is the question to bear in mind.

Read this article by Costas Gabrielatos. You will find a chart with information about each part of the Listening Paper. There are notes on:

Focus: which skills are tested

Format: how skills are tested

Procedure: how to organise your listening and note taking


How do I practice? What accents are spoken?
You will hear a variety of British accents. It is advisable to try to listen to BBC radio or other British sources frequently. That will make you feel more confident about your listening.

I believe that if most students listened to a paper without knowing the FCE tasks they are supposed to do, the overall impression would be that they understand native speakers much more. You could definitely have a successful conversation with them!

However, the listening paper will not test how many words you know or understand. Actually, you should expect some unkn
own words -or chunks- and still manage to perform the task. For example, if you are asked to infer how the speakers feel about an issue, intonation may be more important than the actual words used.


Now that you know the rules of the game, you are ready for some practice.

FCE Listening Online
Except for the FCE Handbook from the
Cambridge site, it is hard to find real FCE listening practice online. Here is a selection of sample listening papers:

The British Council site Learn English Professionals has a full listening test online.


More practice to be found here:

The site instructions are in Czech not in English, but it is easy to follow:

Related Post: Past Papers -FCE Handbook with mp3 listening

Earphone image source:

Monday, October 09, 2006

Sounds and Spelling

Under the SPELL of English

‘Dearest creature in Creation,
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
It will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye your dress you'll tear,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,...’

Sounds of English revisited
On a previous posting we discussed how to study the sounds of English and minimal pairs. At this learning stage, you probably find that some sounds are not so easy to produce just by hearing and imitating. It takes a bit of an extra effort to learn them -particularly those sounds that do not exist in our mother tongue. We need to analyse in more detail what is necessary to sound better and get rid of a strong foreign accent. Do not blame it on your vocal cords or lack of a musical ear: Point and manner of articulation have to be adjusted. It is amazing how different you can sound when you know a few tricks!

Here is a site from the University of Iowa that will clarify the mysteries of the production of English sounds. You will find audio, video and graphics with step-by-step description to guide you.
(You need Flash 7 or higher- Download here )

Pronunciation and spelling

Have you ever wondered how do native speakers learn to master English spelling at school? One of the methods is called Synthetic Phonics. Want to try learning like a child? Go ahead and give it a try!
You will see a chart with 10 practice steps of increasing difficulty. Click on a box, then, hover your mouse on the words to listen. These exercises will help you find regularities between spelling and sound. English spelling is not that unpredictable after all.

A bit of extra practice
This is just one page which organises contrastive sound practice with varied techniques. You needn’t go in order; you can create your learning route.
Includes 13 sound groups, practice with mp3 files. There are sentence dictations to do online and tongue twisters.

Just for fun...
Here are a couple of sites which collect poems on the craziness of English spelling.

Why do we need to focus on spelling when spell checkers can do it for you?
Just in case you think word processors can polish up your writing and you needn’t study spelling so much, have a look at these lines:

‘I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.’

Read the rest here:
(The title of this posting comes from one the poems here too)

Some stats
Did you know that the combination ough can be pronounced in 14 different ways?!

Check that here:

We have often felt puzzled with some listening exercise when we do not have a clue of what the speakers are saying. Then, we desperately go to the listening transcript only to find the difficult chunk was made up of very simple words. Why couldn't we understand something so easy! What do you think you need to improve? More listening practice? Perhaps.

Have you ever thought it can be as difficult the other way about? I mean, to understand the pronunciation and meaning reading the transcript first? Scroll down that same site above to find "Ladle Rat Rotten Hat". This is a classic, worldwide known story you will have to read aloud to understand (there is a translation if you give up). The key to making sense out of it is to think of the intonation, not the spelling. It's fun. Try reading the beginning:

Wants pawn term, dare worsed ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist.' Disk ladle orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut. Wan moaning, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut's murder colder inset."Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, heresy ladle basking winsome burden barter an shirker cockles. Tick disk ladle basking tutor cordage offer groin-murder how lifts honor udder site offer florist. [...]

(Hint: Once upon a time, there was a little girl...)

Have you guessed the title of the story? Can you get the meaning from the sounds or are you still under the spell of English spelling?

Related posting: Pronunciation Starter Pack


Monday, October 02, 2006

Paper 2 - SET BOOK

Preparing for the Set Book Option

Choosing your book
When we think of extensive reading we mean reading for pleasure. Of course it is not pleasurable to stop your reading to look up 20 new words in the dictionary per page! Take into account your level of English when choosing the books from the ESOL set texts –graded or full versions. Ideally you should be able to get a good hint at the meaning of the words from context and use the dictionary only for those unknown words which are a key to understanding the story. Predicting, guessing and carefully selecting words to further investigate are part of the skills you learn when reading longer texts.

Purpose of reading the set book: reading extensively
Cambridge list of set texts usually includes a number of classics. Students sometimes complain that those stories are set in a distant past, with past problems and 'old fashioned' vocabulary. Indeed if you want to learn how people speak today, there are other sources to go to –we discussed some options in a previous posting. Yet, there are countless advantages for language learners who acquire the habit of extensive reading. To mention but a few:

  • you can learn collocations
  • you can improve reading comprehension
  • you get lots of cultural information

Remember that good writers have always been great readers! Speaking of writing...

Let’s talk about the writing task

Is this one of the easiest or more difficult options in the writing paper?

If you choose it in the hope of finding an easy task, it is probably not one of the easiest options. It is true that you can think about what to say about the book beforehand. You will not have to think of something completely new to write about.

Do I have to remember the entire book?

Yes, you do. But remember the task is not about retelling. You will show evidence of your reading by briefly referring to relevant moments of the story- that is all.

Will there be any questions about the set book in the oral exam?


(For a complete oral exam sample go here).

Can I see the film instead of reading the book?

Films can be of help; however, they do not replace reading a book. Through a film, you access to someone else's reaction to the book. You will need to have your own opinions about the text to write your criticism.

How to read the book preparing for the set book option

Do your note taking while reading the book. Classify your notes with headings such as vocabulary to talk about the plot, setting or main characters.

Part 2 – Question 5: Analysing your options

Type of writing tasks

Sample Questions

You will have to produce an original piece, so it is not possible to have a ready made composition. But you can certainly have decided on a number of ideas about the story and characters. Your writing is a personal and critical view of the book. Your own reaction and evaluation of it is expected.

Where to find examples and sample answers

The Penguin Readers Teacher’s Guide to Preparing for FCE by Carolyn Walker (Pearson 1999) is a booklet written for teachers; however, students preparing the exam on their own can find it helpful.

You can download it here.

Pdf- 17 pages and 14 worksheets

This is a possible reading path:

Useful pages for students
Pages 6, 7 and 8 include brief descriptions of the type of text you will produce, style, target reader, organisation and content. A detailed analysis of your response to the book as well as exam tips.

Useful worksheets for students
2- FCE question types. The 10 examples given are taken from UCLES 1997- 1998 sessions.

3- A sample essay. Based on Wuthering Heights, it includes questions to analyse how the task was achieved.

5- Analysis of the plot. A chart to take your notes while reading.

10- Personality chart. There is a collection of adjectives to help you describe main characters.

14- Evaluating the book. Set of model sentences to include your opinion of the book.

All the examples and explanations in the Penguin Guide are based on the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Definitely one of my favourite novels. You can find the book and study notes here (Pdf available on the site).

Phillips, Brian and Bourneuf, Annie. SparkNote on Wuthering Heights. 1 Oct. 2006 .

Related post:
Background Reading Texts. Where to find the set texts online.