Monthly Archives: June 2014

Looking for support and ideas?

square peaceful waterFeeling a bit stuck?  

Can´t work out why your student is so demotivated?  

Not sure how to approach exam classes?  

Teaching Development is here to help you develop your students and yourself.  If you´re looking for support and ideas, you might be interested in:

Teaching a second language to a student with dyslexia, Part 1

How teachers can help dyslexic language students in the classroom, Part 2

Empowering your students: What makes me an effective learner?

make hole in wall-breakthrough

Tired of your students´ passivity and reliance on you as the teacher?  Wanting to get your students more involved in their learning process?  This article will help you understand why your students may not as yet be at the heart of their learning journey, and offer you one key activity to do with your students to set them on their way.

Empowering your students:  Managing Exam Stress

athlete pose 2

Many of us get stressed when taking exams.   Unfortunately, teachers sometimes have little training in this area to help  students .  This post will invite you to consider different cultural reasons for the build-up of stress in your students and will offer you six classroom activities to give your students the tools to alleviate their stress themselves and to help each other.

Process Approach to Writing IELTS Task 2 Essays

teenage-college-student-100103862Is writing often neglected in the EFL classroom?  Perhaps some teachers don’t consider it to be a ‘communicative’ activity or a priority for their students, while others don’t enjoy teaching or marking it.  Find out how to make writing lessons collaborative and productive by using a process approach.


puzzled man test

Student-made IELTS Reading quiz

Have you tried student-made quizzes only to realise that student’s aren’t that great at writing questions?  Have they turned out to be more trouble than they are worth? Well, that’s probably because they need some training.  Here’s a lesson idea that you can use to demystify the reading exam.

Empowering your students: Managing exam stress

By Fiona Deane

athlete pose 2Exams make many of us feel stressed.  For some students, stress helps them to achieve a higher mark.  For others, it turns into “distress” (Stanton, 1983) and  this negative stress on their mind (and body) can have an adverse effect on their exam performance, and equally importantly on their day to day life. Unfortunately, some teachers may not be given much training or guidance on how to support students whose stress has got out of control.

This post will:

1) Explain why your students might be experiencing exam stress

3) Discuss academic theory on the relationship between cognition and affect

3) Offer six different activities to help your students get to grips with their nerves

Young people and stress

In 2009,  the Guardian released alarming statistics from the Prince´s Trust regarding the wellbeing of young people in the UK.  Inargh! this report polled by the charity for its Youth Index Study, it reported that “more than a quarter (27%) said they were always or often down or depressed. Almost half of all those surveyed (47%) said they were regularly stressed.”  This is clearly not only a British phenomenon.  In the context of my sector, teaching English as a foreign language, I have witnessed young people experiencing stress as they grapple with living away from home, with managing their money, with establishing and developing new relationships and, in the context of this post, with preparing for international English exams such as CAE, TOEFL, IELTS or TOIEC.

Why do EFL students suffer from exam stress?

  • Economic reality

inflationWith the backdrop of the recession looming large and the workplace becoming more and more competitive, young people are bent on acquiring as many qualifications as possible.  Having one degree may no longer be enough.  This “qualification inflation” or “academic inflation” puts pressure on non-native English speaking students not only to improve their chosen career qualifications but also to gain a high level qualification in English, such as IELTS 6.5 or above or CAE.

  • Expectations

Students may be coming from a family or culture where there are high expectations of young people.   I have witnessed this in students coming from Asian cultures.  Specifically looking at Korea, Daniel Tudor (2012) says that “Confucianism´s power can be felt in the realm of the national obsession, education.   South Korea is famous of its unhealthy preoccupation with exam results and the pursuit of admission to the best universities.  This is a legacy of Confucianism´s injunction to self-improvement through education…”.  He also adds that “every year there are suicides of third-year high school students at the time of …the university entrance exam”. (For more articles on this, see The Guardian Weekly and BBC articles).

  • Lack of life experience 

Just this week, I carried out tutorials with my CAE preparation group.  A conversation with one of the group, a Swiss 19 year old past and futureyoung woman, has stayed with me.  As we reflected on what she was doing differently that had lead to improved results, she interestingly commented that she felt that she was learning how to deal with stress better.   She openly admitted that her high school exams hadn´t been difficult.  Now, she was required to pass CAE in a short time frame in order to be accepted onto a Primary Teacher Training programme.  This was her first experience of dealing with heightened exam pressure.  At the start of the course, she simply had not had the life skills to know how to deal with this.

  • Unhealthy study-life balance

overwhelmedIf they come from highly competitive societies, our students may have developed unbalanced study-life behavior patterns.  Returning to the example of Korea, Daniel Tudor (2012) suggests that childhood in Korea is sacrificed in order to gain the necessary marks that they need.  “Children enjoy relatively few opportunities to play and socialize with their peers.  According to research undertaken by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Korean children are among the worst in the world at social interaction  (thirty-fifth out of thirty-six countries surveyed).  In school, children are constantly tested and ranked, rather than taught to work with one another.  After the final bell, most are sent to hakwons (private language schools) …When school vacations come, children are not free to relax but instead spend more time in hakwons.”

Academic theory and stress: The Affective Filter

Affective filterFollowing the ideas of Stephen Krashen (1982), the Affective Filter Hypothesis describes how affective (emotional) factors have an effect on learning a second language (as can be seen in the diagram on the left).  Arnold (2009) tells us that “an affectively positive environment puts the brain in the optimal state for learning:  minimal stress and maximum engagement with the material to be learned.”  Thus, there would seem to be a strong relationship between cognition and “affect”.  Neuro-scientist  Joseph LeDoux (1996) claims that “minds without emotions are not really minds at all”.  Indeed, as NLP guru Anthony Robbins believes “80% of success in life is psychology, 20% is mechanics”.


Activities to help students deal better with their stress

oprah and mick

So what can we as teachers do to help our students with stress?  Here are six activities.   They are activities which focus on students developing their own self-reflection and meta-cognition (see my earlier post about this – Empowering your students:  what makes me an effective learner?)


  • Speaking activity:  Are you a good friend?

adviceAt the beginning of the course, students are asked to discuss what makes a good friend.  In a brainstorm on the board, the teacher elicits “giving good advice” or “being a good listener”.  You then tell students that a friend of theirs is excited but worried about moving to another country to go on a language course .  The class brainstorms what the student might be worried about and come up with solutions and practical suggestions to ensure the student enjoys their language study programme to the max (inspired from the student book of Ready for CAE (2008, Macmillan Exams)  by Roy Norris and Amanda French

This activity covertly encourages your students to make predictions about a stressful experience and to come up with solutions for an unknown other (which may be more comfortable than finding solutions for themselves).  It is a great window for you to see whether they can relate to such stress before and what solutions (or not) they already may have in place for themselves.

  • Self-reflection and prediction:  How do you predict you will perform in the exam?  

This is a more inductive approach carried out just before the mid term mock exam.  Students are asked first of all to reflect on their own experience of exam stress in their own countries.  Here, pressures of their education culture may rise to the surface.  Then they are asked to discuss  whether they think their performance in an upcoming mock exam may be affected by nerves (positively or negatively).  Students share what possible solutions they know of to reduce stress on their mock exam day.   Previous students have come up with ideas such as Steiner exercises, breathing exercises and yoga (I will share more of these ideas in a future post.)   Once the students have taken their exam and have their results, I then ask them to recall this discussion and to see if their predictions were right.  If they were different, they are asked to say why they are different.

  • Understanding the chemistry and biology of stress:  “Amy Cuddy´s power poses” 

I often use TED Talks with my EFL learners to improve their listening skills, to widen their vocabulary and to develop their summary abilities.   So at a significant point in the term, I ask students for homework to watch Amy Cuddy´s talk “Your body language shapes who you are” which explains how stress can manifest itself in the body and how we can reverse the effects of stress.   As part of the homework, the students are asked to take notes, be ready to give a summary of the talk (using some of the vocabulary chunks that Amy uses) and be ready to discuss their views.  This is an excellent presentation, made powerful by the images, scientific fact and the personalized story telling technique so common to many TED talks.  Because the topic is relevant to the speaker herself, it is easy for the students (particularly the girls) to identify with her.  So far, all my students have taken an interest in Amy´s ideas.  We then tried out Amy´s power poses before the next exams.  Each time my students have done this, there have been astoundingly improved results (about 10 – 15% higher marks).

  • Deep listening in one to one tutorials

Giving our students the opportunity to voice how they are feeling is crucial when dealing with stress.  Tutorials can arise spontaneously, when you recognize that a student would benefit from emergency remedial action, or on a systematic basis throughout the course.  Understanding why they may be experiencing stress (which could include some of the reasons given above) is important and this will most probably emerge through “deep listening” (Arnold, 2009); that is, focused listening in a non-judgmental and objective manner.   Being sympathetic to their story will validate their emotions (instead of causing them to hide them through shame).  It is also worth considering whether you feel the student may benefit from your school´s in-house counseling system, should the stress seem to be out of hand.

  • Students share reflections about their stress management to the whole group

In my last round of tutorials, students came up with some really excellent reflections on reasons for their progression, which were related to their own stress management.  I took noteclass discussion of the most useful points and then (with their permission) asked some of the students to share their reflections with the whole group.  For example, one student reported how they chose to walk into school the day of the exam, revising points quietly in their head as they walked (as opposed to coming in on the bus, surrounded by chatter in rush hour).  Another said how they found studying together made them feel less isolated.  This discussion involved very fruitful student collaboration benefitting both the “sharer” and the students who took on their ideas.

  • The last day before the exam: Student created games

20131129_123739It´s always tricky to know what to do the day before an exam.  Exam practice can be inadvisable since low marks can frighten students.  On my previous exam course, students requested that we left the classroom space to be in a more relaxed atmosphere.  We decided to go to a café.  In this group, two Korean students were particularly anxious about the exam the next day.  I took coloured paper to the café and asked the Koreans to teach the other (non-Asian) students to make some origami objects.  All the students became completely enthralled and lost in this activity.  It was a great distraction for both the student “teachers” and for those students learning the art of origami for the first time.


Do write to me and share any experiences and successes you have with stressed students.  The life skill of dealing with stress is such an important one in modern life.  As one of current exam students said to me recently:  “I have learnt so much more than just language on this course”.


References & Recommended Reading

Arnold J Affect in L2 Learning and Teaching (2009) Estudios de Linguistica inglesa aplicada

Arnold J Coaching Skills for Leaders in the Workplace (2009) Howtobooks

Brown B The Power of Vulnerability (2010) TED Talks

Gregoire C American Teens are even more stressed than Adults (2014) The Huffington Post

Chakrabarti R South Korea´s schools: long days, high results (2013) BBC News

Cuddy A Your body language shapes who you are (2012) TED Talks

Harmer J The Practice of English Language Teaching (2001) Pearson Education Ltd

Kim K et al Students´stress in China, Japan and Korea: a transcultural study ( 1997) International Journal of Social Psychiatry

Krashen S Principles & Practice in Second Language Aquisition (1982) University of Southern California

LeDoux J The Emotional Brain (1996) Simon & Schuster

Lightbown P. & Spada N How Languages are learned  (2006) Oxford

Norris R with French A Ready for CAE (2008) Macmillan Exams

O´Hara M Depression amount the young at alarming level says charity (2009) The Guardian

Oxford R Language Learning Strategies: An Update (1994)

Pert C Molecules of Emotion (1997) Simon & Schuster

Petty G Teaching Today A Practical Guide (1998) Nelson Thornes

Scharle A & Szabó A Learner Autonomy, A guide to developing learner responsibility (2000) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Senior R Korean students silenced by exams (2009) The Guardian Weekly

Stanton H E The Stress Factor: A Guide to More Relaxed Living (1983) Optima

Tudor D Korea The Impossible Country (2012) Tuttle Publishing

Student-made IELTS quiz

By Emma Claydon

Have you tried student-made quizzes only to realise that student’s aren’t that great at writing questions?  Have they turned out to be more trouble than they are worth? Well, that’s probably because they need  some training and the general content needs to be chosen by you.

puzzled man test


When learners are trained, student-made quizzes can help to:

  • foster a more enjoyable way of learning
  • practise all 4 skills
  • reduce anxiety towards test taking
  • give students more power over their learning

So here’s a lesson idea that I’ve used many times with my IELTS class and has really helped them to get to grips with the reading exam.

Lesson idea:  

Helping students prepare for the IELTS reading exam


Max class of 15 with 5 groups of 3 (Min class of 6 with 3 pairs, only 3 articles needed)

Lesson Aims: 

  • to practise reading strategies (making predictions, skimming and reading for detail)
  • to review the features of true, false, not given questions
  • to practise rephrasing parts of a text

Authentic Materials

Often when we’ve done tests or reading passages in class, I ask them where they would find articles like these and elicit publications such as The New Scientist, The Ecologist, The Economist and National Geographic or papers such as The Guardian.  For lower levels you could also use graded readers.

guardian article 1


I select 5 different texts between 700 and 950 words each to reflect the length of the exam texts from one of the above publications.  Each group will create questions for one article only so I print them a copy.  Then for each group I create a pack containing all the articles as they will need this is the second part of the lesson.

Step 1:  Review the exam format and question types

I start by eliciting what they know about the reading exam:

  • How many questions are there? (40)
  • How much time do you have? (60 minutes)
  • How many passages are there? (3)
  • How long is each passage? (700 – 950 words)
  • How many different question types are there? (14)
  • Can you name them?  (e.g. labeling a diagram, short answer questions, summary completion, sentence completion, true / false, yes / no etc.)

Then I ask which question types they have difficulty with and they usually say true/false and yes/no and summary completion.  I then elicit the difference between the two question types (yes / no questions are about the writer’s opinion whereas true/false are about facts in the text).  They also find three aspects challenging:

  • distinguishing between false and not given,
  • understanding the vocabulary in the question or the text
  • paraphrasing the question
  • employing reading strategies (predicating, skimming, scanning and reading for detail)

Then I refer back to the reading passage we recently did and elicit the strategy for true, false and not given:

  • The questions are in order in the text
  • You can make a false question true by making it negative
  • Not given means there is not enough information in the text to say with confidence if the answer is true or false.


true false ng qs

Step 2:  Practise reading strategies:  predicting and skimming

Each group then receives their own article. They read the title and make predictions about the content.  Then they skim by reading the first paragraph and the first sentence of the subsequent paragraphs.  They check their predictions and discuss what they understand about the overall topic of the text. Source:  Focus on IELTS

Step 3:  Reading for detail and selecting the areas to test

Then they read carefully and choose which areas of the text to test.  Once they have gone through the text and identified the areas then they have to write 4 or 5 questions (in text order) and on a separate piece of paper they record their answers with justifications.  They must do this together and not divide up the tasks.

Step 4:  Writing the questions

During this stage I ask if it’s ok to put some music on low so that they can discuss their questions at a normal level without whispering or getting distracted by others.  They all agree and I usually put on something relaxing.

They look back at the questions from the course book to see how they are written (as statements, using modals etc.).  They use dictionaries and discuss how to use parallel expressions, this is the most challenging part and I’ll go around monitoring and scaffolding where necessary.

Also I will discuss their questions with them, asking them to justify their answers but I try and not to help them too much.  Even if I see that they have created a false question when in fact it’s a not given, I’ll wait to see if the other students will figure this out which will lead to discussions at the feedback stage.  I try to focus on clarity and point out if the questions are too easy.

Once they have written their questions, I take pictures to display them on the IWB.  For classrooms without IWBs students can take pictures of the questions as they circulate as they will need them in the feedback stage.  Alternatively they could be photocopied.

Step 5:  Passing the questions round

Students are now ready to answer each other’s questions.  They receive a full set of the articles so that they can annotate each one as required.  Each group needs a third piece of paper where they will write the title of the article they are working on and their answers with their justification.  They need to discuss the questions and try to reach an agreement as a group.

feedback student made quiz board shot

Step 6:  Feedback on answers

Once they have passed around all the sets of questions, each group takes it in turn to come to the front and elicit the answers and checking where in the text they found their answers.   Students then discuss their answers and it can get quite heated.  Sometimes the authors got the answers wrong and their classmates got it right, but this is helpful and usually clarifies the difference between false and not given.

To round off we discuss what was difficult about the task:

  • writing good questions
  • limited by lack of vocabulary
  • ability to paraphrase
  • being caught out and really testing the difference between false / not given

Subsequent testing has shown improved results in students reading for detail and not just guessing the answers.  The actual score are not important instead the facilitation of student quizzes gets them to practise their skills in L2, develops /and consolidates lessons, encourages learner autonomy and makes lessons less teacher-centred.


  • Different question types e.g. short answer, sentence completion, multiple-choice
  • Here are the answers, what are the questions (looking back over the week to recycle lexical items or grammar points)
  • Creating gapped sentences for each other


Recommended Reading

Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Teaching Large Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess

Learner Autonomy: A Guide to Developing Learner Responsibility by Agota Scharle and Anita Szabo