Tuesday, 25 April 2017

A New Series About Exam Tips - The Last Mock Exams You'll Need

We're getting really to the end of the revision period: D-Day is just around the corner.

There's a light at the end of the tunnel!

If you're looking for a last set of mock papers to try that won't crush any confidence that was starting to emerge at this late stage, then look at these two papers.

One of them is a Paper 2 from October/November 2015, and the other is a recent Paper 3 from November 2016.

To my mind, these are the most straightforward sets of papers I've seen in my experience as an examiner and tutor, and should provide your student with a boost of confidence that, yes, they can do this!!!

Thank you to the IGCSE Centre for uploading a huge supply of past papers for students to practise. If the link doesn't work, just let me know via the contact form to the right.

0500_w15_in_21.pdf - https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0BzumkDfi9230OHljR09iZkk4M3M
0500_w15_qp_21.pdf -


And perhaps all that's left to say is best of luck to all those CIE students out there who are sitting their English Language exams within the next fortnight. Just remember: BREATHE! I mean, literally: breathe! It will get oxygen going to your brain, and you'll think more clearly.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips - Doing Things in the Right Order

No matter how many times I teach my crammer students that a certain CIE question is best answered with five distinct steps, they will still insist on doing the steps out of order or leaving some of them out.

Today, my son helped me make a video to stress the importance of doing things in the right order.

You can find it at this link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZUG4GKkdEk

If there's a recipe,
follow the steps in the right order

At the risk of over-explaining the video, I'm going to describe what's happening in it. (The time-lapse feature means sometimes it's hard to follow)

  1. First, he tries to make porridge by putting the bowl in the microwave -- empty!
  2. Then he puts in the milk, and while I'm getting the oats, he also adds honey.
  3. I give him a fresh bowl, and he pours all the oats into the bowl. I mean, ALL the oats!
  4. So, we take oats back out and pour in only the right amount. (This is important for the specific question, which wants only small selections of text).
  5. Now the milk goes in. 
  6. Then we cook it -- this is relevant to taking time to think about it! 
  7. Finally, the honey goes in, making a nice and scrummy breakfast, and the result gets a 10 out of 10 (My sign that says this isn't readable on the video).

If you're one of my crammer students, you'll know exactly which question I'm talking about (and exactly which super-secret technique I'm referring to), but even if you're not "in the know" on the details, the fact remains: some things just need to be done in the right order!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- Importance of Routine

I'm a huge believer in routines, just for life and living in general. However, when it comes to academics in our household, routine is one of our foundational principles.

Regular times for school help concentration

This is partly because we are followers of the Charlotte Mason method, and Miss Mason's motto was "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life." In other words, she includes routine - or "discipline" - in the very basis of her educational theories, and I've found that a regular routine of working on academics together in our home school has a huge impact on our successes or our relative failures.

When we sit down to read our books together every day at 10 am, but kids come ready to learn, to concentrate, to discuss, and to focus. If we fall out of this routine, the kids really struggle to learn on the same level. They get a bit silly, they interrupt, they're distracted. We lose the thread of our books and have to review things that they knew just last week. Somehow, it's all too haphazard to take seriously and to retain.

Not one of our better study days ...

Not just in our studies, but in the children's sports, too. They find that training the same day every day has really helped their bodies to respond to harder, longer, focused exercise, and as swimmers, to build on technique day by day. If they have races and these occur during the same times of day as their training, such as often happens with finals, they are able to compete at a level that they never experienced before, when their training times were less regular.

Training routines in sport gets results,
so why not apply it to revision, too?

And so, we come to exam revision. Having a regular routine for revision means that the body and the mind become accustomed to that subject and that time of day, and the ability to move forward is increased.

There's even an argument to start thinking about mimicking the exam schedule, say, by studying English from 9 am if that's the time when the exam is going to occur.

If you'll have more than one subject occurring at 9 am, then perhaps change from day to day which one you're doing at 9 am, but the important thing is, that exam is going to be at 9 am, and if your teen has never started studying at that time of the morning, he or she will be unlikely to perform at optimum compared to the person who has trained for this moment in advance.

The knock-on effect to setting a routine will include bedtimes (see the earlier tip about getting to sleep the night before the exam), wake-up times, getting used to eating a good breakfast, limiting electronic use in the evenings, etc.

Regular sleep routines are
an important part of revision

The more you can do to mimic exam day in the month before the exam, the better prepared your teen will be in mind, body, and spirit, so setting routines will play an important role in that success.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A New Series About Exam Tips - Getting a Good Night's Sleep

Getting that good night’s sleep the night before an exam — impossible, right? Well, here are some ideas that might help.

It looks so easy, doesn't it?

One of the things that will help get to sleep is eating foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, since these will in turn help your body manufacture the sleep hormone, melatonin. These include dairy products like cheese, yoghurt, milk, as well as nuts, seeds, meat, and even tofu.

On the other hand, bright flashing lights and back-lit screens from television, tablets, and other electronic devices have been shown to suppress melatonin production. They emit "blue light" which your brain interprets as daylight, so turning these off nice and early - say, 5 pm - would be a good idea if you’re wanting to get to sleep early.

Electronics can inhibit sleep hormones

To my mind, though, one of the key things to do is start a regular bedtime routine in the month before the exam period. It doesn't take long for your body clock to shift and expect earlier bedtimes, especially if you couple that with early rising. Just by making it a habit, you'll be more likely to be tired when it's time for bed.

Here are some other things suggested by a sleep specialist called Dr Adler:
  • Avoid caffeine after noon the day before the event/exam.
  • Light exercise can be helpful, but don’t overdo it.
  • Don’t overeat the evening before.
  • Listening to relaxing music can be helpful; hard rock might not be a good choice.
  • A shower or bath is sometimes helpful (try adding lavender oil, too!). 
  • If you can’t sleep, don’t try to fill the time with further studying. It can be helpful to go to bed even if you don’t think you are going to be able to fall asleep. 

If you don't know it by now,
you're not going to. Go to bed!

Finally, here’s the best tactic of all - simply don’t worry about it. Yes! Don’t worry!

How can I say that? Well, studies show that an occasional bad night isn’t really that big of a deal, and you can actually function just fine if you don’t manage to sleep the night before your exam.

Paradoxically, keeping this in mind may actually help you to sleep after all, since the pressure is off in terms of that good night’s sleep.

A New Series About Exam Tips - Tell Me About Pens

Here's a question that was recently posed on one of the exam chat boards: what's the best pen to use for the exams.

Beautiful but not really practical!

With the English Language exam, it's really important that you have a a nice strong line with a fine nib and no bleed through.

I've just been marking my crammer students' mocks, and those with a weak line are very hard to read. This will necessarily hurt a student's grade, because much of what an examiner is looking for is fluency of expression. If instead he/she is having to decipher each word, the fluidity of the sentence is compromised.

On the other hand, a pen that bleeds through is equally bad. Exam scripts are now scanned into a computer for examiners to mark on the screen, and if a student has bleed-through on the script, it's also really hard to read (and they're hard enough on the computer as it is!).

Basically, the more clarity with a student's answers in terms of handwriting and pen choice, the more likely the script will avoid unnecessary limitations on its clarity and fluency.

For all these reasons, I recommend the finest line such as a 0.4 mm because letters are formed more clearly. This black Stabilo Fineliner is my favourite:


(this is not an affiliate link!)

Whichever pen you decide to use, your student needs to start using it as soon as possible, and as much as possible. Not only is it important for getting the "feel" of it, but people so rarely write these days as opposed to typing on a keyboard, that certain muscles need building up in the hand before spending two hours writing with a pen.

Think of it as another kind of training that you need for the exam!

The lost skill of handwriting!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- Practise Reading the Questions Right

If I had only one tip to give a student, it would be this one: read the question!

Even though I give my revision students a mantra about remembering to read questions carefully, they will still create or manufacture their own version of what the question is asking, and thus, end up NOT answering the question at all.

Just a slight alteration to the starting point
can mean you miss the goal entirely!

It happens all the time in the exam. The question can be about an early morning stroll through the town, but students will write instead about what it's like at night, or what it's like to walk into the country from the city, or write about the city in two different seasons.

Or, it can ask what a father should do about his child's experience at school, but the answer is turned into a diatribe against modern educational practices.

For an exam that tallies 50 out of 100 marks for how well you can read, it would make sense to avoid sabotaging your grade by breezing over the question and misinterpreting it.

Here are some quick tips to help you with this niggling weakness:

  1. Take your time with the question; if you tend to read it too quickly, then make yourself underline each word as you say it to yourself within your head.
  2. Jot down a re-wording of it on the question paper.
  3. Grab a big pile of old exams, even those before June 2015, and talk over the questions with your parents or a study partner.
  4. For the composition section of Paper 3, don't expect to memorise and re-create a description or story that you practised as part of your revision season. The examiners know, and nine times out of ten, will be too awkward for fitting the task and merit only a "C" at best. AT BEST!
Basically, don't be a doof. The question is as important as your answer, if only to set you on the right path.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A New Series about Exam Tips -- Start at the End?

When I mark exams, I have to be honest that I like to start with the last question and work my way back to Question 1, whether it's the reading or the writing paper.

I'm not sure why I like to do this. I think it's because all the other questions are more cut-and-dried or enjoyable, while the Question 1s sometimes feel like nails on a chalkboard to me.

For the exam candidate, there are some good reasons for freeing yourself from the normal conventions. In the reading paper, for example, that Question 3 listing is something you can do in a fairly short time frame, and the subsequent summary should be churned out just as fast as you can write.

Free yourself from convention

Both these parts of Question 3 get easier and faster the more you practise them, so I just keeping thinking: why not grab some quick points in a short time frame, and leave yourself to ponder the more laborious Question 1 with some points already in the bag?

There are more complex and detailed reasons for starting back-to-front, and there are more timing tips and explanations I could heap upon you, but for the real nitty-gritty about why a backwards approach might be superior, I'm afraid you'll just have to sign up for one of my crammer courses and get the full picture in the Day Four webinar!

Just one final point: if you're going to work back-to-front in the exam, start doing it in your revisions, too.