How Cambridge Advanced and First exams have changed (or not!) by Shawn Severson

If you’re an IH Porto teacher you might be wondering, why does Shawn always change names of classes on Moodle and other materials? It’s a simple explanation, stemming from a series of changes at Cambridge English—not only have they changed the format of the exams, but they have also changed their
marketing strategy. Notice the name: Cambridge English. Firstly, the name has less to do with the university and with acronyms like ESOL. The same goes for the exams. FCE, what could that mean to someone who is not into language training? Thus, the names to be used are the key words which are more indicative of the level: Key, Preliminary, First, Advanced and Proficiency.

In the First and Advanced, some structural changes have occurred. The Reading & Use of English papers have been merged to shorten the exam. On one hand, this makes for a shorter exam day. On the other hand, it means that students have to be more efficient with their timing and balance their attention to grammar and reading. Also, the number of questions in some sections have been reduced, however the task may be quite similar.

In writing, some types have been removed, whereas there now is a guaranteed set task, which is the essay. It would seem this could guarantee greater consistency in marks, and the task is a useful one, given that an essay hinges on being able to explain a topic thoroughly. One drawback is that students will not be rewarded in that section for using formulaic language. Thus, added emphasis on discourse markers will be extremely relevant.

Another area which is becoming clearer and clearer relates to us directly as a school: the question is what is the “JUMP” between First (for Schools) and Advanced? The answer is that it is a big one. Thus, fast-tracking students through First to do the for Schools version, when they have an intention of doing Advanced needs to be analyzed with caution. Edite will be monitoring progression very carefully to avoid having candidates spend years in between exams, minimizing false hopes of super fast advancement, as some skills and the intellectual knowledge needed are not so fast to be acquired.

The last points refer to the new scales of certification provided by Cambridge, namely being conferred a higher or lower level than the test taken. Don’t forget all the new Cambridge Handbooks are in the Cambridge Exams folder of the IH Porto Handbook.


CARROT vs. CCOL? by Shawn Severson

I couldn’t believe that Cambridge had changed to 4 categories, CCOL, not that CARrOT is perfect, but it’s just really handy, giving you 5 categories. For me, it’s easier to give more European-style grades with more categories to grade on. Perhaps that is simply a gap in my assessment skills, but what I decided is that CARrOT is really just “my” system which rips apart the descriptors and makes them more teacher friendly. Yet, I thought I saw my marking safeguard fade
away, as the criteria was no longer valid.

Then it dawned on me: we are, in fact, assessing writing and the rubric is meant to help us, which it has in the last several years, perhaps back to 2007 or so when I came up with it. Furthermore, I looked at the new descriptors for First and Advanced, and they have somewhat puzzling descriptors for 4 and 2, which are “shares features of 5 and 3″ and “shares features of 3 and 1” respectively.

So, for this reason, until we have written our own clearer, more student-friendly descriptors and until we’ve also analyzed the latest Cambridge seminar work, we’ll leave the CARrOT in place to lead us along. Perhaps in the next year we could change and actually write a student explanation rubric sheet into more usable and accessible language. I think that CARrOT works for teachers and also
helps teach students about what is expected. In the near future, we might write
up some CCOooL specs so we all score uniformly and, of course, change the selfcalculating writing template accordingly!

If you want to learn more about CARrOT and CCOooL, contact Shawn.


Getting to the core of specialty exams: A look at the GRE – by Shawn Severson

There are many specialty exams out there, each, as the designation implies, focusing on a specific area and skill. Additionally, those exams prepared in the US, such as TOEFL and TOEIC on one hand, for testing non-native English ability and the GMAT and GRE, on the other, which incorporate serious timing constraints and even psychometric methods, ultimately measuring how the candidate responds under pressure. In other words, for these last two exams, the focus is to pinpoint the skills each candidate possesses and to minimize the influence of rote learning on test scores. Many arguments for and against these types of exams are out there. However, as these exams are carefully created to ensure a level of language, thinking skills and math, why don’t we take a look at one such exam—the GRE? The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is an exam to assess verbal, math and writing skills for those applying to Master’s or PhD programs at universities in the US and in an increasing number of universities around the world. Both presume native English speaking ability, especially in the case of GRE. Like the Cambridge exams, the GRE takes about 4 hours to complete.

On the other hand, the GRE is computer-based, which means that students have the added difficulty of not being able to mark on the exam paper, although they may make notes on scratch paper if they wish. Just for a taste of the exam, here are some of the most challenging words that keep appearing, interestingly enough, share a common theme: profligate, spendthrift, pecuniary, miserly, avarice, prodigal, squandering, rapacious, mercenary, acquisitive, niggard, parsimonious, penurious, stingy, munificent.

To give you an idea of one the exam types, chose two words from the options below that logically complete this sentence.

Despite having earned over two hundred million dollars during his career, the boxer’s _______ spending and bad investments left him insolvent within a few years of retirement.

a. parsimonious b. penurious c. perfidious d. prodigal e. profligate f. pugnacious

There are also critical reasoning and reading texts, which are very tricky in addition to two essays, one of which requires you to analyze an issue and another a short argument, commenting on the argument structure and logic. Here are a couple Analysis of an Issue writing prompts: “As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.” “In any field of endeavor, it is impossible to make a significant contribution without first being strongly influenced by past achievements within that field.”

Curious? We have a wealth of materials available electronically, and you can find out more at