Last December, I met Anna (not her real name). Anna was from Switzerland and urgently needed help to pass CPE, Cambridge’s C2 level exam. Anna worked as a high school teacher, and in Switzerland, high school teachers MUST pass CPE or they won’t be able to continue working in their school. There was no room for failure.
Anna had already taken CPE three times before she met me. Each time, she had failed. Frustratingly, her scores were inconsistent; in one exam she did well on the speaking paper and poorly on the writing; next time her speaking dived but her reading was strong. This confused Anna because she didn’t know why she was failing, or how to make sure she passed next time.
Anna only had a few months left before her license was taken away and she lost the job she loved. To make matters more complicated, she also had three small children under the age of six. A lot of her time was spent looking after them, and her English studies had to take second place.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Anna felt stressed out, anxious, tired and had no motivation for learning English when we met in an Italki lesson. In fact, she was starting to dislike English because of her struggle with CPE, and had developed a very negative mindset towards herself and her English abilities.
Because she had failed CPE so many times, Anna had formed the belief that she wasn’t ‘good enough’ to even consider taking CPE. This limiting belief affected the way she tackled the exam, her studies and even the way she felt about herself.
Anna’s biggest problems were with the writing, use of English and speaking papers.
Anna wasn’t planning her writing, so she didn’t know what she was going to write from one sentence to the next. Her essay and paragraph structures were weak and inconsistent so she struggled to include all the points Cambridge wanted, and her writing didn’t flow logically. All in all, Anna hated her writing! Together, we worked on using a reliable paragraph structure which made her writing easier for her to plan what she wanted to say as well as being easier to read. Once she could do this, the writing tasks felt more manageable, and Anna started to feel more in control of the writing process.
With the use of English, most of Anna’s problems came down to little faith in her ability to answer the questions. She often changed her mind, and would cross out right answers and change them for wrong ones! I taught her how to work out some of the answers logically, like you would with a maths question. For the questions that test collocation or idiomatic language, I helped her to see that if she really thought, very often she did know the right answer, she just didn’t believe in herself!
Like many learners, Anna’s biggest issue in the speaking exam was lack of confidence. She often said ‘I don’t belong at this level’ and would speak with a lot of hesitation when we practised the CPE tasks, even though she could chat very fluently at other times. Like many anxious learners, she was focusing on her mistakes and worrying about using advanced vocabulary and grammar. I helped her to switch her attention to her message; by focussing on what she wanted to say rather than worrying about how she said it, she was free to simply communicate.
We also did a lot of work on improving Anna’s mindset and belief system. I showed her how to notice when her thinking became too negative, and how to change that for more positive thinking.
Anna took CPE again early this year. After a couple of months, she emailed me to say she had passed and was so relieved because it meant she could concentrate on enjoying her job without worrying it would be taken away.
Anna’s problems with CPE were not really about her language level. She only had about fifteen lessons with me, and while I did help her strategies for the CPE tasks, a lot of the work we did was on transforming her mindset and belief systems to a more healthy state so that she could go into the exam and succeed.
From Sarah (https://www.italki.com/teacher/4216278)