Cambridge English for Schools examinations
Cambridge English exams start from Cambridge English: Young Learners and follow a child’s language development right up to Cambridge English: Advanced and Cambridge English: Proficiency. Cambridge English: Key for Schools, Cambridge English: Preliminary for Schools and Cambridge English: First for Schools are designed for learners in secondary education. These exams are versions of Cambridge English: Key (KET), Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET) and Cambridge English: First (FCE). The exams for school-age learners have exactly the same format as the standard exams, and candidates receive the same certificates, but their content is more suitable for a younger age group.
The need for English exams for schoolchildren
When people take a Cambridge English exam, we ask them to give information about things like their first language and their age. This information has shown us that candidates at Cambridge English: Key and Cambridge English: Preliminary level are getting younger each year. There are several reasons for this. First, the teaching of English worldwide has improved a lot. Second, people start learning English from a younger age, and third, it is easier to access music, films, magazines etc. in English on the internet. Clearly it is important for us to offer exams which are suitable for this younger age group. However, there is also a need for exams for adults at the same levels of the CEFR. It became clear that there is a need for two exam papers – one for school-age learners and another for adults.
When the earliest ‘for Schools’ exams were developed, an important question was, ‘How different should these be from the existing exams?’ Rigorous research (Hackett 2009) was carried out, including a review of the literature on child development to look into what language tasks and questions children can and can’t do at various ages (Papp 2008). Exam results of candidates of different ages were also analysed. The research showed that learners of secondary school age can do the types of tasks and questions in Cambridge English: Key and Cambridge English: Preliminary at least as well as adult learners.
Designing exams for schoolchildren
From the research it was clear that the ‘for Schools’ exams can have the same types of tasks as in the versions for adult learners. The only change needed was to make the topics in the exams more suitable to school-age children. So, for example, questions on the topic of Food and Drink in ‘for Schools’ exams could be about choosing snacks for a party whereas questions for adults could be about paying the bill in a restaurant.
Helping children prepare for Cambridge English exams
Here are some important things to remember about Cambridge English exams, and what you as a parent can do to help your child prepare.
Cambridge exams test all four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Help and encourage your child to practise all of these skills.
In Listening tests, candidates do a range of tasks. For example, they choose the best answer from options (e.g. A, B, C and D), they match two lists (e.g. they match people to the food they like), or they fill in gaps with a word or words they hear on a recording. As well as practice tests, you can use the internet to find quizzes, games and activities where your child can listen and do similar activities.
In Speaking tests, candidates are asked questions about themselves. To help your child practise this, you could choose a time when your family speaks English and ask questions like ‘What did you do yesterday?’
Candidates are often given a picture to talk about. Ask your child to find pictures of everyday scenes or family photographs and ask them to talk about them in English.
In Cambridge English: Key for Schools and Cambridge English: Preliminary for Schools Speaking tests, children are asked to spell their surname. You could ask your child to spell their name and any new words they have learned at school. This also helps them with writing.
In the Reading papers, candidates need to read many different kinds of text. These are based on real-world texts. Encourage your child to read teen magazines, graphic novels, graded readers and short stories. In addition, they should also read factual information e.g. brochures, advertisements, instructions, signs, recipes, websites etc. Encourage your child to find out more about their hobbies in English and to read emails and blogs in English.
Candidates often need to write messages, emails or letters in the Writing papers. Try to encourage your child to do things like:
- regularly write in English to other English-speaking friends or relatives, if possible
- speak to the school about joining Penfriends
- communicate with other English speakers online (but ensure that they use the internet safely and never give away personal information online).
Candidates may also be asked to write a short story, an article or review. Look for writing competitions in English on the internet and encourage your child to get involved.
There is an essay question in Cambridge English: First for Schools Writing. A good way to help your child write essays is to encourage them to plan the essay. Ask, ‘What are you going to put in the introduction, the middle paragraph(s) and the conclusion?’ Cambridge English examiners check that an essay:
- is organised into paragraphs
- answers the question fully
- communicates ideas clearly
- contains a range of vocabulary and grammatical structures.
So if your child has written an essay for homework, you could go through it using this checklist.
Your child will feel much more prepared and confident about their exam if they know exactly what they will need to do. Our website has information about each exam, with sample papers and free resources. Please also see our official preparation materials. By preparing for a Cambridge English exam, we hope your child will develop their communication skills in English, not just for the exam but for life.
Hackett, E (2009) Adapting testing materials for younger learners: developing KET and PET for Schools exams, in Research Notes 36, Cambridge ESOL, 12–14.
Papp, S (2008) Factors influencing L2 development and use in the 8–14 age group – towards defining the construct, Cambridge English Language Assessment, Internal Research and Validation report, VR1114.