La guía definitiva de los exámenes de inglés: cuál tomar según tus intereses y cómo prepararte para aprobar

Recopilamos en una sola entrega nuestra serie dedicada a los exámenes de inglés oficiales. Del First Certificate al Business English Certificate, te explicamos para qué sirve cada uno y cómo prepararte para aprobarlos.

Natalie Gommon

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Exámenes de inglés
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Los certificados de inglés que acreditan tu dominio de este idioma son requisitos indispensables para estudiar en Estados Unidos, el Reino Unido, Irlanda, Nueva Zelanda, Canadá y Australia. Además, cada vez más empresas los exigen en sus procesos de selección de personal. En Speak Up hemos cubierto en detalle este asunto, desde los tipos de exámenes existentes, hasta la preparación que conlleva aprobarlos. Hemos hecho una recopilación con los consejos más importantes. En inglés, para que practiques mientras te informas.

1. Which exam?

With the movement of workers and students around Europe, it became obvious that a standardised way to refer to language levels was needed, and so the European Council created a reference system for talking about language ability (not only English, other languages as well) called Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). All official exams make reference to the CEFR levels. There are six levels in total from A1 (elementary) to C2 (proficiency). When you are looking for official exams, you will see that some are level specific and other exams are multi-level. 

Types of Tests

A ‘qualification’ test is level based, this means that it is aimed at a specific level (for example First Certificate is a B2 level.) If you pass this test, you will receive a formal qualification with a certificate that retains its validity.

A multi-level test is a test that is the same for everyone, irrespective of their language level. On completion of the test you receive a score on a scale from 0-10 (or 1-100 in the case of BULATS and 0-120 in the case of TOEFL). The score you get is normally valid for two years!

Which is the Best?

Different exams are good for different purposes. For example, if you want to study in a university abroad, then you need to do either the IELTS or the TOEFL. If you want to use your English in a professional context, then maybe one of the Cambridge Business English Certificate  (BEC) exams or BULATS is more appropriate.

404 OFFICIAL EXAMS b

Tests such as IELTS, TOEFL and BULATS, are designed to take a snapshot of your level of English. You can take the test you choose whatever your level, and you will always receive a certificate which indicates your score. The certificates are usually valid for two years, but it is always a good idea to check with each individual test board for length of validity.

English Qualifications 

These types of exams are designed on a level basis. This means that you take an exam which matches your language level. For example, the First Certificate Exam is targeted for language learners with a B2 level, and the Cambridge Advanced Exam is targeted for language learners with a C1 level. If you pass your chosen exam, you will receive a certificate that counts as a qualification. Therefore, passing the First Certificate Exam means that you have a qualification that you can put on your CV and that will be valid forever. 

On the other hand, if you fail, you do not receive a certificate (unlike with the ‘level’ tests.) The Cambridge examining board has recently updated its information on the tests and exams available, so it is worth looking at their website.

Serious Fun

Whichever exam you decide to take, you must be aware that they require a financial investment and a significant investment in time. Apart from working on your English, you will also need a lot of work on exam technique so that you are very familiar with its format and the types of tasks that you are required to do.

Exámenes de inglés

2. BULATS to Succeed

This official exam works in a similar way to the better-known IELTS (International English Language Testing System.) It is a multi-level exam that is recognised in over seventy countries. Just like IELTS tests, BULATS tests are taken online and can be taken at different times in the year. The fact that the whole test is done online means that it is a quick and reliable way to acquire an officially recognised language level. The difference between these two diplomas is that BULATS is for professionals, students, and businesses who want to focus on improving their English for use in industry, commerce and businesses. On the other hand, IELTS is more generic. This means that the testing material has a professional focus.

What You Need to Do

In order to do one of these tests, you need to find a BULATS agent. These agents will inform you of the price (usually around 170 euros), which includes the fee to take the exam and weekly emails to help you prepare for the exam, although  other options exist which combine online assistance with some in-person classes. The agents can help you to understand the test format and can give you advice about how to prepare for the test.

How Long It Takes

There are three different online tests that cover the four skills: reading, listening, writing and speaking. The reading and listening test takes around an hour, and it adapts to your level as you are doing it, which is why the length of time it takes can vary. There are different sections to this test and it requires reading texts of approximately 250 words and listening to short recordings (usually these are played twice) and answering a multiple-choice question about each one.

The speaking test is completed via an interview which is recorded and then graded. It has various tasks that involve answering personal questions, reading aloud, describing a graph or some other work-related image, and answering questions related to a professional situation. For some of the tasks you will be given preparation time of up to one minute. The whole interview takes about fifteen minutes.

The written test takes about 45 minutes and consists of two parts. In the first part candidates write a short email, which is worth approximately 33% of the written grade. Part two involves a longer text of 180-200 words and is worth about 67% of the written grade.

How to Prepare for the Test

There is online support in the form of practice tests and tips on how to best prepare for each section of the test, and the Cambridge website can guide you on the different options available. It is also possible to do preparation in the form of classes at official centres.

Of course, even if you are not sure if you want to do a test, your learning can start today! Make English part of your everyday life, listen to the BBC World Service New Bulletins, or BBC Six Minute English, go to the Cambridge website and try out some of the practice tests and see how you do, or simply sit and watch a film in English… with English subtitles if necessary!

Exámenes de inglés

3. Let’s Get Speaking

Are you planning to do one of the official tests? Then you must bear in mind that the speaking section is a very important part of all of them. Some tests involve a face-to-face interview with an examiner, while others involve recording various tasks, which are then sent to an examiner to grade. In order to improve speaking skills we need to have a good set of language structures and vocabulary and we need to have lots of practice.

Practice Makes Perfect

I am an English teacher. I started teaching in 1995 so I have been teaching for over twenty years. One of the most common questions that students ask me is ‘How can I improve my speaking?’ The best way to improve speaking is, of course, by speaking a lot. But, again, this is easier said than done. So here are a few tips. They may seem simple, but that’s the point!

Just Write 

Write anything: your shopping list, a diary, a description of your daily routine, or even descriptions of friends or family. Writing is a productive skill. Like speaking, the big difference is that with writing you have more time to produce the language. This means you can look up words, or experiment with more complex grammatical structures. If you can find someone to correct what you write, even better!

Let's get speaking

Think 

This is free, easy and you can do it any time of the day! Make an effort to actively think in English as you walk down the street or sit on the train. An example might be: ‘Look at that man. I like his hat, but he needs a haircut’ or ‘I am hungry, I’m going to go to the supermarket. What shall I buy?’ or ‘I am tired. I don’t want to go to work. I would prefer to be on a beach in Bali’.

Speak (of course!)

Find a conversation partner. You can find a friend to speak English with; even if this friend is not a native English speaker. It doesn’t matter! It’s better to speak English and get those English neurons in the brain working as often as possible.

Speak More (Naturally!)

Find a language exchange partner. Internet makes this easy. Even if you live in a rural area, you can do this via an online video chat. Language exchange usually involves speaking half the time in English and half the time in the language the other person is learning. It is a good idea to ask the other person to note down your errors so that they can correct you.

4. Let’s Get Reading!

When I was learning French thirty years ago, if I wanted to find a text in French, I had to go to the (very small) French section in the local library in Wallington, Surrey. It contained four novels, a dictionary, and a guide on how to build a model aeroplane with matchsticks. Nowadays, if you want to read a text in any language, it is as easy as picking up your phone. Here are some tips about how you can use technology to help you improve your reading skills in English.

New Settings

Change your search engine setting to only find texts in English. Whether you are planning a trip, or looking for flights, or deciding which film to watch, changing your search to English is a good way of making English part of your everyday life.

Go Online

Find an online magazine or blog related to one of your personal interests. It is good to read the blog entries and also the comments section where people write in. Obviously, you have to bear in mind that there might be spelling mistakes or grammar issues, but sometimes the comments section is a lot of fun and you might even want to write a comment yourself.

Technology

Switch your devices to English; this can include your phone, your laptop, or your smart TV. You should also watch your favourite series in English with English subtitles. This gives you reading and listening practice.

Audiobooks

Invest in a few graded readers. What are these? Graded readers are level-specific books for adult language learners. Most of the large publishers like Macmillan, Cambridge and Oxford have a wide selection available. This means you can read a novel or a work of non-fiction at your language level. Most graded readers now come with downloadable audio too which is great for extra listening practice. If you have a Kindle or another electronic reading device, you can easily access the books and create a dictionary to help build your vocabulary.

How do I practice

5. Let’s Get Listening!

My first English teaching job was in Greece in a small village called Makrakomi. Every day, I used to get the bus from the town to the small village. During those forty-minute rides, with the bus full of people chatting, I was totally immersed in Greek. I didn’t understand anything of course, but after ten months of bus rides, a very good phrase book, and a very patient Greek friend, I had enough Greek to get by. When I returned to London, a very strange and surprising thing happened. I heard Greek everywhere. I heard Greek at pubs, on the train ride to London, and even in the local Italian restaurant.

Good Noise

What had happened? Had everyone suddenly started speaking Greek in London? Of course not. What had actually happened was that my brain was so used to hearing Greek as background noise, it ‘translated’ the sounds into Greek words that I knew. The effect only lasted a few days, but it was evidence of the fact that our brains are programmed to process language. An idea held by many linguists and language experts.

Food for Your Brain

If we want to improve our understanding of a foreign language, we need to feed our brains with as much input as possible. To improve listening, we need to listen, and not just once a week, but every day. Nowadays, the internet gives us a wealth of English to listen to, but sometimes there are so many options it is difficult to know where to start.  

BBC for Learners

One thing I always recommend to my students is the BBC World Service Radio. In order to use the digital version on your device, you need to download the BBC iPlayer for radio. This is a free app which you can use to access all the BBC radio channels. There are hundreds of interesting programmes covering many subjects. Two of the programmes I recommend to my students are: Six Minute English – an interview or documentary for language learners (B1 upwards); and Outlook – a programme of true life stories from around the world.

How od I practice for

A Daily Dose

When you start your daily diet of English radio, there are a few things you must consider. Improving your listening is a slow process, so be patient. When you listen, you need to accept that you will probably not understand every single word, and that’s fine. Focus on what you do understand instead of getting distracted by what you don’t understand.

Apart from the radio, YouTube has millions of videos to choose from. Watching your favourite TV series in English is also an excellent way to get your daily dose of English.

Chaos is Good

Learning a language is an organic process, so whatever your goal is, the important thing to remember is that you need to practise every day. Like my daily bus ride to Makrakomi, which gave my brain lots of input to help it start making sense of the chaos of a foreign language, make English part of your daily life and you can’t go wrong.

6. Let’s Get Writing!

If you are going to do an official test or exam, the writing paper is something that can’t be ignored. You must be aware of the types of writing tasks that you need to do. Unlike free writing, you cannot simply sit down and write whatever comes into your head. You must study and practise the task types. This means knowing what you have to write and who you are writing for. In preparation for a writing test or examination, it is also vital that you have some kind of instruction in this process whether this be a private teacher, an online correction service, a language school or a very good friend with advanced level English.

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