Should ESL Exam Tutors Take the Test, Too?

Have you ever used Google Maps on your smart phone? Or some form of satellite navigation? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the concept. You type in a destination and a starting point, and you get routes. I love knowing exactly what to do whenever I’m going to an unfamiliar place.

If a sat nav gave vague directions like, “In 100 yards, you might need to turn right… but actually, I’m not sure so… Ummm… Yeah try turning right,” I would delete the app in a heartbeat. What about you? Would you trust it?

Unless you are a hardcore adventure lover and have loads of time to spend exploring your environs every time you need directions, I’m guessing that this vague app wouldn’t be your first choice, either. In a situation when it is critical for you to reach your destination, I’m willing to bet you would look for a well-rated, precise, accurate sat nav app.

Sat nav and tutoring for ESL exams like TOEFL iBT, IELTS, FCE, or any of the other acronyms that make palms sweaty worldwide… You’re the tutor. You’re the sat nav.

I have been asked by quite a few teachers, “Do I need to take the exam that I’m teaching?” My answer is all about that sat nav example. In all the years since I started teaching TOEFL iBT and of all the hundreds of students I’ve encountered, I remember exactly one student who was taking TOEFL iBT as a hobby. Bless his heart. I told him, “Respectfully… You need a different hobby.”

For the vast majority of students, ESL exams are not hobbies. They are necessary evils. They are a means to an end. They are “door openers,” if you will. Students approach shopping for an ESL tutor for an exam very much the way they would try out various sat nav apps. Anything that is vague gets discarded and deleted. Learners pay for tutors and courses for exams because they want the most direct route possible from their current level of English to their destination, their target exam score.

That’s exactly why teaching ESL exams should not be undertaken as a hobby for tutors or teachers, either. I’m biased. I think teaching exams should be your job, ideally a full-time job. (Full-time as opposed to part-time because you, as a teacher, develop a higher level of expertise, so much faster that way.) I strongly encourage you to commit completely because it guarantees that you’ll develop unique skills that few other teachers in the ESL community have.

Highly motivated students are willing to pay for TOEFL iBT or IELTS tutoring precisely because it is critical for them to get a specific score, and they have exhausted their ability to study on their own (or they have already discarded seemingly irrelevant tutors, programs or courses). Alternatively, they are new to the test but they have no interest in bumbling along. If they sense that you, as a tutor, are lacking confidence or certainty about how they should study, it’s highly unlikely that they will trust you enough to follow your recommendations. Vice versa, the more expertise you exude, the more influence you have with learners.

To teach exams in an ethical, non-sleazy way, I give you the following advice:

Take the exam that you’re going to teach. Understand it very, very thoroughly.

You may be wondering if it is really necessary. You already know what I think. Some of the teachers who are training with me in How to Teach Exams also feel it is important to be as knowledgeable and confident about TOEFL iBT and/or IELTS as possible. There really are teachers who pony up the money, register for the official exam, go sit amongst students, get sweaty palms and experience the real thing. If you choose to be one of them, you’ll get chosen more as a freelance ESL tutor, and you’ll have more authority and influence with your students.

If you are not in a position to take the real exam, take a realistic official practice test. Some like to start by learning about the test itself or doing some practice activities. The thing is, though, as a teacher, you cannot jump into the real thing too soon. Gather books. Compare editions and styles of activities. Do lots of assignments yourself so that you really understand what the exam requires from a test-taker.

Back in 2014, I got an email from a woman and her ESL tutor who had something of an emergency on their hands. After taking the TOEFL iBT 3 times, finishing multiple courses with various tutors and local schools, doing self-study, and even attending a fluency-building camp in England, this woman’s score had plateaued at 86. That didn’t stop her from being brilliant. In fact, she had been provisionally accepted to an Ivy League school in America… with a very generous scholarship… if and only if she could get her TOEFL iBT score to 100. She was intensely motivated and failure was not an option. So she and her tutor basically asked me to be the GPS sat nav. It was the first time I had guided another teacher and planned his lessons, but about 5 weeks later, the woman scored 103. Hello, scholarship! Hello, happiness! (That’s the short version. If you have an hour, to watch our full interview click here.)

My point in sharing this with you is to highlight that I could help them like that only because I had taken the exam, because I know it inside and out, and because tutoring for that exam became my full-time job.

If you were the learner, who would you want leading you? Whatever your answer is, that is the exam prep tutor you should focus on becoming.

Image Copyright: Katy Jackson.

Text Copyright: Jaime Miller

  • John Brewer

    Hello Jaime,

    I must say that I HATE tests. I never give them to my Business English students unless I am required to by the language company I freelance for or from the company I teach that. Having said that I also understand that tests are a “necessary evil” as you already mentioned in your blog post.

    If an ESL tutor is going to tutor any kind of standardized testing then they should know the test inside out as best as possible. That is one of the reasons I personally don’t tutor such things. So, I guess my short answer is “yes.” If a tutor is going to offer help in standardized testing of whatever kind, then they should take the test or the closest equivalent that they can afford.

    Very nice post. Thanks for the email asking us to take a look at it.

  • Isabela Sabbatini

    Hi, Jamie!

    Although I fully agree with your point, I also feel that not taking the exam you teach is a native speaker’s priviledge. English is my third language, and most employers in my country will only let you teach an exam you not only took, but excelled at. The same goes for students. One of the first questions I get asked when teaching Cambridge Young Learners is if I remember taking my test – that’s usually when I lose my ten-year-olds’ trust. I never took the YL, which didn’t even exist at the time. FCE, CAE and CPE students love hearing my annecdotes from the day I took each test and it gives them more confidence.
    Exam teaching is as varied as the range of students we get, but it has been my experience that, once you explain an accident of birth means you’re not a native speaker (never mind my Masters degree), you are required by students to have taken the test you teach.

  • Jonathan Huggins

    Thanks Jaime for this discussion. I have been preparing more and more students for TOEFL over the past year and despite using as many authentic materials from ETS and asking fellow teachers whenever I had any doubt about the test experience, I was always in the sat nav situation you described of not fully knowing what it was like until recently taking the exam myself a month ago.

    It finally put to rest any doubts I had about the techniques and strategies that I was encouraging my students to use, and when I got my results back I realized I could finally be a fully confident teacher who had proven himself. I got 28 in reading, 29 in listening, 30 in speaking, and 30 in writing, which was an overall score of 117. Since I primarily focus on giving my students feedback on their speaking and writing sections, I was really proud of those two scores. My reading score was a clear reminder that sometimes the questions aren’t completely obvious for native speakers, so I will continue to work on improving my reading strategies for both myself and my students.

    Overall, I definitely agree with you that professional exam trainers should be fully aware of the exam they are preparing their students to take because it will give both the teacher and student much more confidence to know that the teacher knows what he/she is talking about and that the advice can be trusted.