Preparation for Cambridge C2 Proficiency exam

Sharing my experience as a learner of English with our community of fellow teachers and students has been going over and over in my mind. In one of my very first entries, Cambridge English Qualifications, I promised to tell you. I don’t mean the very start from the very first English lesson of mine, which of course has meant the world to me. What I’d like you to join me in is the period of my learning journey which has marked a real milestone to me. This five-month period of preparation for Cambridge C2 Proficiency exam started the day I set my sights on taking a Cambridge examination.

How everything started

“You’ve got twelve-year experience in teaching. Your students respect you. You love teaching. Nonetheless, what level of English have you got? What Cambridge levels can you teach?″ asked a very dear to me person one day. I was speechless. That question did hurt my ego. “What about my teaching experience? Haven’t I got what it takes to prepare candidates for the Cambridge official examinations?”, I thought to myself. 

That day I overlooked one thing. I’m not a native-English speaker. Knowing what level of proficiency I have is paramount.  Moreover,  though I am indeed specialized in teaching this foreign language, living first-hand a Cambridge exam as a learner is priceless.  Any single word of advice I now give my students is based on what I’ve directly learnt and worked.

That autumn day, back in 2015, I was determined to find it out and to be much more prepared in helping Cambridge candidates to succeed.

Interested in finding out what level you have got

My very first move was to determine what level I had so that I know which one to head for. After a level test taken in a Language School, I was advised to go for Cambridge C2 Proficiency, formerly known as Cambridge English: Proficiency (CPE).

Next, I had to become familiar with the C2 Proficiency exam format and its timing. 

  • It is made up of four papers:
    1. Reading and Use of English: 7 parts,
    2. Writing: 2 parts,
    3. Listening: 4 parts, and
    4. Speaking, 3 parts.
  • It lasts around 3 hours.

English language teacher and learner's memoirs

Having armed myself with all I needed to succeed, I was ready to start my preparation for Cambridge C2 Proficiency exam. Long before everyone at home woke up, for two hours I had been studying, every single day of the week. I was determined to do it, and I was relishing the challenge I had taken on. This played a pivotal role. Love for learning must be first on anyone’s must-have list. And there I was, surrounded by my books and the warmth of the table lamp, a birthday gift from my mother. 

Cambridge C2 Proficiency learning tools

These were the books I was using:

  1. Cambridge English Grammar for CAE and Proficiency. Self-study grammar reference and practice
  2. Cambridge English Objective Proficiency. Second edition (study book)
  3. Cambridge English Proficiency Practice Tests, by Mark Harrison. Oxford University Press
  4. Proficiency Masterclass Exam Practice Workbook, by Kathy Gude and Michael Duckworth, Oxford University Press
  5. Success at Cambridge English Proficiency Writing. Tips and guidance for the CPE Writing test, by Anna Rowe (Kindle version)
  6. The English Learning Lounge App
  7. Crazy English Advanced I Proficiency, by George Sandford (Kindle version)

Crazy English was a ray of sunshine to me. I was learning by savouring every word or phrase I would come across. And they were not few.  “Juicy vocabulary” is indeed what makes this book stand out. 

Let’s move on to what I have done to reach the highest scale of the English language skills: listening, reading, spoken interaction and production, and writing. As a self-assessment orientation tool, I’ve used the self-assessment grid – Table 2 (CEFR 3.3): Common Reference levels 

My preparation for Cambridge C2 Proficiency exam

Working on listening skills

My goal

I have no difficulty in understanding any kind of spoken language, whether live or broadcast, even when delivered at fast native speed, provided I have some time to get familiar with the accent.

My move

Extensive listening every day. From National Geographic documentaries and TED Talks podcasts, series and films, to daily listening exam tasks with no exception. Exam tasks at dawn, the rest throughout the day. Being used to understand different accents was a must. What’s also worked for me was re-listening to the exam tasks tracks while doing any kind of house chores, commuting or walking, and trying to identify through the use of various discourse markers how, both stated and implied, speakers’ feelings, purpose, attitude and opinions were expressed. This did increase my comprehension.

Working on reading skills

My goal

I can understand long and complex factual and literary texts, appreciating distinctions of style. I can understand specialised articles and longer technical instructions, even when they do not relate to my field.

My move

Extensive reading, both for pleasure and C2 Proficiency exam reading tasks, were part of my daily English intake. Two exam tasks a day, after a cold water face wash,  and the rest along the day, mainly before going to bed and weekends. Books like Cross Justice, written by James Patterson, a popular thriller writer, and The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald were on my bedside table. The last one was chosen as set text for January 2016 until December 2017 exams. Why not kill two birds with one stone, enhancing my reading comprehension skills in the Reading and Use of English exam and being prepared to write, if so considered, the essay or the letter about The Great Gatsby, not to mention improving my vocabulary in general?  Carefully reading these books was valuable exam preparation.

In terms of Use of English preparation, given my educational background at the university, as well as my search for answers to provide my students with proper explanations to their tricky grammar and lexis questions, I did not definitely start from scratch. But you can’t imagine the range of grammar nuances that must be explored in C2 Proficiency. This, however, was the least of my worries. The highly academic and sophisticated vocabulary was the uphill struggle to satisfactorily at first, then, step by step, better and better dealing with exam tasks. The iron will of never throwing in the towel was the clue. 

Working on speaking skills

My goal

I can express myself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious
searching for expressions. I can use language flexibly and effectively for social and professional purposes. I can formulate ideas and opinions with precision and relate my contribution skilfully to those of other speakers.

I can present clear, detailed descriptions of complex subjects integrating sub-themes, developing particular points and rounding off with an appropriate conclusion

My move

I did need a professional. A teacher in search of a teacher. And there I was, engaged in conversations with my tutor, once a week. The topics were random and varied: climate change, refugee crisis, sustainability, the use of antibiotics on animals, globe-trotting, subcultures, childhood memories, embarrassing moments, good health, streaming services and their profits, and others. The latest events around the world at that moment and daily newspaper headlines were always on the table. I loved listening to and interacting with my teacher. 

There was one more thing I would do. I created mind maps on various topics. These theme diagrams were continuously updated with expressions I came across while reading and listening. What I used to do next was reading out a Speaking exam task and answering the question, trying to use the appropriate vocabulary, as much as I could, but still very careful not to overuse it and thus, making my speech unnatural.  Not only that, I would record myself. I had my own short podcasts! I was listening to them, trying to spot slips in pronunciation, and remembering the topic language likewise. Truth be told, listening to my voice was not my preference, though I had to 😉

Working on writing skills

My goal

I can express myself in clear, wellstructured text, expressing points of
view at some length. I can write about complex subjects in a letter, an essay or a report, underlining what I consider to be the salient issues. I can select style appropriate to the reader in mind..

My move

The book Success at Cambridge English Proficiency Writing. Tips and guidance for the CPE Writing test, by Anna Rowe, was just the thing for me. Twice a week I would write two pieces following the guidelines and the required checklist. I sent them to my tutor for assessment and feedback. What I found the hardest was the timing. In 1 hour and 30 minutes, candidates have a lot to do. Spending this time effectively and efficiently is crucial. Unless you have a strategy about how you will do each writing, you’d better find one.

Here is mine:

  • Part 1 A discursive essay

Read the instructions, underline key language in the both texts. Next,  think of my key message and jot down the arguments to back up the main points. Then, think of the order my arguments would be presented. All this took me up to 6 minutes. For the following 30 minutes, I would write the essay.

  • Part 2 A choice of four questions (2–5). For questions 2–4, you may have to write an article, a letter, a report or a review. For question 5, there may be an article, essay, letter, report or a review on one of the set books. 

Read the questions. Choose one. Consider the text type and the topic of the question, which for me was the best choice. Think of what key ideas to include and how I will structure my piece. This would last 5 minutes. Then, I wrote my answer for around 30 minutes.

Last but not least, for the remaining time, I checked for errors.

Writing a rough draft was not an option. No time to write the full answer then. One important practicality was writing on alternate lines. That way, I could cross out a word and write the corrected version above it. Amendments to the text are permitted.

Keeping a record track

My goal

I can reach an average of minimum 70% in each of the tasks in the two written papers, Reading and Use of English, and Listening by the time I register for the Cambridge C2 Proficiency exam session.

My move

It was paramount to see my progress in every single exam task. Here is the way I tracked my daily progress:

As you see, there were ups and downs. I’ve moved on despite all.

Setting pencil to paper

Just as I tracked my progress, I tracked my mistakes in the Reading and Use of English paper, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, by wisely noting down the correct forms and structures. Embracing mistakes is all-important. Learning by making mistakes and working on them is salient. A can-do attitude is a must. 

Apart from that, I was keeping and updating some more lists. Which ones? Here is my WORD BANK:

  • Valuable Insights. Here I would write a short summary of the main world events I had read of in the news. 
  • Speaking Expressions. Here I had useful expressions classified in groups like: expressing opinion, moving on, reacting and responding, adding,  agreeing, showing partial disagreement, giving counter-arguments, weighing things up, concluding my turn, and others. Not to mention the taboo words, e.g. well, I think, in my opinion, I agree with, maybe, I like, what do you think, for example, it depends, etc, and their corresponding words and phrases. 
  • Key Word Sentence Transformation. This table had three columns: original expression, key word, and its equivalent expression, e.g. Nobody wants to buy … – CALL – THERE IS NO CALL FOR …, do not trust … – WARY – FEEL VERY WARY OF …, etc
  • Word Formation. A list of alphabetically arranged words I had made orthography mistakes with, e.g. HAND, HIGH-HANDED manner (bossy), SINGLE-HANDEDLY (alone)
  • Catchy Language. A list of expressions classified into groups. E.g. Adjectives: a sweeping win; Verbs: to bamboozle the byers; Nouns: ubiquitous use of mobiles; Conjunctions: albeit (although), etc
  • Topic Vocabulary. I would like to share one with you:

So here I am, sharing my C2 Proficiency learning journey with you. Looking back at this experience, it was a rollercoaster of emotions. Now, I’ve relived them all, and I am proud of. Taking successfully the exam has been a turning point. It has taught me the know-how into preparing for and living first-hand a Cambridge examination.

It has been an odyssey worth embarking on. 

If you are interested in preparing yourself for the Cambridge C2 Proficiency, I hope you find something to take with you and start your journey.

Stay tuned for more words of advice and handy material!

Share article