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Tips for Preparing Montessori Students for Cambridge Exam

About me:  My name is Kimberly Sharon Winters and I have been working in the educational field for 13 years. I am currently the English Coordinator at Montessori de la Condesa, located in Mexico City.  This is my third year at the school and I enjoy working in Montessori.  I have been able to take several courses about Montessori philosophy and I plan on continuing to grow professionally in the field.  I have a Master's Degree in Education and a diploma in Management in Educational Institutions. 





Exams in Montessori


In Montessori, unlike traditional and other school systems, exams are not given to

students. Depending on the country or district, many schools are under the jurisdiction of a

federal or state Board of Education that has certain assessment requirements. In our case,

there are moments throughout the school year that we must evaluate our students on a

quantitative basis. For example, the SEP (Secretary of Public Education) might have

students evaluated by subjects (math, history etc.) with exam formats that must be

administered by the Guides or Elementary Coordinator.


At Montessori schools, children are evaluated qualitatively through topics and

presentations that are seen throughout the school year. Spanish Guides and English

teachers constantly observe their students to be able to keep track of their progress and

interests to determine the moments that the children are ready for presentations of content.

Guides and English Teachers also prepare students for their secondary school admissions

exams and this is when we begin to notice certain characteristics of our students.


Surprisingly, even though our students demonstrate so much confidence in their

research, findings and passion for learning, admission exams to secondary schools can

sometimes be a process in which they feel nervous, pressured or begin to think that they “do

not know enough.” In some cases, parents have reported that their children have received

low scores on these exams and have to review several concepts before getting accepted

into another institution. This really surprised me, due to the fact that our students not only

cover a wide range of presentations (from all subjects) but with a methodology that allows

them to enjoy the learning process. At Montessori schools, children discover and manipulate

specialized material to have a concrete understanding of concepts and are allowed deep

periods of concentration to work on projects or complete tasks.


I have worked at other non-Montessori schools in which children are inundated with

books and spend hours completing workbook pages. Even though they have completed

hours of work and were required to take monthly or bimonthly exams, there was never a

guarantee that they would all pass. How can an exam be able to affect our Montessori

students ́ confidence in learning and make them doubt their own knowledge on topics seen

during their primary years? I understand that this is just in some cases, but what can we do

about it?



Empower your Montessori Students


Our school has been offering Cambridge accreditations implemented by previous

English coordinators for several years. When I heard that I had the opportunity to continue

as a preparation center, I was very pleased since I had experience working with Cambridge

preparation courses. My students have amazing personalities and every chance I have an

opportunity to work with them or see their progress, they never cease to surprise me. I know

that the Cambridge certification process is a great opportunity for our students to

demonstrate the language abilities that they have acquired through many years of being in

contact with the English language. Not only do they have contact with English at school, but

also at home and when they travel to different parts of the world communicating with others

and applying their skills in real life situations. Some of our students are not only bilingual but

multilingual! There are several universities that offer English certifications, but in particular,

one advantage that I see of having a Cambridge certification is the fact that the certificates

are valid for life, meaning they do not need to be renewed every certain amount of years or

periods of time. Students also have the opportunity to advance in their language skills by

taking the next level of the certification, with levels ranging from A1 to C2.


At our school, we offer Cambridge preparation for our upper primary students. At

first, I decided to only offer the exam for 5th and 6th graders (basically to give 4th graders a

chance to adapt to the transition from Workshop I into Workshop II) but after conversing with

parents and students, many of them thought it would be a great opportunity if they began to

take the certification exam in 4th grade. Having made this modification, all upper primary

students are welcome to begin the certification preparation process. Our school offers all

levels of Young Learners (Starters, Movers and Flyers), KEY, Preliminary and even First

Certificate! Every year, we have had at least one or two students that are able to take and

accredit their FCE (First Certificate). This is a very ambitious goal, but I trust our students'

abilities. If students, after having taken their diagnostic exam, demonstrate they are ready

for an advanced level, why not give them the opportunity to obtain a B2 certificate?


The most important part of this process is for children to be able to believe in

themselves and celebrate, no matter what level of English they may have, everything that

they have internally achieved in their learning process with a second or even third language.

Children should be proud because learning new languages opens doors for many

opportunities throughout their lives.



Diagnostics and Results


We apply diagnostic evaluations for Cambridge in the month of December for several

reasons. First, it allows students to have several months in the first period of evaluation to

be able to refresh, review and continue to learn new concepts in English. Next, our in-

person parent interviews are in December, so the Guides and English teachers will be able

to give parents feedback on their children’s progress. Also, December is a month in which

children will be out on vacation, so it gives me a moment to be able to see them one on one,

check in with how they are doing and give them the opportunity to take their diagnostic

evaluation before taking a break from school and extracurricular activities.


The English teachers and I plan out the process for diagnostic evaluations to make

sure all of the students are able to take the diagnostic during a moment in which they are

allowed to concentrate and have time to complete the process without rushing or being

distracted. We make a record sheet of their results and review them one by one, to make

sure the children are at the appropriate testing level. In some cases, we might need to retest

them for a level above or below, depending on their results.


Each school has a different way of applying diagnostics evaluations for the

Cambridge certification process. I highly recommend going onto the Cambridge official

website to download free mock exams so the students have an opportunity to take an actual

version of the exam. There is also a free link that has an online diagnostic (which has

around 20 to 25 questions) which will give you a range of their level. Even though the online

diagnostic is able to give you this information, it is very important for the students to take a

mock exam so you can identify their level with greater accuracy. Sometimes children can be

in between two levels. For example, if students score well on the KEY mock exam (90-

100%), why not check their Preliminary levels in all areas (reading, writing, listening and

speaking) before making a final decision of what exam they should take?


The Cambridge certification exams take around 1 and a half up to 2 hours to

complete all areas including reading, writing, listening and speaking. Due to time constraints

and not wanting to “tire out" our students with the whole process, we only apply the reading

and writing section. If we decide to retest a student for an upcoming level, we apply the

other parts of the exam (listening and speaking) since it will give us more insight to see if

they are prepared or not. This year, alongside with my assistant Coordinator, we made a

precise record sheet that not only demonstrated the final result per student, but also how

many total correct answers per section (Part I, Part II, Part III, etc.). This record sheet has

been a useful tool in the preparation course because we can help students with a particular

section of the test according to their results. We can give students exercises, so that they

can practice the task and reinforce it.


Communication is the key to success. Before applying any diagnostic evaluation, my

team and I discuss the procedures of the diagnostic evaluations with all of the children in

Workshop II. We explain, in a group circle per environment, that we want everyone to do

their best, the certification is optional and to not compare anyone’s level. We are all different

individuals and our objective is just for us and you, to identify where you are at with your

English language proficiency. We allow the children to ask any questions and we also

inform them of their level once the diagnostic process has concluded for all students in

Workshop II.


Having planned the logistics of the diagnostic evaluations and given the information

to the Guides, we begin our two to three week process of administering the evaluations to all

of the students ages 10-12. For students that are absent in December, we allow them to

take the diagnostic evaluation in January. Once the final results are complete, we email

each parent individually with their children’s results, so they have time to review their

children’s level and give parents an opportunity to have an online or in person meeting with

me, should they have any doubts.



Parents and Children must be on the same page…


As schools, we have all types of parents with different backgrounds and expectations

for their children, but there are a few things we must make clear: first, the importance that

the child wants to participate in the Cambridge certification process. When talking with

parents, I emphasize that they ask their children how they feel, support them and as a team,

we can ensure the process is a great experience that will demonstrate to them that they can

do it!


Second, make sure to give parents very clear information about what levels of

Cambridge exams your institution is going to offer. Third, it is important to explain that

children will not always go from one band (level) to another by the next school year. For

example, if a child takes the KEY exam one school year, it does not necessarily mean that

they will be able to take the Preliminary exam the following year. Sometimes children

require one or even two more school years before presenting at the next level. The most

important aspect is to make sure the children are taking the appropriate exam, so the exam

won't be too easy or too difficult. Cambridge provides many manuals for teachers to

become familiar with applying diagnostic evaluations to ensure students are ready to take a

specific level.


From my experience, I have observed the following:


● If a child takes a diagnostic evaluation (mock exam) and gets at least 50% of the

overall questions correct, they can take that level’s exam but will require follow up

practice exercises.

● If a child gets 90 - 100% on a level, it is recommended to check if they are ready for

the following band (level).

● If they get 50% or more, on the next level, talk with them and their parents, to see

their level of commitment.

○ Are they up for a challenge or do they prefer to take the level that they

already have mastered?

○ Sometimes children decide to take the exam that they know they will pass

without any extra effort and some children want a challenge.

○ Whatever their decision, I find it important to respect it and support them all

along the way.


Montessori students are unique and unlike any other student. I admire them with my

whole heart. Just as they have a passion for learning, I have a passion for teaching them.

The first day of the preparation course is our day of induction in which I give them the most

empowering words. I tell them that they are ready for this; they are going to be able to pass

this exam and the English teachers and I are going to support them along the way. Our goal

is for them to be familiar with all parts of the exam, so they can practice it as many times as

necessary. I explain to them that they will practice: reading, writing, listening and speaking

and if they have any questions, they can always ask me or their peers for support. Normally

towards the end of the course, I set up a Mock Exam day where the children can do a

simulation like the real exam, so they understand the protocol, what to do and what not to do

and that they will be timed. My advice is to let the children work at their own pace during the

course, but make them conscious that they only have a certain amount of time to answer the

exam and complete the answer sheet. Make sure students work on their writing skills,

especially spelling and penmanship. Cambridge will accept cursive writing, but their

answers must be very clear. If possible, have the students practice writing in mold letters.

Print copies of the mark sheets, so children are familiar with the instructions, mark the

bubble answers clearly and for writing, in some parts, to put their answers in capital letters.

Tell students to always read the instructions, even if they are familiar with them and to check

their answers if they have spare time.



Prepare a Course with Anticipation


Every school has their own way of preparing students for the Cambridge certification

exams. I recommend having a preparation course with at least 2 months of classes before

the students take their exam. This course could be during school hours or in the afternoon.

At our school, we prefer to do the course during school hours, since our students' level of

concentration and motivation is a bit higher in the mornings, than in the afternoon. I

communicate with Guides and English teachers, to establish hours/days in which the

children will work together based on their same testing level with individual manuals that

contain several mock exams. This way the students can check their work, use strategies of

peer assessment, and practice all areas. I can also give them reinforcement exercises, if I

observe they need to practice a specific area or need a refresher on a particular grammar

structure or vocabulary. Another strategy that I apply is giving students access to a digital

platform, where I upload exercises that will help to reinforce parts of the exam. Children can

work on their Cambridge exercises at home or when they need a break from working on the

manual, they have the option to work on the platform.


The course gives children time to ask questions, correct their errors and to get as

familiar with the exam as possible. Always remember to be flexible with the schedule, since

children can be absent, the Guide might need them that day/hour for an activity or maybe

simply the child asks not to attend that day. Every reason is valid, but as long as you have

prepared several sessions for Cambridge, there is always time to recover a session. I

recommend making a detailed schedule and attendance list, so you can keep track of the

students. Normally we make sure the children have at least one or two sessions per week,

for about an hour. This guarantees they have enough time to work on their exercises and

complete their manual by the end of the course.


It is also important to keep in touch with parents. Let them know how their child is

doing with the course and ask for any support that they can give them at home. I have had

parents that are very dedicated and will set up time at home so children can work on the

digital platform or even work on exercises in their manual.


After what seems like a very long process, comes the day of the exam. This day I

join the students at the institution (exam center) where they will take their certification test

and I accompany them until the last child has completed their testing process. It is a great

opportunity to talk with parents and support children. When the process is over, it has given

me an opportunity to spend time with our students and get to know each other better. We

always end our Cambridge course with a pizza party and talk about how they felt and in the

end, how easy it was for them. Many children do express being nervous at first, but

encouraging them along the way helps them to regain the trust they have within themselves.

The best day of all is when they receive their official certificates and give them to the parents

directly. After months of working hard, they were able to achieve their goal. Besides giving

you the certificate, Cambridge will have a series of graphs so you can visualize the final

results. It is important to give follow up to all the stakeholders with this information. Have a

meeting with students, so they can identify what areas they need to work on and identify

their strengths. I share this information with parents and English teachers. The more data

we have, the better. Not only through observation but these results give us valuable

information to make better decisions with planning individual lessons with the students.


There is no other methodology like Montessori. Following the child and their

interests, providing them with a prepared environment and being surrounded by adults who

are trained to know when and when not to intervene, is a miracle and blessing for the

educational system. We can learn from our students and they can learn from us.


Whatever modifications or implementations we have to make in Montessori schools,

let us do it so that our students can face real life challenges with confidence. Whether they

enter into traditional school systems for secondary or even high school, let us give them the

tools to face those changes head on with no fear. Ultimately, they need to know within

themselves that they are capable of overcoming any obstacle because they are their own

teachers.

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