BEC Higher Testbuilder

The “BEC Higher Testbuilder” comprises the book itself, including all answer keys and listening transcripts, plus an audio CD. This is an effective, no-nonsense exam practice book – accurate, authentic and helpful, but with limited classroom use.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Tom Alder

The Testbuilder series from Macmillan comprises collections of practice tests for various English exams -FCE, CAE, IELTS and the like. What makes them different from the official exam books is that they include additional materials- the ‘testbuilding’ aspect- which focus on exam skills and analyse the various part of the test in detail. They are intended to be, as the covers announce, ‘tests that teach’.

BEC Higher is the most difficult of the three Cambridge Business English Certificates, rated at a similar level to CAE, or an IELTS band score of 6.5-7. Obviously, the main readers of this book would be either students considering taking the exam, or their teachers. Although it is always possible to use materials for other purposes, this book is very exam-focused and would not transfer naturally to other contexts.

Firstly, in terms of organization, the book follows a basic structure that will appear familiar to teachers who have used other practice/past paper exam books. It starts with information about the exam itself- useful if you are suddenly plunged into teaching a BEC class at the last minute! These are kept nice and simple. Then follows the tests themselves, of which there are a total of four, each comprising sections of each of the four skills- in this case, reading, writing, listening and speaking. These are then subdivided into their parts. The reading section, for instance, has six parts, either having double page spreads (parts 1-4) or a single pages (parts 5 and 6) so no page-flapping required!

Neither the texts themselves nor the questions seem appreciably different from those of the real exam (going by the examples in the official Cambridge BEC Higher handbook).

The Testbuilder, therefore, naturally invites comparison with Cambridge University Press’s own collections of past papers (i.e. genuine ones). The Macmillan Testbuilders have, however- to borrow business lingo- their own ‘USP’ (Unique Selling Point): being ‘tests that teach’ rather than just ‘tests that test’. This ‘testbuilding’ takes two forms. Firstly, at various points the ‘further practice’ sections appear. Secondly, the answer key is comprehensive and thorough- not merely giving the correct answers, but explaining why they are so.

The first of the ‘further practice’ sections appears after Test 1, Reading Part 1. It is a two-pager, focusing on that particular part of the reading test in some detail and posing questions aimed at developing awareness and instilling habits of analysis. It is worth mentioning at this point that BEC, like FCE and its ilk, has a regular, predictable format. Therefore, ‘Reading Part 1′ skills would be relevant to the other three reading part 1s in the book (from the three other tests). There is therefore only one ‘further practice’ double-pager for each respective part (1-6) of the reading section, and these are dispersed among the four tests apparently at random. The alternative would be to have included these sections after every part of every test (making 24 sections), each building on the last. Perhaps the authors felt this would be repetitive or unnecessary- but then there would of course be no obligation to read them all.

Reading topics in this book include Blackberry smart phones, Evan Cycles, working from home, ‘a little anarchy at work’, ASDA, ‘power dressing’ and ‘careers in the construction industry’. These are interesting enough for the casual teacher, and it is quite possible to read both texts and questions satisfactorily on the train to work, if your tight schedule forbids a more through perusal!

The ‘further practice’ sections for the writing, listening and speaking modules are more logically distributed. All parts are covered. Part 1 of BEC Higher writing is an IELTS-type affair, with bar charts, pie graphs and line graphs waiting to be described. In fact, the part 1 practice tests here could be used with IELTS classes, perhaps to provide a bit of variety. The support material is good. It offers a list of line-graph vocab which, in addition to old chestnuts such as ‘rise’ and ‘decrease’, also brings in business-oriented words and phrases such as ‘ bounced back’, ‘recovered’, and ‘rocketed’. Students are asked to classify these, plus their attendant adverbs, arranging the latter in terms of degree or speed of change. There then follows a few questions and a sample answer. This is all solid, usable material, but as with IELTS, you need to have a dedicated class and/or be a pretty animated teacher to use this kind of thing well. My advice is to act like a weather man, prodding enthusiastically at example charts drawn on the board by students, eliciting descriptions from others. The only caveat is to avoid making yourself the only one in the room who appears enthused!

Again like FCE, Part 2 of the BEC Higher writing section involves a choice: in this case, between, a report, a letter or a proposal. The ‘testbuilders’ for these skills appear in Test 2, Test 3 and Test 4 respectively, each focusing on relevant language features. Clearly, at 2 pages long a go, these are not intended to teach how to write. They do, however, provide concise revision material and as such are useful. Alternatively, those teaching short courses may appreciate the no-nonsense approach and pithy advice. It would also, of course, be possible to flesh out or adapt the exercises.

The listening and speaking sections are similarly catered for, with mock-exam papers interspersed at certain points with exercises for developing exam skills. BEC Listening is divided into three parts. Firstly, there is a single monologue (a speech or presentation) with sentence completion tasks which involves listening for specific information. Part two brings a series of five short monologues, accompanied by two sets of multiple-matching questions (i.e. “Who said what?”) testing gist-comprehension. Finally, candidates listen to a long (up to 5 minute) dialogue in which two businessmen talk shop. Here, 3-way multiple choice questions test for ability to identify ideas and opinions. As you can see, all question types are standardised and predictable (like FCE etc, but unlike IELTS), so it is quite easy to find specific examples for exam practice.

As for the included audio CD itself, those familiar with EFL listening materials are in for no surprises. Certainly, neither the narrator nor the bright and breezy actors loose marks for clarity of expression, even with the variety of accents on show. But, as in most EFL recordings, the speech seems artificial, with exaggerated stress on content words and a lack of hesitation, inhibition and changing-mind-mid-sentence, which are all common features of real speech affecting vocabulary and grammar. On the one hand, the recordings are true enough to the exam, and this approach makes for clarity; on the other, both students and teachers may be irritated by the neatly-scripted, cleanly-delivered speeches. There is a good selection of idioms and figurative language (e.g. ‘to find out if their scheme has any legs’, ‘time’s the real currency’ etc) which provides opportunities for vocab exploration and prepares the students for the kind of thing likely to be heard on the day.

The ‘further practice’ materials comprise 2 pages each, and there is one for each part of the listening. None involve the audio CD itself, instead referring the reader to transcripts. These exercises involve such skills as preparation and avoiding ‘distractors’. These are fairly standard, but eminently useable. One drawback is that key/ answer words in the transcript are not italicised or emboldened, although this means that students can do the highlighting themselves. In fact, in one of the exercises, sections of the transcripts are copied and they have to do just that. This activity could be extended to the whole of the scripts.

The Speaking section of BEC, also in three parts, comprises an interview, a short presentation and a discussion. All are recreated here, with ‘further practice’ offering revision of useful phrases and vocab, and part 2′s also offering tips for organising the presentation. Predictably, drawing a ‘mind map’ is among them. This could be useful stuff, but only as revision or support for more detailed study. In any case, it is this section that could most easily be ‘brought to life’ by an animated Business English teacher. If it gets repetitive, why not spice it up by getting students to select cards at random, some involving eccentric, dangerous or extremely cynical attitudes or practices to incorporate or espouse in their presentations and discussions? This could test powers of diplomacy and persuasion!

Aside from the ‘further practice’ sections, the Testbuilder also features a very thorough and comprehensive ‘key’, which does much more than simply give the answers. For all parts of the reading, we are given explanations as to why such and such an answer is correct. Listenings are given similar treatment. As for the writing, full sample answers are given for all four of the ‘part 1s’ from the book (IELTS style questions), and one for each of the three types of part two (reports, letters or proposals). I would have preferred to see more comments here; perhaps there could have been combinations of student sample answers (variously graded and with examiners’ comments) and model answers prepared by examiners. This is a plus feature of the official Cambridge exam books.

Overall this is a very serviceable book, with a no-nonsense approach. How might it be used? Firstly, it could provide self-study materials for students themselves, and perhaps accompany a course book such as Market Leader. Secondly, it could provide a useful basis for business one-to-ones. Thirdly, it could be used for periodical mock exams in Business English classes. The role of the teacher might be superfluous here, though, since the students can check their own answers in the back of the book and even see the why the correct answer was so. But isn’t that the aim of the ‘student-centred’ classroom? You can just sit back and pretend to read the Financial Times. A fourth possibility is that it might be used for intensive short courses, to plough quickly through exam material and show students what to expect.

To sum up, this is a good alternative to the official practice test books. Although it does not contain actual past papers, you would be hard pressed to see a significant difference, (although hard-nosed BEC aficionados may possibly disagree). In any case, in addition to being cheaper, it has the plus feature of the detailed exam guidance, useful additional exercises and a very thorough answer key (despite a few shortcomings, such as the lack of detailed comment on the writing samples). It appears to be mainly geared toward self-study, but there is opportunity for it to be used in some classroom contexts. As a ‘testbuilder’ it would be effective in the right hands- so much so, in fact, that the teacher might well be the most disposable part of the whole package!

Reviewed for Teflnet by Tom Alder
June 2009 | Filed under Exam Materials

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