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Cambridge English: First (FCE) FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

Please find below the most frequently asked questions for this qualification.

Q. Is Cambridge English: First for your students?
A. Can your students...

• understand texts from a wide variety of sources?
• use English to make notes while someone is speaking in English?
• talk to people about a wide variety of topics?
• understand people talking in English on radio or television programmes? 

If this describes your students' skills now, or describes the level of skills your students are working towards, then Cambridge English: First is the right exam for them.
Q. What will Cambridge English: First do for your students?
A. Cambridge English Language Assessment is a department of the world-famous and historic University of Cambridge. Attaining one of its certificates is an achievement and a reward in itself. However, there are many other benefits to taking Cambridge English: First:

•  certificates do not expire.
Cambridge English: First is truly international, recognised around the world for business and study purposes.
• Thousands of employers, universities and government departments officially recognise Cambridge English: First as a qualification in upper-intermediate English.
Cambridge English: First gives your students  a pathway to higher qualifications such as the Cambridge English: Advanced and Cambridge English: Proficiency).
Cambridge English: First's 'Can Do' skills give your students the confidence to use English in real situations.
Q. What will taking Cambridge English: First help you do?
A. Cambridge English: First is at Level B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) — an internationally recognised benchmark of language ability. The framework uses six levels to describe language ability from A1 to C2. 'Can Do' statements have been used to describe these levels in terms of real skills with language.

For example, at B2 level, typical users can be expected to:

• understand the main ideas of complex pieces of writing
• keep up a conversation on a fairly wide range of topics, expressing opinions and presenting arguments
• produce clear, detailed writing, expressing opinions and explaining the advantages and disadvantages of different points of view. 

Preparation for Cambridge English: First will give your students these kinds of practical language skills.
Q. What does Cambridge English: First involve?
A. Cambridge English: First has five papers:

Reading: 1 hour
Candidates will need to be able to understand information in fiction and non-fiction books, journals, newspapers and magazines.

Writing: 1 hour 20 minutes
Candidates will have to show they can produce two different pieces of writing such as a short story, a letter, an article, a report, a review or an essay.

Use of English: 45 minutes
Candidates' use of English will be tested by tasks which show how well they control grammar and vocabulary.

Listening: 40 minutes
Candidates need to show they can understand the meaning of a range of spoken material, including news programmes, speeches, stories and anecdotes and public announcements.

Speaking: 14 minutes
Candidates will take the Speaking test with another candidate or in a group of three, and they will be tested on their ability to take part in different types of interaction: with the examiner, with the other candidates and by themselves.
Q. How many hours of study are needed to reach the levels of the Main Suite exams?
A. The following information is only to be used as a guideline as the learning speeds of individuals can vary depending upon a number of different factors.

Common European Framework Main Suite Guided Learning Hours (from beginner level)  

C2 Certificate of Proficiency in English - approx. 1,000—1,200
C1 Certificate in Advanced English - approx. 700—800
B2 First Certificate in English - approx. 500—600
B1 Preliminary English Test - approx. 350—400
A2 Key English Test - approx. 180—200

Typically, candidates spend three years studying following a Pass at Cambridge English: First before attempting the Cambridge English: Proficiency examination.
Q. How long are Main Suite grades valid?
A. The grade a candidate achieves does not have a limited period of validity — it is a statement of their performance on a particular day and remains valid indefinitely.
Q. How are the papers marked?
A. Different elements of each of the papers are marked in different ways:

Some questions, such as multiple-choice questions, are scanned by computer. Typically these are questions where a candidate lozenges a small box to identify the answer, for example, A, B, C or D.

Questions which require a longer answer, for example a word or phrase, are marked by human markers who check to see if the answers are correct or not. In this case the marking is carried out by two different markers — the second exercise is a check that the first marker has marked correctly.

Writing tasks in Cambridge English: Preliminary, Cambridge English: First, Cambridge English: Advanced and Cambridge English: Proficiency are marked by experienced examiners. These examiners undergo rigorous training prior to the marking session and are closely monitored throughout the exercise by team leaders, who are in turn supervised by a Principal Examiner. Cambridge English Language Assessment takes great care to ensure that the marking of all papers is fair and standardised.

In the case of the Speaking tests, examiners undergo a standardisation session each year to ensure that they are assessing performances correctly. During the live test, two examiners are present, each of whom gives an independent assessment of each candidates' performance. Examiners are also monitored on a regular basis by Team Leaders.
Q. Do candidates have to pass all components/papers in order to pass the exam?
A. No. It is not possible to pass or fail an individual paper. The final mark on which the grade is awarded is based on the aggregate score of all of the papers. Candidates who perform poorly on one paper can compensate by performing well on the other papers.

Q. What information is available about candidates' results?
A. Each candidate who enters for a Main Suite examination is provided with a Statement of Results, which includes a graphical display of the candidate's performance in each paper. These are shown against the scale Exceptional — Good — Borderline — Weak and indicate the candidate's relative performance in each paper.

Q. Is there any information on the number of candidates getting different grades each year?
A. Yes, we provide this information going back several years.

Q. Are non-UK standard versions of English acceptable?
A. Yes. Candidates' responses to tasks in the Cambridge English Language Assessment examinations are acceptable in varieties of English which would enable candidates to function in the widest range of international contexts. Some degree of consistency, however, is expected in areas such as spelling.

Q. Is the use of dictionaries allowed in Main Suite exams?
A. No, the use of dictionaries is not allowed in any Main Suite exam — this applies to Cambridge English: Key, Cambridge English: Preliminary , Cambridge English: First, Cambridge English: Advanced and Cambridge English: Proficiency. This is because many of the questions test your understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. All the material is pretested, and this ensures that texts and questions are at an appropriate level.
Q. Can candidates use highlighter pens?
A. Highlighter pens may be used on the question papers, but must not be used on the answer sheet.

Q. When can candidates use pens or pencils?
A. In Cambridge English: Key and Cambridge English: Preliminary, candidates must use pencil in all papers.

For Cambridge English: First, Cambridge English: Advanced and Cambridge English: Proficiency, pen must be used in the Writing paper, but pencil must be used in the other papers.
Q. Can candidates use correction fluid?
A. No, correction fluid cannot be used on any paper.

Q. Is the use of phrasal verbs acceptable?
A. It is perfectly acceptable to use phrasal verbs in Cambridge English examinations, providing that they are suitable in register to the context and that they are not used as responses where a single word answer is required.

Q. Do contractions count as one word or two?
A. Contracted words count as the number of words they would be if they were not contracted. For example, isn't, didn't, I'm, I'll are counted as two words (replacing is not, did not, I am, I will). Where the contraction replaces one word (e.g. can't for cannot ), it is counted as one word.

Q. Does the content of the General English exams meet the needs of learners from different countries?
A. Cambridge English exams are relevant worldwide, and the subject matter contained in them is wide ranging in content. The writers of the exams are encouraged to use worldwide sources for the material included in the examinations, and at the stage of test construction, the range of contexts is borne in mind. In listening texts a variety of accents is included.

In terms of candidate responses, these are acceptable in varieties of English which would enable candidates to function in a range of international contexts.
Q. How long should candidates spend on each part?
A. There is no time limit for each task; some tasks may take longer than others and students should be aware of how long they need for different tasks. However, it’s worth remembering that each task is worth approximately the same number of marks overall.
Q. How many marks are there for each question?
A. Questions in Parts 1 and 2 each carry 2 marks, and in Part 3 each question carries 1 mark.
Q. Why are questions in Part 3 only worth one mark each?
A. In Part 3 candidates are looking for specific information in a text and do not need to engage with the content of the text as deeply as in the other parts of the paper.
Q. How many marks is the Reading paper worth?
A. Each paper in the Cambridge English: First exam is worth 40 weighted marks, so that all the papers are of equal importance. The whole exam is worth 200 weighted marks.
The weighted mark for the Reading paper is calculated as follows:
Each correct answer in Parts 1 and 2 is given 2 marks, and in Part 3 1 mark. Therefore, the total number of marks possible for the paper is 45. If a candidate scored 35 marks out of a possible 45, their final weighted mark would be arrived at by the calculation 35÷45x40 = 31.1.
Q. What kinds of texts are used?
A. A wide range of texts may be used; these include newspaper and magazine articles, reports, novels and short stories, advertisements, correspondence, messages and informational material such as brochures, manuals and guides.
Q. What aspects of reading are tested in this paper?
A. In Part 1 candidates are tested on their ability to understand detail, opinion, gist, attitude, tone, purpose, main idea, meaning from context and text organisation features (exemplification, comparison and reference); Part 2 tests text structure, cohesion and coherence; Part 3 focuses on identifying specific information, detail, opinion and attitude.
Q. How long are the texts?
A. The texts range from 550–700 words per text. Approximately 2,000 words overall.
Q. Do the questions in Part 1 follow the order of the text?
A. Yes, and any questions relating to global understanding of the text come at the end.
Q. How do candidates answer the Reading paper?
A. In this paper, candidates put their answers on an answer sheet by filling in a lozenge (a kind of box) in pencil.
Q. How many answers must the candidate produce?
A. Two. One compulsory task (Part 1) and another from a choice of tasks (Part 2).
Q. In what ways is Part 1 different from Part 2?
A. In Part 1 there is one compulsory task. The candidate is not offered a choice of task or task type. The task is based on input material of up to 160 words, e.g. advertisements, extracts from letters, emails, schedules etc. In Part 2 candidates answer one task from a choice of five. The options offer a range of task types with instructions.
Q. How many marks is each question worth?
A. Each question in the Writing paper carries 20 marks. Candidates must answer two questions and thus the Writing paper is worth 40 marks, which is 20% of the total Cambridge English: First examination.
Q. Where do candidates write their answers?
A. In the question booklet. This booklet also contains sufficient space for candidates to write their rough work.
Q. What kinds of tasks will my students have to write?
A. Part 1 is a letter or an email and is compulsory for everyone. In Part 2, they will be able to choose from a range of writing tasks including an article, a report, a review, a short story, an informal letter or a letter of application. Not all the different writing tasks will appear in every exam. If your students have prepared the set texts, then they will also be able to choose from the two tasks in questions 5a and 5b.
Q. What happens if a candidate answers two or more questions in Part 2?
A. Candidates will only be given marks for one question. All questions will be marked but only the highest mark will be taken.
Q. What happens if a candidate produces a well-written text but does not answer the question?
A. In order to answer the question effectively candidates must address all the points in the task. It is essential that candidates read each question very carefully.
Q. What happens if a candidate doesn’t answer Part 1?
A. If Part 1 is not attempted a candidate scores 0 for this question. Part 1 and Part 2 carry equal marks.
Q. Can candidates write about a set book?
A. Yes. Question 5 has two options. Candidates can write an article, an essay, a report, or a review based on one of the 2 set books.
Q. Some of my students write too many words. What will happen to them in the exam?
A. There is no specific penalty for writing an answer which is outside the word range, either under or over. Each task is designed to be possible within the range given, but candidates will not lose marks solely because their answer is longer or shorter.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that candidates who write very long responses have often included irrelevant information, and this can affect their mark for Content. Likewise, if the response is very long because it is poorly organised, then this can affect the mark for Organisation.

On the other hand, a very short response might have missed important information, or might not show enough range of vocabulary and structures, and this could have an impact on marks for Content and/or Language.
Q. One of my students has such terrible handwriting that I have difficulty reading their writing. How will the examiners react to this?
A. Examiners will make every effort to read poor handwriting. However, if their handwriting is totally illegible, they will receive no marks at all.
Q. Some of my students use American spelling. Will they be penalised?
A. No. Both British and American usage and spelling are equally acceptable.
Q. I have a student who speaks very well but I’m worried about his writing. If my student does poorly in this paper, does that mean he’ll automatically fail the whole exam?
A. The five Cambridge English: First papers total 200 marks, after weighting. Each paper is weighted to 40 marks (i.e. 20% of the total). The overall grade is based on the total score gained by the candidate in all five papers. Candidates do not ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ in a particular paper, but rather in the examination as a whole. It is, therefore, possible not to achieve an adequate performance in some of the papers, but pass the Cambridge English: First examination.
Q. Are marks deducted for incorrect answers?
A. If the answer is incorrect, the candidate does not get a mark. However, there is no penalty for recording a wrong answer. In fact, candidates should attempt all of the questions, including those that they are not sure of.
Q. How do candidates record their answers?
A. For the Use of English paper, candidates record their answers by shading in the correct lozenge (a small rectangular-shaped box) or by writing the required word or words in capital letters in a space on their answer sheets.
Q. How important is spelling in the Use of English paper?
A. Candidates should be aware that correct spelling is essential in all parts of the Use of English paper. However, they should also know that both UK and US spellings are acceptable.
Q. What happens if a candidate gives two or more answers to a question?
A. Candidates should only give one answer for each question. If a candidate gives two answers and one of them is incorrect, they will not be given a mark.
Q. Are words like 'doesn’t' or 'isn’t' counted as one or two words in Part 2 (Open cloze) and Part 4 (Key word transformations)?
A. They are counted as two words and any answers which exceed the word limit will be marked incorrect. The only exception to this rule is ‘can’t’ as it can stand in place of ‘cannot’.
Q. What happens if a candidate writes more than five words in Part 4?
A. Candidates will lose their marks for a question in Part 4 if they write more than five words. Also, of course, they will lose their marks if they write only one word, as each answer must be 2-5 words in length.
Q. How much time should a candidate spend on each part?
A. It is entirely up to the candidate how they manage their time, or the order in which they attempt the different parts of the paper.
Q. What listening skills are tested in the Cambridge English: First Listening test?
A. Candidates are expected to be able to show understanding of detail, gist, attitude, opinion, function, genre, place, purpose, situation, relationship, topic, agreement, main idea and specific information.
Q. How long is the Listening test?
A. The Listening paper takes approximately 40 minutes, including 5 minutes at the end of the test for candidates to transfer their answers onto the separate answer sheet.
Q. How many times do candidates hear each text?
A. All the recordings are heard twice.
Q. How do candidates record their answers?
A. For the Listening paper, candidates record their answers by shading the correct lozenge (a small rectangular-shaped box) or by writing the required word or words in capital letters in a space on their answer sheets. They are advised to fill in their answers on their question papers as they listen and transfer these answers onto their answer sheets at the end of the test in the time specifically allocated for this.
Q. How many marks are given in the Cambridge English: First Listening test?
A. One mark is awarded for each correct answer in the Listening test and the total number of questions is 30. The candidate’s score out of 30 is converted to a weighted mark out of 40. Each paper in the Cambridge English: First exam is worth 40 weighted marks, so that all the papers are of equal importance. The whole exam is worth 200 weighted marks.
Q. Are candidates given time to read through the questions?
A. Yes. In Part 1 of the test, the eight questions are presented both on the question paper and on the recording, so that candidates have time to read and listen in preparation for each question. In Part 2, candidates are given 45 seconds to read through the 10 sentences they are required to complete. In Part 3, there are 30 seconds to read through the six matching options, while in Part 4, a full minute is given to read through the seven questions and multiple-choice options.
Q. Do you lose marks for wrong answers?
A. If an answer is incorrect, the candidate doesn't get a mark. However, there is no penalty for recording a wrong answer. In fact, candidates should be encouraged to attempt all questions, including those for which they are not sure of the correct answer.
Q. Are there different accents in the recordings?
A. A variety of voices and accents will be heard in each Cambridge English: First Listening paper, to reflect the various contexts presented in the recording, as appropriate to the international contexts of the candidates.
Q. What happens if candidates can’t hear the recording properly?
A. At the start of the test, candidates hear the following announcement on the recording: 'There will now be a pause. Please ask any questions now because you must not speak during the test.' If for any reason the candidates cannot hear the recording clearly, this is their opportunity to inform the invigilator, who can then pause the recording and take the appropriate action.
Q. If a candidate fails the Listening paper, do they fail the whole exam?
A. No. It is not necessary to achieve a satisfactory level in all five papers of Cambridge English: First in order to pass the exam.
Q. How many marks is the Speaking test worth?
A. The Speaking test is worth 40 marks, which is 20% of the total score for the Cambridge English: First exam.
Q. Are candidates from the same school paired together?
A. This depends on the centre. In some, candidates from the same school are paired together. In others, where candidates from a number of different schools are entered, candidates may be paired with students from other schools. Candidates should check with the centre to find out the local procedure.
Q. Do the candidates speak to each other as well as to the examiner?
A. Yes, the interaction patterns vary during the test. In Part 1, the candidates speak to the interlocutor. In Part 2, each candidate is given the opportunity to speak, uninterrupted, for 1 minute. In Part 3, they must discuss something together: in this part, it is essential that they speak to each other and NOT to the interlocutor. In Part 4 they can speak to the interlocutor or to their partner, or to both.
Q. Do both examiners speak throughout the test?
A. No, only the interlocutor speaks. The assessor remains silent except for greeting and saying goodbye to the candidates.
Q. Does knowing your partner make it easier to do well?
A. There is no evidence that knowing their partner helps candidates to perform better, or worse, in the Speaking test whether they are paired with a friend or a stranger. The examiners are trained to provide equal opportunities for all candidates to perform to the best of their ability.
Q. What happens if candidates are 'mismatched', for example by putting a shy person with an outgoing one?
A. Examiners are trained to deal with this situation and ensure that no-one is disadvantaged. Everyone has the chance to show what they can do. However, candidates need to remember that they need to make the best use of the time to show off their language skills without dominating their partner.