Interview with the Academy author

Michael Macdonald qualified as a teacher in Cambridge and currently lives in Madrid, where he is Director of Studies for Prosperity English, an English language-teaching academy focused on preparing candidates for Cambridge examinations. He is the head of content at Prosperity Education and lead author of the Academy suite of apps.

How long have you been an English language teacher and why did you become one?

I would consider myself to have a vocation for teaching. Originally, I trained in Cambridge as a Music teacher, working in the classroom at secondary level and also as a peripatetic. Moving to Spain and teaching English seemed like a great adventure and when I started learning more about English language teaching and realised how transferable my formal training could be, I knew it was for me. I gained as much experience as possible working for schools and academies in Madrid and soon found my teaching skills and method in demand. I set up my own academy, Prosperity English, teaching corporate English in companies and also teaching other language teachers how to improve both their English language and teaching skills.


How did you become involved with the Prosperity Education apps?

I approached Tom O´Reilly, an educational publisher based in Cambridge, with the idea of putting the Use of English section of the Cambridge ESOL exams into a simple app format. I wanted to create an intuitive teaching tool that users could learn from as they practised. Tom had the experience and technical knowhow to bring this to market in a mobile app format. In less than three months we had our first release, FCE Academy for Android.  


Why Cambridge exams?

There is just not enough good quality material out there, and the material that is available is very costly. But you need lots of practice material to really get to grips with the exam format and language contained in the Cambridge exams. One Cambridge book of past papers costs anywhere from €25–€60. Given how many exam texts are contained in these apps, we have managed to create something that, in content terms, would cost around €500 to buy!


Is there a part of the Cambridge exam that students find particularly difficult?

The Use of English part is always considered the most difficult, but that´s because students can´t find enough practice material! Of the four parts covered in the apps, Part 4, ‘Key word transformation’, is probably the hardest for candidates. Repetitive practice is the key to mastering this section of the exam, and for this students need lots of exam-quality tests.


Can you describe the FCE and CAE Academy writing process?

From the outset, we decided that the quality of the apps would have to be very high, both in the design and the content. We agreed that the user experience should be as close to the Cambridge exam as possible, both in the format of the assessment and the quality of the texts themselves. FCE Academy and CAE Academy feature 108 and 112 exam texts respectively, which means more than 1,000 individual assessments in total per app. This was the golden number we agreed on. We decided to triplicate the texts so that the user will see the same texts in parts 1–3 but with different items assessed in each. The pedagogical model is based on users’ ability to recognise lexico-grammatical elements of the text because, as they work through the app, they are actually becoming familiar with them, and therefore they actively and passively learn structure and grammar, collocation and general vocabulary. Working through so many texts you realise that many of the patterns in such tests repeat and this is the key to answering Use of English questions well in these exams.

Once we had decided upon our approach to teaching in this simplistic, yet effective way, writing the draft texts was a straightforward, albeit lengthy, process. I wrote short, interesting articles and then analysed them to ensure I was including appropriate language points for each assessment level. This was where the hard work came in. Many books and databases had to be cross-referenced to ensure we were including elements that the user would encounter in the exam, and then the draft articles had to be revised to accommodate this. The next stage was to have the texts reviewed independently by Cambridge writers and examiners and to implement their feedback. We then tested the texts using real-life classes in which we knew there were students of certain levels who had either already passed a Cambridge exam or who were just about to sit one. We looked at how they performed while using the new material and took on board their feedback to fine-tune each text. At this point we finalised the list of texts we’d include in the final app before starting the development stage. A final review of the texts was made during development by a selection of teacher and student testers working with beta versions of the apps. Again, feedback was taken in and some minor revisions made to the content prior to publication.  


What have been the biggest difficulties of the writing process?

Without a doubt, this would be ensuring the question content was appropriate for the Cambridge exam as the content required at each exam level is very specific. Thankfully, I had lots of help with this, through the independent, student and peer reviews, as well as excellent editorial support from the publisher.

One thing that I hadn´t really thought much about before writing the texts was the need for cultural sensitivity. Because Cambridge ESOL is worldwide we need to be careful not to include polemic subjects, or items that might offend a particular faith. For example, historical pieces, conspiracy theories or even articles that reference alcohol could cause offence and so cannot feature in the exam.


What advice would you give to someone about to sit the FCE or CAE?

Buy the app! Complete it all and try to get in the head of the people writing the exam questions. You should start to see patterns and this will really help you when it comes to your own exam.


Are you writing anything else at the moment?

We have just finished the CAE Academy app, which has been pretty intense. The plan is to produce Academy apps for other Cambridge exams, for example, Proficiency (PET), and also a version of FCE for schools. Longer term, we will publish for other English exams, such as IELTS.

I am always working on new courses for Prosperity English, my language academy in Madrid. We do specialist-training courses for businesses and for teacher training classroom assistant training. I will be preparing over the summer for the next round of those classes starting in September 2017.


What advice would you give to an English Language teacher who has an idea for a learning resource?

Teachers always spend a lot of energy on resources and many of these are shared in our community as a matter of course. However, if you really think you have a great idea, write it down, think it through, and refine and improve it. Speak to like-minded people and get an objective feel for its worth. My best advice would be to go for it, which is so easily said, I know. But if you think you have something that fits and fills a need, then do it. Be aware of how much work is involved, though, and realise that, if you really want to get a Class A product, you will come in for some stiff criticism along the way.