Exams & Preparation

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The history of the Cambridge Exams

The history of the Cambridge Exams

Cambridge English Language Assessment is part of the University of Cambridge and has been providing English language assessments and qualifications for over 100 years. The first Cambridge English examination, the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE), was launched in 1913. The 12-hour exam had just three candidates, all of whom failed. One hundred years on, Cambridge English provides more than 20 exams for learners and teachers, which are taken by over 4 million people each year. Cambridge English Language Assessment contributed to the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and its examinations are aligned with the CEFR levels.

Timeline 1209–2013


  • 1209 - University of Cambridge founded
  • 1534 - Cambridge University Press founded
  • 1858 - University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) founded
  • 1913 - Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) introduced: sat by three candidates
  • 1939 - Lower Certificate in English (LCE) introduced (renamed First Certificate in English (FCE) in 1975)
  • 1941 - Joint agreement with the British Council – British Council centres established
  • 1943–47 - Preliminary English Test (PET) introduced (reintroduced in 1980)
  • 1971 - Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) initiated
  • 1988 - The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Examination Board becomes part of UCLES
  • 1989 - Specialist EFL research and evaluation unit established
  • 1989 - IELTS launched (a simplified and shortened version of ELTS which had been launched in 1980)
  • 1990 - Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE) founded
  • 1991 - Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) introduced
  • 1993 - Business English Certificates (BEC) launched
  • 1994 - Key English Test (KET) introduced
  • 1995 - University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (UODLE) becomes part of UCLES
  • 1997 - Young Learner English Tests (YLE) introduced
  • 2001 - CEFR published
  • 2002 - UCLES EFL renamed University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (Cambridge ESOL)
  • 2002 - One million Cambridge ESOL exam candidates
  • 2004 - Admission testing introduced (the Admission Testing Service joined Cambridge English Language Assessment in 2011)
  • 2006 - International Legal English Certificate (ILEC) launched
  • 2007 - International Certificate in Financial English (IFCE) launched
  • 2010 - CaMlA established (Cambridge Michigan Language Assessments)
  • 2013 - Cambridge ESOL renamed Cambridge English Language Assessment
  • 2013 - Four million Cambridge English exam candidates

The first Cambridge English exam

In 1913 UCLES created the first exam for non-native speakers of English – the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE). This may have been prompted by the development of English exams ‘for foreigners’ by other universities.

CPE was originally a qualification for teachers: ‘the Certificate of Proficiency in English is designed for Foreign Students who desire satisfactory proof of their knowledge of the language with a view to teaching it in foreign schools.’ The exam was only available for candidates aged 20 or over.

In 1913 the exam could be taken in Cambridge or London, for a fee of £3 (approximately £293 in 2012 prices). The exam lasted 12 hours and included:

  1. Translation from English into French or German: 2 hours
  2. Translation from French or German into English, and English Grammar: 2.5 hours
  3. English Essay: 2 hours
  4. English Literature: 3 hours
  5. English Phonetics: 1.5 hours
  6. Oral test: dictation (30 minutes); reading aloud and conversation (30 minutes)


The main influence behind the design of the exam was the grammar-translation teaching approach, which aimed to establish reading knowledge (rather than ability to communicate in the language). In 1913, the first requirement for CPE candidates was to translate texts. Translation remained prominent in foreign language teaching up until the 1960s. It was a core part of CPE until 1975, and an optional part until 1989.


However, CPE was also influenced by Henry Sweet and his book published in 1900: ‘A Practical Study of Languages: A Guide for Teachers and Learners’, which argued that ‘the most natural method of teaching languages was through conversation’. Due to this influence, speaking was part of Cambridge English exams from the very beginning.


Exam questions in 1913

Candidates were required to translate from English into French/German, and translate from French/German into English. Here is a short segment from one of the passages candidates were asked to translate from English into German:

The sentiments which animated Schiller’s poetry were converted into principles of conduct; his actions were as blameless as his writings were pure. With his simple and high predilections, with his strong devotedness to a noble cause, he contrived to steer through life, unsullied by its meanness, unsubdued by any of its difficulties or allurements …


In the English Essay paper, candidates were asked to write an essay for two hours, on one of the following subjects: the effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England; English Pre-Raphaelitism; Elizabethan travel and discovery; the Indian Mutiny; the development of local self-government; or Matthew Arnold. The exam board provided little or no formal structure. Concepts such as audience and purpose, and the length of the essay, were left for the candidate to decide.


The questions in the English Literature section were borrowed from the University’s Language and Literature matriculation exams for native speakers and included questions on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Here is an example question:

Explain fully and comment on the following passages, stating the connexions in which they occur and any difficulties of reading, phraseology or allusion: “Wert thou the Hector, That was the whip of your bragg’d progency, Thou should’st not ‘scrape me here.”


It was not until 1930 that a Literature paper was designed specifically for CPE candidates.

The grammar section contained questions about grammar and lexis, e.g. give the past tense and past participle of each of the following verbs, dividing them into strong and weak …, and questions about grammar and lexis usage, e.g. embody each of the following words into a sentence in such a way as to show that you clearly apprehend its meaning: commence, comment, commend … At the time, this mirrored the approach to learning grammar in Latin and Greek (as well as modern languages).


Finally, a Phonetics paper was included as it was thought to be useful in the teaching of pronunciation. The paper required candidates to make phonetic transcriptions of long pieces of continuous text; describe the articulation of particular sounds; explain phonetic terms, and suggest ways of teaching certain sounds. Here are two example questions:

Explain the terms: “glide”, “narrow vowel”, “semi-vowel” and give two examples of each in both phonetic and ordinary spelling and how would you teach a pupil the correct pronunciation of the vowel sounds in: fare, fate, fat, fall, far?


Revisions to the 1913 exam

The 1913 CPE exam was taken by just three candidates. The candidates “were able to converse fluently, expressing themselves on the whole, with remarkable ease and accuracy.” However, all three candidates failed the exam and none of them were awarded a CPE certificate.


In its second year (1914), CPE gained in popularity, with 18 candidates and four passing. However, for the next 15 years candidature remained static. Italian and Spanish were added as languages for the translation paper in 1926. However, CPE still ‘teetered along with 14 or 15 candidates a year.’ In 1928, CPE had only 14 candidates and by 1929 it was in danger of being discontinued.


Jack Roach, Assistant Secretary to the Syndicate from 1925 to 1945, decided to “save it from the scrapheap” and introduced a number of changes. The Phonetics paper was dropped and the essay questions became more a test of writing proficiency rather than a test of knowledge about British culture. Questions such as “The best month of the year” were preferred to the more culture-bound topics set in 1913, such as “Elizabethan travel and discovery.”


The target candidature was broadened beyond teachers, to “all foreign students who desire to obtain evidence of their practical knowledge of the languages, both written and spoken, as of their ability to read with comprehension standard works of English literature.”


In 1932 it was decided to establish overseas exam centres. The first overseas centres were set up in Hamburg, Paris and San Remo (1933), followed by further centres in Italy (Rome and Naples), the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. Latin America also became an exam area in the 1930s, with centres in Argentina and Uruguay.


In 1935 CPE started providing alternatives to the Literature paper, with an Economic and Commercial Knowledge paper – an early forerunner of English for Specific Purposes.


Then, in 1937–38, the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford decided to accept CPE as representing the standard in English required of all students, British or foreign, before entrance to their university. To this day, CPE still serves as a qualification for entry to higher education. Following these changes CPE candidate numbers instantly began to rise, reaching 752 by the outbreak of World War II.



By 1947, there were over 6,000 UCLES candidates, with LCE double the size of CPE. Exam centres had been set up in Europe (17), Latin America (9), the Middle East (8), Africa (4) and the USA (1). Candidate numbers continued to grow,  reaching over 20,000 by 1955, 44,000 by 1965, and over 66,000 by 1975.

However, by the 1970s demand was growing for exams at more clearly defined levels of proficiency. This set the scene for the Council of Europe and the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which was initiated in 1971.


The History of FCE

Introduced in 1939, the Lower Certificate in English (LCE) was the second English language exam developed for speakers of other languages by Cambridge. The arrival of thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War and occupied Europe into the UK had created a growing need for language assessment. The LCE was intended to meet a demand for the certification of an English proficiency level below that of the Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE).


One hundred and forty-four students sat the first LCE exam on 21 June 1939. The exam was divided into three sections:

  1. Oral (Dictation, Reading Aloud, and Conversation)
  2. English Composition and Language (2 hours for a free composition on a choice of subjects and various tests on the correct use of simple English)
  3. Prescribed Texts (2 hours on Dickens, Swift, Shaw and/or the Oxford English Course book).


By 1943, LCE included a choice between ‘either prescribed texts or a paper in translation from and into English’. By 1944, 18 languages were catered for in the translation paper, including Polish, Arabic, Hebrew, Czech, Persian and Swedish.

Many of those who took LCE served on active duty during World War II: the LCE December 1943 Pass List includes candidates from the Polish Army, the Polish Institute of Air Force Technology (RAF), the Netherlands Fleet Air Arm, and the Czechoslovakian RAF Squadron. On one day in 1948 over 2,500 men and women of the Polish Resettlement Corps took LCE. A special version of LCE was also made available to prisoners of war detained in Britain and in occupied Europe. The test was made available to 1,500 prisoners of war in Britain, 900 of them Italians. In Germany, the test was offered at seven prisoner of war camps, with Indian prisoners of war encouraged to take LCE or School Certificate exams. After the war, LCE proved to be the most popular Cambridge English exam of the time, with over 4,000 candidates in 1947, compared to 2,028 candidates for the Certificate of Proficiency in English.


In 1975, driven by evolving principles of communicative language teaching and testing, LCE was revised and renamed as the First Certificate in English (FCE). The exam was updated to have five compulsory papers: Composition (free writing task); Reading Comprehension; Use of English (testing grammatical structures and vocabulary); Listening Comprehension (multiple-choice items); and an Interview (oral tests).


The qualification was further updated in 1984 and 1996. Following the 1996 revision, FCE covered a greater range of writing, listening and speaking micro-skills. Its Speaking test format used two candidates and two examiners and the five papers were equally weighted, each representing 20% of the available marks.


In January 2015, another set of revisions were introduced. The main changes are: the overall exam is now 30 minutes shorter; there are four exam papers, instead of five; and the Reading and Use of English papers have been combined into a single paper.


In addition, a new way of reporting results has been introduced (effective from January 2015), with Cambridge English Scale scores replacing the standardised score and candidate profile used for exams taken pre-2015. The Cambridge English Scale was developed to provide exam users with more detailed information about their exam performance than was previously available.


Cambridge English: First (FCE) for Schools

From 2009, in response to increased use of its exams within schools, Cambridge English Language Assessment introduced versions of some of its exams designed for school-age students. This included: Cambridge English: Key (KET) for Schools, Cambridge English: Preliminary (PET) for Schools and Cambridge English: First (FCE) for Schools.


Cambridge English: First for Schools (FCE) follows the same format as Cambridge English: First for adults and the level of the question papers is identical. Both versions of the exam lead to the same certificate. The only difference is that the content and treatment of topics in the ‘for Schools’ version have been particularly targeted at the interests and experiences of school-age pupils.



By the start of the 21st  century, most of the Cambridge exam suite, which we recognise today, was established. This set the scene for massive growth in candidates.


In 1988, with just two established exams (FCE and CPE), exam candidature was around 180,000. By 2002, with a more comprehensive range of exams, the exam candidature was over 1 million; by 2007, it was over 2 million and by 2013, it was over 4 million. In particular, IELTS has recorded some of the fastest growth. In 2002 there were 212,000 candidates, whereas today there are more than 2 million candidates annually.