Having a good knowledge and use of grammar is extremely important for doing well in the Cambridge First Certificate in English (FCE) exam. Although having a good knowledge and use of vocabulary is important too, for me, I feel that it is your grammar skills that they are evaluating you more on in this exam.
But the good news for you is that to do well in the FCE exam, you don't need to know or use very complex grammatical structures. In addition to this, you will probably already know how to use most of ones that you will find used in the exam as well.
Don't need an advanced level of grammar
The grammatical structures that are used in the FCE exam are graded. What this that means is that they will only use grammatical structures which are suitable for the level of the exam. You won't find or are not expected to use grammar concepts which are advanced (e.g. inversions, cleft sentences etc...) in the exam.
The structures they use are not complex and are those which you would expect to find in books written for native teenagers.
From having taught students to do this exam for over 9 years, I have found that most of the grammatical structures used in the exam are those that you will find taught in books and courses for students with an intermediate (B1) level of English. However, you will also find used some terms (like 'however' instead of 'but') and variations of grammatical structures (like mixed conditional sentences) which are taught in books and courses for students with an upper-intermediate (B2) level in English.
Difference between knowledge and use
Before I tell you how to know which grammatical structures to improve on for the exam, there is something important you need to know first. And that is to do well in the FCE exam, your knowledge and understanding of English grammatical structures is expected to be higher than your actual use.
The examiners don't expect you to be able to speak or write in English at the same level as the things you will read and hear in the Reading/UOE and Listening exams. If you are able to use relatively basic grammatical structures well in the Writing and Speaking parts with the occasional more complex structure (like using a modal verb to express probability in the past) or less commonly used term (e.g. 'due to' instead of 'because of'), then you should do well in these parts.
Which grammatical structures to study for the exam
If you are able to understand the majority of what you've already read here, you already have a good foundation in English grammar. What this means, there will be grammatical structures in English that you DON'T need to study and improve for the exam. You need to focus on studying those grammatical structures which you will find used in the exam that you are not really sure about or have never learnt.
There are two ways that you can know what these are. The first is when you are reading in English (which you should be doing frequently and things which are at the level of what you'll find in the exam (B1 and B2)) and you find a grammatical structure used that doesn't make sense or is confusing, then study what it's used for and when.
The second way (and this is a better way in my opinion), is to go through a list of grammatical structures commonly used in the FCE exam and study those which you don't know or are not clear about how and when they are used.
A list of grammatical structures used in the FCE exam
To help you do this, I have created the below list of grammatical structures that are commonly used in the FCE exam. I recommend that you read through the list and study those which you don't know or are uncertain how to use correctly.
After this list, I'll explain how I recommend how and when you study grammatical structures you don't know or are uncertain how to use correctly.
Grammatical structures used in the FCE exam
You should know most of these, but you need to make sure that you understand the main different uses they can have (in particular the 'present perfect') and how and when they can be used together (e.g. using the 'past perfect' with the 'past simple').
- Present simple
- Present continuous
- Present perfect continuous
- Present perfect
- Past simple
- Past perfect
- Past continuous
- Past perfect continuous
- Future simple
- Future continuous
- To be going to
You should know why passive verbs are used and how you make sentences using them.
- Passive present simple
- Passive present continuous
- Passive present perfect
- Passive past simple
- Passive past perfect
You should know the rules for creating sentences in reported speech for different verb tenses and how some words (e.g. 'tonight', 'I' etc...) change when using them.
- Declarative sentences (both positive and negative sentences)
- Passive sentences in reported speech
- Commonly used reporting verbs
You should know commonly used words and phrases (which are often called 'linkers') which are used to join two parts of a sentence (or two sentences) together to show a relationship between the two (e.g. show a contrast, give a reason etc...). You should know where in sentences they are used and if they are prepositions (followed by a noun/noun phrase) or conjunctions (followed by a clause (which has a verb in it)).
- Linkers of contrast (e.g. but)
- Linkers of addition (e.g. and)
- Linkers of reason (e.g. because of)
- Linkers of purpose (e.g. to)
- Linkers of result (e.g. so)
- Linkers giving examples (e.g. such as)
You should know the main modal verbs, what they are used for (e.g. show ability, give advice etc...) and how to use them when talking about the present, future and past.
- Modals of ability
- Modals of probability
- Modals of obligation
- Modals of prohibition
- Modals of advice
- Modals of request and permission
- Verbs, adjectives and adverbs which aren't modals, but are used for expressing probability (e.g. have to, perhaps etc...)
You should know how to create relative clauses in sentences to identify things or give extra information about them and the common relative pronouns that are used to connect the clauses together.
Other grammatical structures
Below are some other grammatical structures you need to know:
- Conditional sentences (How to form zero, first, second, third and mixed conditionals. And the words used in them (e.g. if, as if, unless etc...)
- Comparative sentences (using both adjectives and adverbs)
- Superlative sentences (using both adjectives and adverbs)
- Question tags
- Sentences with wish (both for the present and past)
- Countable and uncountable nouns
- Prepositions (the prepositions used with specific nouns, verbs, adjectives and those used talk about time, frequency and place)
- Gerunds and infinitives after verbs and adjectives (whether a verb is followed by a gerund or an infinitive)
- Gerunds as nouns (why they are used and where in a sentence they are used)
- Adverbs (common adverbs used to start a sentence (e.g. eventually) or modify a verb or adjectives)
- Would (the main uses of the verb 'would')
- Do (using 'do', 'does', 'did' for emphasis in sentences)
- Used to and usually (the differences when using these)
- Any, some, no and every (what they mean and when they are used)
These are not structures, but are words/phrases which give grammatical meaning. Most of these can be used with more than one meaning. Study when and how these are used and meanings they have. However, don't spend so much time on doing this. A basic understanding of these is enough.
How to study the grammatical structures
Get a book
The first thing you need to do before you start improving your grammar is to buy an English grammar reference book. A book which both explains how to use the different grammatical structures and words/phrases you'll find used in the exam and gives you exercises to do to make sure you've understood what you've learnt.
Although Cambridge has a grammar book for the FCE exam, I don't particularly like it. One book I would recommend that you use is a non-FCE book from Cambridge called 'English Grammar in Use: Intermediate'. It explains the grammatical concepts and has exercises on them. For me, it is the best grammar book available for people studying for the FCE exam.
Use the grammatical structures
When you have studied a grammatical structure and done the exercises for it from the book, I recommend that you try to makes sentences in your own words with it. This will help you to remember how and when it is used.
Study only one or two grammatical structures a week
Study a grammatical structure once or twice a week and start doing this months before you plan to take the exam. If you try to study any more, you'll start to get bored and you won't really understand how and when they are used.
Read regularly in English
Reading in English is not only essential for improving your vocabulary, but it is also important for improving your grammar skills as well. The more times that you see grammatical structures you've learnt being used in articles or other pieces of writing, the more likely you are to understand how and when they are used and to remember them.
Make sure that you read articles that have been written for students doing the FCE exam or are for English learners who have a B1 (intermediate) or B2 (upper-intermediate) level of English.
Remember what you have studied
To stop you repeating studying grammar concepts that you have already done, I recommend that once you have studied something, make a note of it in an exercise book, a word document etc...