English Teacher Article How to teach Cambridge First Certificate (FCE) Speaking Part One

Summary: What to teach students about the personal questions part of Cambridge FCE Speaking and how to practise it.

By: |Audience: Teachers|Category: Teaching English

Format of FCE Speaking Part One/ What students must do in FCE Speaking Part One

The FCE speaking test is held with two examiners, only one of whom speaks, and two or (very rarely) three candidates. This first part of the exam could hardly be easier in terms of what students need to do, which is simply to listen to and answer the personal questions that the examiner asks them. The examiner almost always makes it obvious who should answer at each point, and certainly if there is any confusion about that. After three minutes (or five minutes with three candidates), the examiner will move onto Speaking Part Two.

Typical topics include friends and family, hometown, food and drink, free time and hobbies, work, studies, technology, language learning, accommodation, and future plans. There will probably also be at least one more unusual topic that has yet to appear in past exams, such as perhaps dieting or keeping in touch with people. The examiner will ask one or two questions on one topic, then switch and do the same for one or two more topics. Unlike some exams such as IELTS, the examiner doesn’t announce changes in topic.

The examiner seems to have freedom whether to ask the same questions to both candidates or different questions on the same topic to each candidate, and some examiners seem to mix the two ways of asking questions up. If the same question is asked to the second candidate, it could just be “And you?”, or the question might be repeated. When questions are repeated, the examiner will obviously make an effort to ensure that one candidate isn’t unfairly targeted by being the person who answers first more often than their partner.

The questions on one topic usually consist of one present tense question and one with a slightly trickier tense, e.g. a past tense question, a future one, or even one with more complex forms like Second Conditional and other Unreal Past situations. The most common tenses are, in approximate order:

-       Present Simple

-       “Would like” etc for desires

-       Simple Past

-       Going to, “plan to” etc for plans

-       Will

I couldn’t find any examples of “Have you… (recently/ ever)…?” questions in the tests I looked at, perhaps because it is difficult to design questions to which all candidates can give a reasonable length answer with that tense. However, the Present Perfect tense could come up in answers if the answer to “When did you last…?” is “Actually, I’ve done it today”. The same thing is true of Present Continuous for arrangements in exchanges like “Do you have any plans to…?” “I do. In fact, I’m meeting my friend this afternoon and…”

If a student doesn’t understand a question, the examiner will repeat the question more slowly with the same wording, then reword it (in a way which is written on their script) if the student still doesn’t understand. If the student still doesn’t understand after all that, the examiner will simply move onto another question.

The examiner might cut a candidate short if the answer to the last question is very long (as timing is very tight, so this is not a bad sign for the candidate!), then they will move straight onto Speaking Two (long turn with two photos each).

What students need to do to do well in FCE Speaking Part One

There aren’t separate marks for each part of the exam, so it can help more nervous students to see this as a warm up for the rest of the exam. There are also things that they can do and that can be practised in class to help them impress the examiners from the very beginning of the test, however.

There is no need for students to interrupt each other and try to turn this part of the exam into a discussion, as is possible sometimes in Speaking Part Four (discussion questions), and in fact it would be rather unnatural to do so when the questions are in the format “And you, Hang Seul? What do you do to keep fit?” However, it is natural for students to mention when their answer is similar to or different from their partner’s with phrases like “Like/ Unlike Jonathan, I…” and “Almost the same as Yukiko, but…”

The question I get asked most often by students is how long their answers should be, to which I also answer “be natural” and add “concentrate on communicating”. This means that “Peacehaven” wouldn’t really be really communicating if someone asks “Where are you from?” (because no one has ever heard of my hometown and so learn nothing from just its name) and “Peacehaven, which is a small seaside town which was founded in the early 1920s by Lord Sutton. Most people there are retired or work in the tourist industry,…” would be unnatural. Having said that, because there are no follow up questions if their first answer is short they should probably make some effort to avoid very short answers. It depends on both the question and students’ personal information, but one or two fairly short sentences is usually about the right length.

Students sometimes also wonder about how formal they should be in the exam, to which the answer is normal conversational English, i.e. avoiding forms which are only usually written (e.g. “dislike” and “with regards to”) but not drifting into slang, and certainly not swearing or blaspheming.

Students sometimes also ask me if they can use their imaginations in this part of the exam. As the examiner is not going to send a private detective around to their house to check the truth of what they said (or even look at their Facebook page), they can of course lie. However, I recommend against it as it goes against the whole point of communicating in the exam. It is also likely to lead to less complex language than an honest answer, e.g. the lie “The day before yesterday” being much more basic in language terms than the true answer “Actually, I can’t remember the last time. It might have been back in my elementary school days”.

“Be natural” and “Communicate” also work for what students should do if they don’t understand the question, in this case leading to always saying if they don’t understand and making such statements or questions as specific as possible, e.g. “You said something like ‘jowging’. What does that mean?” rather than just “Pardon?” As listening comprehension is tested in the actual Listening paper rather than in the speaking, I always tell students that such situations are actually a good opportunity to show the examiners that they can really communicate with a good range of language that is really adapted to the communicative situation that they are in. A good specific question can also stop the examiner just repeating the question with the same wording.

There is also a fair chance that one or more questions are ambiguous, e.g. for many students the very common question “Where are you from?” could refer to where they were born or where they grew up. The two options in that case are to check which the examiner means (although they usually just say “Either one is fine”) or to communicate the ambiguity in your answer with phrases like “If you mean…” and “There are two possible answers to that for me,…”.

There is also a small chance that the questions might not match the situation of one of the candidates. The two options are similar to that suggested for ambiguous questions above, in this case being stating the problem (e.g. “Sorry, I can’t answer that question because…”) or answering a closely related question (e.g. “I never actually went to school, but my parents taught me…”)

Students can often just follow the tense of the question in their answer, although there might be times when their own personal information doesn’t match that tense in exchanges like “What are you going to do tonight?” “I have no idea. I’ll probably just go home and watch television.” Tenses which they are most likely to use are given above, with Present Simple by far the most common. As well as the difference between that tense and Present Continuous, students really need to understand the differences between language for future arrangements, plans, predictions and desires.

Related language they are likely to need includes time expressions (“once every two weeks”, “the week before last”, “in the last couple of days”, etc).

There isn’t much functional language in this part of the exam except for comparing with the previous speaker and checking/ confirming what questions mean, but students will need to talk about likes and dislikes, and use a range of positive and negative language more generally.

As the topics are fairly fixed, students can gain a lot from looking up and learning vocabulary to describe their own accommodation, education, etc.

Students can sometimes benefit from being told to look at the person speaking, especially their partner when they are answering the questions. This is likely to make them listen to their partner more carefully (useful if they want to mention similarities in their own answers) and can also relax them as it makes the atmosphere more like a conversation and less like an exam.

Classroom practice of FCE Speaking Part One

This part of the exam is quite similar to simple GTKY (getting to know you) and needs analysis discussion questions like those often used in first classes – and indeed when we meet people for the first time outside class too. I like to start courses with questions used in this quite chatty way so that I can tell students “If you can just relax and answer as naturally as that, you’ll pass no problem!” However, once this point is made and their confidence is duly boosted, perhaps the most important thing when practising this part of the exam is to make it as realistic as possible. I therefore do almost all practice of personal questions in threes or fours with one person as the examiner, usually also doing several topics each time in a similar way to the exam as well. If I want to do more intensive practice of one likely topic in the exam, e.g. answering personal questions about food, we move on from that to more realistic practice with some questions about food again and then some other topics. It is also worth keeping the timing and number of topics realistic, and I also tell the student with the examiner role to mix up how they ask the questions (some to both students in turn, some to only one student).

Teachers can write these kinds of questions for almost any kind of topic that comes up in class, but make sure you also make the questions authentic in terms of anyone being able to give a medium length answer without the need for a follow up question. One way of making them authentic is to use a list of question stems collected from past papers, such as these I found in FCE 4 (CUP):

“Are/ Do any of your friends…?”

“Do you have any… plans for the future?”

“Do you like to…?”

“Do you plan to…?”

“Do you prefer to… or…?”

“Do you spend a lot of time…?”

“Do you think… in the future?”

“Do you use… to…?”

“Do you usually… (on holiday)?”

“Do you… every day?”

“Do you… the same… as your parents?”

“How do you prefer to…?”

“Is there a… that you would really like to…?”

“Is there anything you would really like to… in the future?”

“Tell us about the last time you…”/ “Tell us about the last… you…”

“What do you like (most) about…?”

“What is your favourite…?”

“What sort of… do you prefer…?”

“What’s the most interesting thing…?”

“Would you prefer to… or…?”

Students can also use these question stems to make their own questions to ask each other.

The next most useful thing to do is get your class watching or listening to other candidates answering the questions, to critique their answers and pick up useful tips and phrases. Things good and bad that they can watch out for include:

-       Simple or no language to show not understanding the question

-       Good language to show exactly what is not understood

-       Answers which don’t match the questions

-       Answers which are unnaturally long or short

-       Interrupting

-       Mentioning what the other candidate has said, or missing obvious chances to do so

-       Silence

-       Dealing with questions which are ambiguous

-       Dealing with difficult questions, e.g. pausing for thought

-       Dealing with questions which don’t (quite) match the situation of the candidate

-       Nice high level language connected to the topics

-       Flat intonation

-       Dealing with wanting to say something that they don’t know or can’t remember the English name for

It’s not really possible to get students using the actual scoring criteria to judge candidates in this part of the exam, as discourse management and interactive communication hardly come up at all. You could create a similar list of criteria for students to judge from including things above like “really answering the question” and “suitable length”, but this might be off-putting for students if you have already told them to think of this part of the exam as a warm up. In a similar way, it’s probably not worth getting students listening out for errors, as this will probably make them too sensitive about this comparatively unimportant part of their language (as many of them are already).

All the above is probably less heavy than it sounds, given the fact that students get to talk about themselves – something we all love doing! However, there are also games that you can play which are closely related to this part of the exam. My favourites involve throwing dice to decide the topic and/ or time of the questions which will be asked, for example having to ask a question about their hobbies in the distance past if they throw two ones. A one of way of dividing up the times is:

1 = distant past

2 = past

3 = present and past

4 = right now

5 = present habits

6 = future

You can also exchange some of them for “past habits”, “recent past”, “near future”, “distant future” etc, or you could go with functions of tenses like “plans” and “experiences”.

Something well worth doing after that game, and for this part of the exam more generally, is a tense review. As mentioned above, students most need Present Simple for routines and a range of future forms, plus time expressions. Matching up sentence halves then brainstorming questions to get those responses is a good way of doing all these things.

Another way of approaching grammar is to get them to correct typical mistakes in student responses. To save them concentrating on grammar too much, I tend to mix a few sentences with grammar mistakes up with many more examples with more important problems like false friends, Franglais/ Janglish etc forms, and minimal pairs. You can also use these sentences to introduce useful language they might need like “third floor apartment”, “sitcom” and “I’m a big fan of…”

Another way of introducing lots of useful vocabulary for this part of the exam is something I call a “List Dictation”. The teacher reads out a list of tricky but useful vocabulary for the exam until one of the students works out that the thing that list has in common is that they are all “related to media”, “positive words”, etc. The same thing continues with other lists, then students label the lists on a worksheet and test each other in pairs or small groups.

You can also do more intensive practice of the limited amount of functional language that could come up in this part of the exam. For the most common of those functions, you could force them to always confirm the meanings of the questions before they answer them (probably after giving them a list of questions which could be considered ambiguous like “Where are you from?” and “Do you have any short term plans?”). You can also do the same thing for other functions by getting them to always compare with their partner’s response to the same question with “In a similar way to…” etc and forcing them to always (slightly) contradict the question with “Actually,…” etc. You’ll need to carefully select the questions in all cases, and with “Actually,…” etc you might need to let them use their imaginations.

The intensive practice of “Like…” etc can be one way of tying Speaking Part One in with other parts of the exam by getting students to report back to class similarities and differences between them, perhaps with the rest of the class commenting on their own similarities and differences related to that thing to give them a reason to listen. You can then elicit language for comparing and contrasting before moving onto comparing and contrasting pictures in FCE Speaking Part Two.

Another obvious tie in is with Speaking Part Four, e.g. moving from personal questions on media to more discussion-style questions on the same topic. You can also design Use of English-style exercises for useful language for this part of the exam, e.g. multiple choice questions with the distracters being false friends etc or open cloze for the language of likes and dislikes. Is it also possible to write a task that looks like FCE Writing Part One (letter or email) for further practice of talking about themselves by making it a penfriend letter, although this makes it rather unrealistic practice of that part of the exam as the real tasks always demand much more functional language (inviting, politely turning down invitations, recommending, etc).

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com