The three keys to doing well in speaking exams

Summary: The three things students should concentrate on doing during their speaking tests.

In my opinion, the three most important things for students to do when taking speaking exams like those that form part of IELTS, Cambridge First Certificate and BULATS are:

1.    (Really) communicate

2.    Think aloud

3.    React how you would if you were asked the same question in L1 or in class

All three are in fact related, or even really just aspects of the most important one – (really) communicate. I’ll look at them in reverse order before looking at real communication in more detail.

React how you would if you were asked the same question in L1 or in class

Note that this doesn’t mean say whatever you would say in L1, as there are plenty of things which are untranslatable. There are also cultural differences such as English speakers making more effort than speakers of many other languages to avoid repetition in the language they use. This is why I’ve written “React how you would…” rather than “Say what you would…” A good example of this is my advice when students ask me “How long should my answer be?” If someone asked you “Do you have a large family?” outside a speaking exam, you’d be very unlikely to answer either “Yes” or “I have two older brothers and one younger sister. My eldest brother in called John and he loves the Ferrari F1 team…”, and students shouldn’t do either of those things in a speaking exam either. This is often related to the “(really) communicate” point, because neither response (especially “Yes”) is really the answer that they were asking for and therefore not really communicating. In the same way, a teenager who responds to “Did you have a good day at school?” with “Yes” is in fact trying to avoid communicating anything!

Another example of this is formality. Even Academic English exams like IELTS don’t specify a level of formality, and students are much more likely to make the mistake of using overformal written forms than to do the two informal language slips which really do cross a line – offending the examiner and swearing. As students are unlikely to do those two things in class either, just keeping this “React how you would…” tip in mind should deal with formality problems at both ends.

Students also often ask me “What should I do if I couldn’t answer the question even in Spanish/ Japanese/ Korean/…?”, to which my answer is “Say so, just as you would in Spanish/ Japanese/ Korean/…, or if your classmate asked you the question”. Which leads us onto my next point…

Think aloud

Another cultural difference is how much silence is considered acceptable in conversation. Unlike Japanese and Finnish speakers, for example, English speakers tend to keep silences down to less than a second, though there are considerable variations between regions and speakers. For speaking exams (and international communication more generally), however, it is much more useful to think of silence as a lost opportunity to communicate than as a cultural difference. Rather than filling silence with generic and repetitive phrases like “Let me think” and “Let me see”, students should simply think aloud, communicating that they are thinking “I’ve never thought about that before” and “If the question means… then…”, adding a “but” plus an attempt at answering the question to the former.

(Really) communicate

As well as the tips on real communication above, students should:

-       Communicate as much as they can about what they don’t understand when there are (potential) comprehension problems, e.g. “I didn’t understand the last part of the question” rather than “I don’t understand” and “You said something like ‘mamble’ which I didn’t catch” rather than “Pardon?”

-       Only correct themselves when what they said could cause a communication breakdown

-       Not tell the examiner anything they are likely to know, for example saying “I’m going to talk about what I did with my parents on my tenth birthday” rather than “I’m going to talk about a celebration” (which the examiner knows because it is written on the card) in IELTS Speaking Part Two.

-       Not lie just to make it easier to answer the question.


Caveat 1

Perhaps the most difficult question I get from my students is how much they should push themselves to use more high level language such as phrasal verbs during the speaking exam. As most of most students lack fluency at least as much as other important factors like accuracy and complex language, in my opinion thinking about communicating their ideas as clearly as they can is quite enough to concentrate on during an exam. Speaking exams are anyway increasingly moving towards describing high level speakers in terms of what they can do with the language more than how complex it is. There are exceptions, however, including students who got good fluency from chatting in English with people their own age but tend to communicate well with quite basic language. This is most common in people who picked up most of their language when they were younger (e.g. growing up abroad) at a time when their topics of conversation were limited. That small group of students should probably consciously push themselves to use more complex language during the speaking exam.

Caveat 2

Concentrating on communication is also a good way of deciding what should be taught in class too, with communication in this case mainly meaning language that helps students say something they couldn’t (exactly) say before. However, classroom speaking is also a good time for students to push themselves to use more complex language. It can also be worth students who have okay fluency working on trying to reduce the number of basic grammatical errors, meaning the kinds that they know really and could easily correct in their writing. The three tips of this article are therefore mainly limited to actually during the exam, although the last few practice sessions just before the exam should also be done in the same way.

Copyright © 2013

Written by Alex Case for

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