Speaking exams: 7 tips for candidates and teachers

The big day has come and your heart palpitates with stress and fear. The only thought that crosses your mind is “Will my candidates open their mouth and speak or will they just gasp without uttering a single word in front of the examiner?” Challenging by nature, the speaking test can become the nightmare of test takers and exam prep teachers. What can you do to prepare your learners well for the exam? Below you can read some tips that you may find helpful:

 

By Yiannis Papadopoulos

 

  1. Start working from day 1

Speaking is a skill that takes time, effort and patience to develop. Insist that your students speak English in class as much as possible and give them time to practice.

  1. Raise awareness. What do the examiners expect candidates to do?

All exam bodies provide handbooks with guidance on the assessment criteria. Give students a simplified version of the criteria and discuss what the examiners expect to hear. Stress the fact that  most exams require communication between candidates. Younger candidates lack basic communication skills and very often will not even listen to what the second candidate says because they are too engrossed in their attempt to elaborate on their opinion. This often leads to lack of communication and low score in that area.

  1. Natural language vs rehearsed

Teachers are often tempted to rehearse with their students long chunks of language in which they cram pompous words and expressions. More often than not, these are not consistent with the rest of the language candidates produce. It also makes the candidates nervous. On the contrary, students who are used to speaking English in class can paraphrase easily if they are stuck and they are far more likely to achieve a higher score in discourse management.

  1. Communication vs accuracy

Communication requires a certain degree of accuracy. However, some test takers tend to worry so much about using the right tense or avoid making a mistake that it takes them ages to respond or to convey the message. In effect, communication is breached as long pauses and constant stammering  act as a hindrance. The message that the candidate intends to convey is sometimes so fragmented that the examiner or the other candidate have already “switched off” by the time it is completed. Raise awareness in class if your students are prone to slow delivery for fear of making mistakes. If you look closely at the marking criteria of the examinations, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that most of them are quite lenient when it comes to mistakes even at higher levels, provided that communication is not impeded.

  1. Pause fillers

Teach them and rehearse in class, pause fillers. They will feel more confident if they use an expression like “Well, this is an interesting question. I ‘d say that…”  rather than remaining silent in front of the examiners and the other candidate. In the second case, even though the pause may be only a few seconds long, it feels like a century and their confidence is shattered.

  1. Help learners build confidence

No matter how tempted you are to correct on the spot every error the learners make, most exams focus on communication and as mentioned above, are far more tolerant to mistakes than we think they are. Select the most important errors, the ones that hinder communicate or convey wrong messages and focus on them. Candidates, who focus too much on accuracy, tend to speak very slowly and the listener may find it hard to follow them which is a reason to give them a very low mark.

Encourage them to speak English in class and praise them for their progress – even if it is a small step.

 

  1. Pairwork/groupwork

Though it sounds natural, most students will not feel confident to collaborate with another candidate unless they have done it before. Allocating time from the beginning of the year and explaining some basic communication skills like maintaining eye contact with the other candidate and ways to interrupt politely will help learners feel more confident and improve their performance at the test. 

Here are some “Do’s and Don’t’s” that I have found useful over the years:

Do’s and Don’t’s

  1. Make sure the learners are there well before the speaking test. They need time to feel acquainted with the new environment and catch their breath. A candidate, who has arrived late and is stressed, is highly unlikely to do well at the test.

  2. Reassure them that a slip of the tongue or pausing briefly is not a disaster and that the examiners will assess their overall performance.

  3. Ask them to maintain eye contact with the examiners and speak aloud so that they can be heard. Many teenagers tend to look down and they are barely audible.

  4. Encourage them to ask the examiner to repeat or clarify if they have not understood the question. Be prepared to spend some time in class practicing it.

  5. Don’t expect them to develop their speaking skills in the last 15 days before the exams.

  6. Do NOT give them long, elaborate texts to learn by heart. If they get stuck when reciting them, then they are highly unlikely to regain their confidence during the test.

 

Wishing you and your students the best of luck!

 

Yiannis Papadopoulos is an EFL teacher and has been working with exam prep classes for more than 20 years.

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