In the next two posts, I would like to discuss some details that might improve your students’ performance in the speaking exam. Remember that your students have only got used to speaking to you and their classmates, so the situation where they have to talk to a complete stranger about unexpected things might cause a high level of stress which might cause even the best student to stumble. So try to find enough time to talk about the examiner’s aim, about realistic expectations (an A2 student doesn’t have to be ‘fluent’ and not knowing a word is not a sin, etc.) and what candidates are supposed to do during the exam. This way, you will help your students face the oral part of their exam without (or at least with a lower level of) anxiety.

Part: Oral exam (Speaking)
Exercise type: Introduction/Introduce yourself

A piece of cake?
Most oral exams start with the candidate introducing themselves. This part might not be accredited in the total score, since it often only helps students relax and get used to the examiner’s pronunciation.

Still, students are supposed to use the level of language they are at. If a candidate doesn’t make any mistakes, but uses only the grammar structures and vocabulary of lower levels, they might even fail the exam (or score very low). So spend half a lesson on their introductions and follow some advice:

a) First elicit questions. These are not only the typical ones about personal data, family and hobbies; examiners can also ask questions related to the topic areas of the given level. Open any exam preparation book, or just take a look at the course book of the level and you can find plenty of questions.

b) Ask your students to answer these questions. They can do it in pairs or even in written form at home. The really important step will be transforming their answers into the appropriate and correct answers for their level. So try to match grammar points to each question:

Example (Level B1+):
Teacher: What’s your job? (Present perfect continuous)
Student: I’m a doctor, I work in the city hospital. I’ve been working there for more than 10 years.
Teacher: Tell me about your work experience before this hospital job. (Past perfect)
Student: Before I got this job, I had worked in three other hospitals as a volunteer…,
etc.

c) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse: Talking about ourselves might seem simple, but if students stumble at this stage, they will probably get nervous and underachieve in the following tasks. So it’s essential that this first part goes well. Start every lesson with a 2+2 minute exercise, where students interview each other using a list of questions they have put together with you and after 2 minutes they swap roles (examiner, candidate).

d) Don’t forget simple things like how to spell their last names. It’s embarrassing when a student at B2 level mixes English vowels.

e) Ask your students to evaluate themselves and/or their partners. Every oral examiner has to follow a marking scheme, which is public and usually included in exam preparation books, so students can see what criteria examiners use when assessing them.

Part: Oral Exam (Speaking)
Exercise type: Describing picture

Another typical exam exercise is where students have to describe pictures. Sometimes they have one picture in front of them, other times they can choose one from a collage or they may have to compare two pictures.

Why is it difficult?

1. The exercise is far from real life: you might have to describe a picture to a blind person or maybe a scene to somebody on the phone, but here you need to talk to an examiner who has the same picture in front of her/himself.

2. Describing pictures needs special language (see below).

3. Comparing pictures also needs some typical expressions that should be pre-taught.

How to prepare your students for picture description.

a) Have a selection of good pictures (pictures that show actions and have different layers: things in the background and the foreground). Choose one and elicit the necessary language from your students. To describe a picture you need the following structures:

– there is/are + articles/quantifiers with (un)countable nouns. E.g., ‘there are two men in the foreground, talking…

– prepositions like ‘in the foreground/background/middle, at the top/bottom, on the left/right, in the top right corner’, etc. (You can use your whiteboard and write the different expressions onto the different parts of it so that visual students can remember them better.)

– present continuous to describe actions, but explain to your students that we use ‘I see + objects’ (and not I’m seeing + object) in this situation.

b) Tell to your students to concentrate on the following questions: who/what, where, when, how and why. So:

Who/What can you see? What are they doing?
Where are they? When is all this happening?
How are they doing what they are doing? And why?

It’s important that students understand the difference between describing a picture (answering to the questions above) and commenting on it (which might be part of the task, but is not picture description).

c) Give plenty of opportunity to your students to practice. Do it also in open class (exam preparation is the moment when students need to get used to talking in front of other people).

d) Provide some useful language also to compare pictures. Important lexical items are:

– prepositions: in the first picture or in the picture on the left/right
– connectors: whereas, on the other hand, on the contrary.

e) Make it clear to your students if and when they have to express opinions. Sometimes students are asked to reach an agreement about pictures. All these functions have their own language.

(to be continued)

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