This is the second post regarding oral exams. In my previous post I dealt with introductions and picture descriptions. This time, I would like to give general tips for any speaking exercise/exam.

Part: Oral Exam (Speaking)
Exercise type: any

In an oral exam, the first thing examiners look for is the candidates’ communicative skills. Flawless language usage is only a secondary consideration: if a candidate can express their ideas and play the game by the rules, even mistakes are forgiven.

What does ‘playing the game by the rules’ mean?
a) Turn taking: Candidates are usually tested in pairs. If one of the candidates dominates the conversation and speaks over the other candidate, he/she might lose marks for not taking turns. Candidates are supposed to show that they know how to interrupt somebody (if necessary), how to take the word back, how to engage the other student in the discussion, etc. In some exams, candidates are even expected to ask questions.

b) Expressing opinions, agreement/disagreement: Continuous use of ‘I think’ doesn’t prove a high level of lexical knowledge. Make sure your students have their favorite expressions for all major functions. They don’t need a long list, just one or two expressions they can use any time they are about to express the same content. Here is a short list of some functions:

Expressing opinion: As I see it…, From my point of view… In my opinion…
Agreeing: I couldn’t agree more. Exactly!
Disagreeing: I see your point but… You might want to consider that…
Apologizing: I’m really sorry but… I apologize for …
Paying compliments: Well done! You’re great! Good job!

c) Defining or clarifying words/utterances: Nobody expects a candidate (not even at higher levels) to know all the words they need. So teach your students that if they can’t recall a word, they should keep cool and describe it. Useful language might be: The word is on the tip of my tongue or It’s something you use to open a wine bottle (corkscrew).

Furthermore, they need to know how to ask for repetition (Could you repeat that please? Pardon?) and how to ask for clarification (I don’t really know what you mean. Could you explain yourself?), since candidates need to prove that they know how to communicate even if the understanding was not guaranteed the first time.

Computer-based oral exams:

Finally, let me mention oral exams that are done on the computer. This type of exam is the farthest from real life, we usually speak to other human beings. However, Skype calls without the video might put you into the absurd situation of having to talk to a monitor without a face. TOEFL and other exams conduct their oral test on the PC as well. Students need to read and/or listen to a track and after a given preparation time (we speak about seconds), the candidates need to answer questions talking into their microphones. What they say is recorded and will be assessed at a later moment.
Don’t underestimate the importance of simulation if the oral exam is done on the computer. This situation is highly unnatural and candidates are also given tight time limits. So they are supposed to give a clear answer to questions while they stare at a huge ticking clock. They are sometimes given some time beforehand to prepare their answers, but they often just start writing down sentences (also, by the way, note-taking is a skill that is essential in exams, so spend some time teaching students how to take notes).

How can you prepare your students for computer-based oral exams?
a) The key word is simulation: make your students sit down in front of the computer and give them the opportunity to practise this type of examination. If you don’t have the possibility to use computers, then ask your students to answer questions orally facing the wall, the whiteboard or anything else, but not a classmate. This way they can get used to talking to an object.

b) Make your students use their imagination: the task is easier if students imagine a face on the screen. This face should smile and encourage them to speak clearly.

c) Practise with your students the different types of questions. Some questions simply ask for their opinion. Sometimes they need to give a summary, compare two utterances and often even express their point of view at the end. They often need to make a choice and express why they decided as they decided. So it’s essential that students understand quickly what they need to do and practise doing it.

d) Teach useful language. Linkers are important: Firstly, secondly, finally; on the one hand – on the other hand; however/whereas/while/instead, etc. are very useful. Some prepositions are also necessary: according to …, as opposed to.

e) Time your students. Give your students first easy then step by step harder and harder questions and give them very tight time limits: 45 seconds to prepare their answer, then only 30 seconds, etc. Teach them that they can take notes, but notes are not sentences, only keywords. Let’s pretend the question is: ‘Why is sharing an apartment a good opportunity for a university student and what drawbacks might it have?
Notes for a possible answer:

Pros: sharing costs, good atmosphere, studying together, social life
Cons: possible quarrels, too noisy flatmates, cleaning conflicts, boy/girlfriends

After timing them taking notes, continue timing them while formulating their answers. Give them one minute to answer the questions using their notes. At the beginning, repeat the same question-answer sections so that students get confident and more fluent in their answers.

f) The secret is speed. Students often need to read something which they need to summarize or compare to their own or other people’s opinion. Quick reading is therefore essential. Give your students enough practise to read through a text fast and filter the main message in that text.

g) No second chance. The really hard thing in a TOEFL speaking test is, for example, that students can listen to the tracks only once. So it is a question of pass or fail that they can trust their listening skills. Way before the exam preparation sessions assign regularly homework that involves listening tasks. Useful websites are Khan Academy, Ted-Ed, ESL Lab, BBC news videos with tape script, but you can find nearly endless resources on YouTube.

(To be continued…)



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