If you’re taking the Cambridge English: First (FCE) Speaking Exam in the next few weeks in Prague at the British Council, or indeed the Cambridge Advanced (CAE) or Proficiency (CPE) exams, here’s a few things to focus on before the big day.
Breaking the myth
Many students often stress and think the Cambridge Speaking Exams are all about grammar. “I have to improve my grammar, I really gotta get better at grammar to pass this,” they say.
BUT did you know that both examiners in these exams will give you a significant mark for how you handle communication?
And did you know that the more natural you speak, the higher your mark will be?
In other words, it’s just a myth that grammar is the main thing to focus on in the Speaking exam (nb grammar is covered more in the Use of English paper, and you can practise this by going through Use of English exercises in your coursebook or by using any Cambridge Past Papers booklets).
Grammar is just one of five main areas where you get a mark. The other criteria include:
- discourse management (in short, this is your ability to organise your ideas and give extended replies)
- pronunciation and
- interactive communication
The Speaking Exam at B2 (FCE) level, for instance, specifically tests your ability to keep up a conversation on a fairly wide range of topics, expressing opinions and presenting arguments (source: lots of information from Cambridge can be found here).
So in the lead-up to your Speaking exam, you can boost your mark by improving how you go under the other criteria, especially discourse management and interactive communication, which I’ve found are easier to work on during a shorter period of time.
There’s 3 weeks to go – what to do?!
Be active! Be an active speaker and an active listener!
For the Speaking exam, the following points are important for optimising your mark in the time you have left before the exam:
1. Practise Exploring A Topic
You’re given marks for how you well present your ideas. You’re also given marks for producing ‘stretches of language’. What this means is that when you’re asked a question (eg part 3 of FCE when you speak with your partner and the examiner), you should give a thorough answer ie a longer answer than just a few words.
Compare these two candidates’ answers:
Question: Which sports are popular with young people in your country?
Candidate A: – “Football and hockey.”
Question: Do you prefer to do individual sports or play in a team?
Candidate B: – “Well, team sports can be fun and you get to learn how to work with other people. But, personally, I love running and there’s nothing better than trying to beat my own best times and do better each day..”
In the first example, Candidate A didn’t say much, and it’s likely that the examiner will ask a follow up question such as “why?” This can be a problem if many of your answers are like this, as it shows that you need ‘support’ from the examiner. If you need support, then it will lower your mark.
So -> practise answering questions more in depth in class or when you are out with friends
For your short talk, you will be asked to speak on your own for about one minute (eg FCE part II) or for two minutes (in the CPE exam).
In addition, you will be given a collaborative task, where you speak with one or two partners, and you will need to:
- Agree, disagree, and give your opinion
- Give reasons for your decisions
- Work towards an outcome (to try to find a solution) with your partner*
- Respond to your partner’s ideas
Lastly, you’ll also be chatting and answering some questions with your partner and the examiner. Again, your ability to respond to the question, and present your argument is important. It’s also better when you can listen to what your partner says, and be abe to add to their contributions.
2. Practise NOW
Knowing what’s in the exam is a good start. But knowing that you need to respond to your partner doesn’t mean that you can do it.
So you need to practise NOW. When you’re in class, maximise any opportunities to speak with your teacher or classmates by:
- Responding to what your teacher or classmates say
- Starting a discussion point yourself
- Trying to work towards an outcome. eg instead of saying “I agree”, say MORE: “I agree because ……. and not only that, ….”
In addition, join in discussions in English with friends or any people you speak in English with.
Be an active speaker and an active listener!
And I’ll say it again – this is something you need to practise, not to say to yourself “yeah, yeah, I know” and then walk into the examination room with no preparation.
3. Keep asking yourself: “What do I think?”
Read the newspaper. Watch the news. Listen to what people around you are saying. How would you respond to the problem that is being discussed?
In short, get an opinion!
4. Remember This Simple Short Talk Model
The higher your level, the more you’re expected to be able to talk about a wider range of topics and themes.
I’ve seen that even when people are advanced or higher, they may not be as quick in responding to different or difficult questions. A simple model to answer a more detailed question is as follows:
A). Start off with an introductory sentence
B). Provide your first point to present your opinion or argument
C). Give an example or further information to support your case
D). Provide 1 or 2 more points and then sum up
Another way to look at this is to present, discuss and explore.
You can get further reading on this here (on Part 2 Cambridge Speaking Exam at B2 level: speaking for a minute).
5. Do Practice Exams From Your Coursebook Or A Cambridge Past Papers Booklet
All the exam books have TONS of materials you can use.
Practise with your teacher, and get feedback on how you went so that you can improve.
Also practise with a friend or classmate, and get feedback from them on how you communicate and organise your ideas!
Some materials are also available on the Cambridge website (choose your exam from the menu up top).
- Practise NOW
- Practise communicating in class with others and your teacher, as well as when you’re out and about with friends: agree, disagree, ask follow up questions, give your opinion, start new discussions, interact!
- Not only do you need to KNOW what you will be asked to do in the exam, but you need to DO the exam, so make sure you are an active English speaker before the big day!
Best wishes in your upcoming exam!
*nb it’s possible you could have 2 partners, though usually it is one.