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Exam speaking tips (FCE / CAE / CPE and IELTS)

For most candidates, the speaking part of their exam is the most daunting. Knowing that you will be judged on your pronunciation, fluency and grammatical range is a scary thought for most exam students and I always feel sad when a student doesn't do as well as they could because they were too nervous. Common problems in exam speaking include:

  • focusing on accuracy and using high-level language at the expense of fluency

  • not fully understanding each part of the exam and what you need to do

  • getting so nervous and anxious that you cannot perform well

In this post, I'm going to share seven tips for dealing with speaking exams. The tips will be divided into tips for IELTS candidates and tips for the Cambridge exams but it's worth reading all of them as there is useful information throughout!

Three tips for IELTS speaking

Keep your answers in Part One short and simple One common problem is that candidates don't realise that in Part One they need to give short answers. The examiner has eleven questions to ask and they must finish all of them. If your answers are too long, the examiner will need to interrupt you which is very annoying for them and unpleasant for you! In Part One, simply answer the question and give one extra piece of information:

examiner: Do you like snow or rain better? candidate: Well, for me I have to say I prefer snow. In my country, there is a lot

of rain in the summer but we don't have cold winters so I would like to see snow as it's more interesting for me. Notice that there is a direct answer to the question followed by a brief explanation. Cambridge tip: This idea also applies to Cambridge exams; your answers in the opening section should be short and simple!

Practice Part Two every day People are often very anxious about Part Two of the IELTS exam. However, while talking on your own for up to two minutes might seem frightening, in fact this is the part of the exam that you can most easily prepare for at home. I suggest you create a routine of practicing one Part Two question on a daily basis. If you do this, you will be able to practice until the task feels comfortable and familiar.

  • find some example Part Two questions online

  • get your smartphone, a pen and some paper

  • start with the first question (don't just choose the easy ones!). Set your stopwatch to one minute and make your notes

  • record yourself with your phone as you complete the Part Two question

  • listen to the recording and give yourself two pieces of positive feedback and one thing to improve the next time

  • do one question a day - it shouldn't take you more than 5 minutes

Cambridge tip: do the same with the solo tasks in these exams too - regular practice over time gets you to where you want to be!

Learn about the world and practice discussing it in English

In Part Three of the IELTS speaking test, you will be asked more abstract questions. One common problem is that people don't know enough about the topics. It is a good use of time to watch TED talks, YouTube documentaries or to read blogs and articles about common IELTS topics. Doing this will help you to pick up useful words and phrases and will also expose you to other people's points of view so that if you can't think of anything to say in the exam, you can reference them:

Well, I don't know much about this, but I watched a very interesting documentary where they presenter was speaking about……..

Cambridge tip: This is completely appropriate for the Cambridge exams too. Remember that these exams are testing you on your English, not your general knowledge!

Three tips for Cambridge speaking

Because the Cambridge exams are done with a partner, you will benefit a lot from having someone to practice with. There are plenty of Facebook groups where people look for practice partners. Otherwise, ask your teacher if they know someone else who is working for your exam. Prioritise fluency over accuracy A lot of people get very worried about using 'advanced vocabulary and grammar' in their exams. While it's certainly true that you need to display a range of grammar and vocabulary, worrying about it is counter-productive. Instead, you need to create separate practice times for things like grammatical accuracy or increasing your vocabulary range as opposed to working on fluency and overall coherence. When you work on accuracy, you need to accept that you might lose some fluency. When you work on fluency, concentrate on your message rather than the words and structures you use.

IELTS tip: this applies to IELTS too! Focus on communicating what you want to say rather than worrying about how you think you should say it.

Practice the picture tasks - a lot! In my personal opinion, the picture tasks are the most difficult parts of the Cambridge speaking exams. I feel this is particularly true at CAE where you have so much to do in so little time! However, at FCE and CAE, the picture tasks are mostly solo speaking tasks which means that you can practice them at home. Follow the ideas in Point 2 in the IELTS section above. At CPE, the picture task is a collaborative task so to practice you will need a volunteer or fellow candidate. Use functional phrases In the Cambridge exam, you will be with a partner. This means that as well as having a range of topic vocabulary, you will need language for things such as:

  • interrupting others

  • asking for other people's opinions

  • clarifying meaning (yours and theirs)

  • agreeing and disagreeing

  • building on what your partner said

Remember that the examiners want to hear a natural conversation so it's okay to use more informal and idiomatic ways of fulfilling these functions. Most candidates need a lot of practice at producing a natural conversation under unnatural conditions (i.e. with a time deadline and an examiner listening to every word!) so make sure you give yourself plenty of practice opportunities!

IELTS tip: In IELTS, you need language to give your opinion and also to clarify what the examiner asked you. Paraphrasing is a great way to do this.

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