Speaking is a core component of the FCE for schools exam and many a teacher (especially those more inexperienced ones) will dismiss practicing speaking if they believe that they have strong speakers in the class.
However, this could be detrimental to your learners, no matter how good they are in speaking, they also need to know the exam format and what to expect and just because your student is almost fluent in speaking it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will pass the speaking component with high marks.
Ideally, you need to have a small group of students working together as a class to practice the speaking section as the speaking exam is done in pairs. Many teachers do take on students privately in one-on-one sessions but to practice speaking in this way is unrealistic as it’s students need to practice with not only someone their own age, they also need to practice with someone on the same level. So, if you do find the yourself in this situation try to recruit a sibling or a friend for your learner to get more authentic practice in. Additionally, Cambridge is very rigid with their interlocutor scripts and it’s a good idea for the teacher to act as the interlocutor and follow the words word for word. Compared to the rest of the exam, the speaking section is only 14 minutes long (for both students) so they have only a few minutes to make the impression which is why it’s vital to practice each task individually.
Consider These Ideas for Effective Speaking Exam Training
Knowing the Criteria
Using video examples of good, average and bad speaking candidates is a great way to introduce your students to the FCE for schools speaking section. Introduce your students to the exam verbally and talk through the expectations of the examiners explaining that there are always two examiners in the room – one the interlocutor and the other the examiner (or assessor) who grades them. Download a marking guide from the official Cambridge ESOL site and explain the differences between the criteria. Show the students a number of different speaking examples via video (these can be watched via Youtube) which show different levels of speakers. Without telling the students the pass marks, have them mark the students using the criteria and critique their answers. This is a great way of identifying where students commonly go wrong and it makes sense to do this from the outset to try and eliminate such mistakes with your own students. Knowing what the examiners are looking for in top answers will also give your students a good idea of what they need to work on and it will give them set criteria to actively practice.
Getting Familiar with Part One
Generally speaking students feel more comfortable answering part one questions as it’s related to themes and situations that they have come across throughout their English language learning experiences. All the topics are familiar to them and age appropriate relating to the social world. They’ll be commonly asked in an interview style to answer questions about school, family, interests, hobbies and friends. This is the only part of the exam where the candidates to not actively interact and are just expected to listen to their partner’s answers.
One key thing for teacher’s to try and fight here is how your students go about answering the questions – it’s not uncommon for students to repeat the answer in the question e.g. What’s your name? My name’s Sara Jenkins. While Sara has answered the question, it is not what the assessor is looking for. Answering the question with the question imbedded in the answer is unnatural and Cambridge assessors are looking for how answers would be answered in the ‘real world’ using natural English, so in this case just Sara Jenkins would suffice. Sometimes students will only need to answer with one word e.g. How old are you Sara? 13. Students feel that they need to answer the questions with as many words as possible to prove their knowledge of English, which is not the case in the first section therefore teach and train your students to answer with short, precise natural sounding answers. Many teachers have their students learning scripted dialogues and when the interlocutor asks them to state their name they automatically go into a spiel about themselves – in this case the students will have failed to answer the question and be rewarded minimal marks.
Another great way to help students practice part one is to brainstorm their own personal questions and act as the interlocutor asking their partner questions. This will also help them to think about all the possible questions and answers that they could be asked and both participants have the opportunity to speak. Additionally have the candidate, who’s acting as the assessor, provide valid and fair feedback their partner.
Learning Functional Language
Throughout the exam the students will be required to compare and contrast and offer their opinions. In most good FCE course books there’s a list of functional language. Task 2 requires the candidates to compare and contrast two photographs and they will need to be able to demonstrate a range of functional language to pass this section well. Many students make the mistakes of just describing what they see in the photographs, which is not the correct way to go about it. Again, use videos to demonstrate good examples of language to compare and contrast pictures. At first pause the video when the candidates demonstrate the use of correct functional language so they can recognize how the different examples are used. Next have the candidates watch another video example and note down all the different phrases that they hear that shows comparison and contrast. Additionally, give the students a list of mixed up phrases and key words that refer to two different pictures and have them categorize them into their right categories and order. Afterwards they can then separate the task sentence by sentence making comparisons as they go. This final activity can gradually be built up and elaborated on over time as the students gain more confidence in the task.
There are two particularly difficult things about this task, the first being the timing. Each student only has one minute to answer the question of the task and as timing is very strict in the Cambridge examinations, they need to be able to say what they want to say with a few words or they run the risk of being cut off early. After you’ve moved up away from the controlled practice exercises into the full speaking task they should always be timed to give the students a precise idea of how much they are able to say in such a short time.
The other mistake that both students and teachers make is that they just focus on a direct comparison between the pictures without referring to the question. There’s always a specific question such as what are the advantages and disadvantages of people using their free time as in the pictures? It’s important for the students to stay on task as they can often go off on a tangent and compare things that are not directly associated with the question.
To make part two a little bit more fun and interesting ask your students to bring in a couple of their own photographs that have some kind of connection e.g. hobbies or relationships and have them write their own questions to ask their partners. Those students should also note down beforehand which points they would expect their partners to mention and as they answer they can tick them off and give the necessary feedback.
Asking for Clarification
Contrary to popular belief students will not lose marks if they mishear a question and ask their interlocutor to repeat the question, however, to not have their marks affected they again need to demonstrate the right functional language. Work on explicitly teaching students to ask for clarification, to repeat or checking the question with functional phrases such as could you please repeat that or sorry I didn’t catch that. If it happens once or twice it’s understandable as it’s natural in any language to ask for clarification if you didn’t hear something properly and if students are unsure, they should ask in order not to misinterpret the question and get the whole answer wrong because they ‘heard’ it differently.
In part three of the speaking exam the candidates are asked to work together and collaborate - together they need to come to some conclusions based on various photographic stimuli presented to them by the interlocutor. They’re required to talk about each picture and usually determine which is the most appropriate or what they prefer for a certain question. Many teachers make the mistake of instructing the students to agree – which is not necessary, however, what is necessary is that they have to touch on each visual (usually 5) and then state their own opinion. It’s important to practice turn-taking as both students are marked on the others performance. Asking for opinion, agreeing and disagreeing with each other are all important functions that need to be touched on.
Encourage your learners to take short turns and to not ‘hog’ the speaking time and if need be, act as a visual coach until they get it right gesturing between them and ‘conducting’ them to show it should be the other’s turn. If a student purposefully tries to monopolize the conversation, they will have points deducted as this is not displaying ‘interaction’ which is the main criterion in the section. However, many students worry that they’ll be paired with a weaker student (which is quite possible) and believe they will not be able to contribute. Teach your students to try and act as a prompt to the other students saying things like I really like the idea of living in a country cottage because it’s peaceful, what do you think? If one candidate demonstrates their ability of trying to coax the other to speak through functional language for interaction, they will be awarded points despite whether the other student answers or not.
Even though the speaking component is very short, it is still worth points and if you fail one section of the Cambridge exam, it’s impossible to pass the paper overall so it’s imperative to focus on the speaking and treat it as an equal part of the exam.
There are a lot of activities you can do and if you are running a course through a general English class, there are many ways you can adapt your materials and integrate aspects of the Cambridge FCE for schools speaking test into your regular lesson. Speaking is the most important skill when it comes to a language and emphasis should be placed on this alone to give your learners more motivation to really perfect their spoken English. The FCE for schools speaking section is realistic and communicative and therefore all elements learned will benefit the students outside the classroom.
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