Speaking is possibly one of the most important aspects of learning a language. Whether we are travelling, conducting meetings, making transactions, or socialising, we are likely to engage in spoken interactions. Speech, after all, pre-dates the written word by some distance!
And yet, speaking is one of the most difficult aspects of language learning to assess. The competing demands of understanding the task or question, producing spontaneous answers with accurate yet fluent language, appropriate vocabulary, and effective pronunciation, and conveying meaning are considerable. Practicing such activities in a class environment also presents challenges, mainly how to prepare 20+ students for a one-to-one or small group assessment scenario.
However, there are a few ideas we can implement to make our preparation more effective, and therefore improve students’ performance in the speaking exams.
1. Know the exam format inside out
This may sound obvious, but it is very important for both you and your students to know how the speaking test works. Whether it is a global exam like IELTS or First Certificate, a school-focused assessment such as IGCSE English Second Language or IB English B, or an internal examination, we need to be fully aware of the different sections of the test and the task requirements to avoid any misconceptions amongst the students.
For external exams, there will always be detailed explanations of the exam format in the official materials produced by the organising body. You may also find training videos or webinars explaining the sections. It is also important to keep up to date with any changes to the exam format as even a minor alteration can lead to a nasty surprise on exam day!
It is then vital that we pass this information onto students. One way I go about this is to use an adaptation of a KWL (Know – Want to Know – Learned) chart with my classes at the start of the exam preparation period. I present the chart below and ask pairs/small groups to fill it in:
This offers an early indication of what my students already know and, crucially, what wrong ideas they have (for example, in one of my current classes, a student believed the first part of the IELTS speaking test was unassessed – clearly something that needed addressing!) We then look up information online or read an official student-friendly overview to see what we need to correct and which of our questions we can answer.
I also make extensive use of sample recordings of assessments (making sure these do not breach any confidentiality agreements of course). This allows the students to see the exam in action and can also be used to show the procedure as well as evaluate the candidate’s performance.
2. Understand the criteria
As important as understanding the format of the exam is understanding the criteria by which responses are marked. Having worked as an examiner for Cambridge Assessment, IELTS, and IB, this is an area where candidates often end up confused.
Take an example like students being awarded higher marks for using ‘idiomatic language’. This often seems to be misinterpreted as using idioms, meaning I regularly end up listening to candidates desperately trying to work phrases like ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ and ‘it takes two to tango’ into a response. These attempts usually stick out like a sore thumb (see what I did there?) and do not actually represent what the criteria is asking for.
Idiomatic expressions refer more to non-literal use of language. A phrasal verb, such as using ‘break up’ to describe the end of a relationship will count here, as will a simile or metaphor (“It makes me want to explode!” was a good one I heard when reviewing a recording recently).
Another example would be something like ‘engages the interlocutor’. I have frequently assessed candidates who have been trained to ask me questions but this, of course, is not what the exam is about. Rather it means the candidate should include their own ideas and experiences rather than simply responding to one question and waiting for the next.
These nuances are almost always explained in detail in the exam handbook, often with examples, so it is worth making sure you understand then so that your students do too.
3. Focus on the questions
A common sight in the classroom when preparing for a speaking exam, or indeed doing any speaking activity, is to pair students up and have them interview each other while the teacher circulates and listens in. This is an efficient way to get everyone in a large group speaking but it does have its drawbacks. The main issue comes in the questions that get asked. Classmates are not examiners and nor are they teachers so the questions they ask will not always reflect the exam experience.
While getting students to generate their own questions is a very useful task, it is important to build to it in the right way. When first practicing an interview style task, I will supply the questions. This way, I can ensure everyone is getting exposure to appropriate tasks.
Later when watching or listening to a sample test recording, I will ask students to write down the questions they hear the examiner ask. We then review them and analyse the purpose of each question. This also allows us to identify any mis-hearing or misinterpretation of questions.
We will later move onto generating our own questions, but again in a structured way. Take the IGCSE English Second Language speaking assessment for example. Candidates are given a topic card with five bullet points indicating what they will be asked about. I will ask small groups of students to come up with questions based on the prompts which (after some feedback) we then use for our practice activity. Generating their own questions helps immensely with getting inside the mind of the examiner and anticipating what they might be asked to discuss.
4. A variety of practice activities (and methods)
Of course, fixed pair student Q&A should not be our only method of practice. It is important to vary how we practice activities to highlight different aspects of the exam. You might consider the following:
- Groups of three where one person asks the questions, one responds, and one acts as the ‘examiner’ taking notes and producing their own feedback (especially useful if you are preparing for one of the Cambridge exams, where there will be a second examiner in the room doing exactly that).
- Speed dating! As the name suggests, set up tables around the room with one student as the examiner asking questions on a given topic and the other as the candidate. After a few minutes, you ring a bell and all the candidates move to the next table to speak to a new examiner on a new topic.
- Using recordings is also important for practice. Ask students to go through the questions and answers and record the interview (this can easily be done with their mobile phones or school devices if you have them). This helps in two main ways: firstly, the students get used to the idea of being recorded as they likely will be in any official exam; and secondly, it allows for more detailed feedback from you as the teacher than you can offer when listening in while monitoring the whole group. Furthermore, it is also useful for practicing for an exam like IELTS where a solo presentation must be given.
- Mock exams. At some point, students will need to experience something similar to the full exam with a teacher as an interviewer rather than a classmate. This can be difficult to organise, especially with large groups, but it is important. Conducting these practice tests during a cover lesson or while students are working on a written assignment are the most time efficient ways to do it.
5. Feedback, feedback, feedback
Finally, the most important aspect of any exam preparation: feedback. After any practice activity, review of recordings, or mock test, letting students know what they did well and what they need to work on will help them immeasurably.
Being positive is key of course so start by focusing on what they did well and where they picked up extra marks. Frame any areas to work as suggestions for improvements instead of criticisms (nerves of course have an influence on speaking performance).
This is also a fantastic opportunity to hammer home those criteria. Pick out examples of how and when members of the class successfully used idiomatic language, for example, or highlight an area where they could have used a simple but effective phrase to better express an idea. Focus on those moments where the conversation flowed with both interviewer and interviewee engaged.
And finally, make sure your feedback is focused on the quality and accuracy of language used. Do not correct content whether questionable facts or unexpected opinions – most speaking assessments do not evaluate candidates on these factors so neither should we!
What about you? How do you prepare your students for speaking assessments? Please share your ideas here or on our social media posts.