Tuesday, June 5, 2018

ECPE Speaking Exam (Stage 2): Bullet Point Starters

The following information can be used by any test taker, not only ECPE candidates. 

Taking a C2-level oral examination is never easy. Apart from the usual stress due to lack of time allowed for reflection, uneasiness with regard to face-to-face contact and fear of making mistakes that will lead to failure, there is also the issue of ideas. Candidates often question whether on the actual day of their exam they will be clearheaded and creative enough to have something to say.

Not all people are made to respond quickly. This may sound like a prejudicial statement, but experience has shown that people don't make the same connections others do when they hear a word spoken. And I say again, this is not prejudicial because it doesn't imply that someone who isn't quick to respond is slow-witted. No, it just means that different people have different processes unfolding in their minds every second they stand breathing in front of you, so it is natural that while one person's processes take them down a more direct path towards an answer, another person processes information in a different way which may offer more options that require further processing rather than a clear direct response.

It is therefore imperative that candidates taking an oral examination at Proficiency level be prepared and train how to respond to questions quickly. This, like any other skill, requires frequent practice: the more question types you cover, the better prepared you will be for the day of your exam.

So much for the general preamble. Now for specifics. 

For the Michigan ECPE (Examination for the Certificate of Proficiency in English) Speaking component, which may seem one of the most grueling oral examinations in English because it lasts 25-35 minutes, Stages 2 through 5 involve discussion on a specific task. This task is handed out to the two (sometimes three) candidates taking the test on a sheet of paper, with each candidate receiving two different options each. Stage 2 in particular is a descriptive stage, where candidates are supposed to summarize information on the two options that appear on their paper as brief bullet points. 

The aim of this stage is to summarize the information to your partner in a clear way without stating the points mentioned on the paper word for word. You cannot add your own opinion about these bullet points and cannot expand on them yet, as that will be the aim of the Stage 3.

So, what is there left to do? If you can't just read out the paper in front of you, and you need to give facts only, your summary is going to be an objective, accurate description. See it as a report, and what is the aim of reports? To explain and highlight important points in a clear and gradual way.

In other words, candidates should be aiming for division and succession of ideas at this stage.

When the examiner gives you your paper with your task and you are allowed some time to read through it and make a few notes, you should follow these steps:

1) Group similar points together under a category.

2) Find synonyms for key words that appear in each bullet point and write them down.

3) Change nouns to verbs, verbs to nouns, add adjectives and adverbs where possible and write those down as well.

Let's look at an example:

Let's say for the purposes of the Speaking test you and your speaking partner are pretending to be English teachers in a school where lessons are held in a language other than English, and have been assigned the task of choosing the best language school in the U.S. to send your students to for a two-week summer course. You both have received the names and some basic information for 4 different language schools (2 for each candidate) and have been told by the examiner to describe each of your two options to your colleague.

This is the information from one option: 

St. Andrew’s School

  •  excellent teaching staff (more than 5 years’ experience)
  • large library
  • books included in price
  • located in center of city (population: ± 1 million)
  • activities after lessons available
  • expensive

A possible answer a candidate could give to describe the school would be:

My first option is St. Andrew's School. It has very good teachers who have more than 5 years' experience teaching English as well as a big library students can use.The money the students would have to pay to go to this school includes the books. In addition to this, the school is located in the center of a large city that has about one million people and there are activities available once lessons are done, for the students to do. Nevertheless, there is a negative thing about this school and that is that it is very expensive to go to.
Although this answer is grammatically satisfactory, it is not something an examiner would find worthy of Proficiency level. There is no exceptional vocabulary range and the grammar is basic. Worst of all, however, the information is stated in a way that wouldn't facilitate the listener (the candidate's colleague, in this case) because one thing which is often forgotten is that a candidate has to describe so that their partner can understand and take down notes at the same time. In other words, you are not giving the exam to speak by yourself but must think about your partner's ability to comprehend.

How can this description be improved? A better answer would include the following steps:
  • first organize similar points or points you can group under a general category
  • then think of the general category name you could use to describe what it is you're about to say before you say it
  • think of linking words and phrases to move from one point to the next
  • jot down better vocabulary words to include as you describe each point
So what does this mean in practical terms?

During preparation, a candidate could note down the following things:

St. Andrew’s School

  • excellent teaching staff (more than 5 years’ experience)
  • large library
  • books included in price
  • located in center of city (population: ± 1 million)
  • activities after lessons available
  • expensive

2) faculty / qualifications: outstanding, skilled
   3) facilities
   5) cost
  1) location, densely  populated

   4) extra-curricular activities
   6) cost, disadvantage/ drawback




The numbers before each note show the order which the candidate plans to follow.

The better summary would therefore be something like this:
My first option, to begin with, is St. Andrew's School, which is located in the center of a densely populated city of approximately one million inhabitants. That's the first piece of information we have about this school.
 Another positive point concerns the faculty and more specifically their qualifications. Although their educational level isn't mentioned, I do know that the teachers employed by this school are experienced teachers, with over 5 years' teaching experience.
 A third advantage about this school has to do with its facilities. To be more precise, this school has a sizeable library at students' disposal.

One more thing we should take into account when making our decision is what our students will be able to do when they aren't attending lessons. Well, the school offers extra-curricular activities once lessons are done.

A final thing I should mention is that the books the students will need to have for the course are already included in the total cost. However, and this last point brings me to the drawback this option has, this school is expensive, so if we were to go for this option, it would be a pricey one.
This answer presents facts in a manner which makes it easier for a candidate who cannot read their speaking partner's sheet understand and have a more organized picture of this option. Certain points lead in more naturally to the next ones and time is given for the candidate listening to your description to take notes as well. Finally, the manner of transforming the bullet points into fuller statements, with links in between and introductory sentences before stating the actual point you want to make, creates a much smoother description an examiner would consider proficient.

The following list contains 8 categories under which most tasks would fall as well as key words you could use to create a sentence just before you state a bullet point. 

For example, the tasks given to candidates could be a project their students need to carry out, or a building they are going to visit, or a person candidates should award a prize to. Under each of these categories, the bullet points that appear on a candidate's sheet usually include points connected to the key words listed below (i.e. the cost of the project, the equipment needed to carry out the project, the location and date of the project, etc.).

Use them to introduce points and make your Stage 2 description more organized and easier to follow.

ECPE Speaking topics and key points

  • Projects 
      • cost / salary 
      • place held 
      • date to be held 
      • frequency 
      • what is involved 
      • positive points 
      • target (audience) 
      • equipment needed 
      • meals (provided or not) 

  • Location

    a. hold an event (venue)
    b. to visit
    c. to build sth

      • size 
      • capacity 
      • population 
      • weather 
      • important sights 
      • infrastructure (transportation system) 
      • amenities (heating, pool, conference rooms, etc.) 
      • cost 
      • what is in the vicinity 
      • activities available there 
      • cuisine 
      • accessibility (airport, train, bus, car) 
      • history and culture 
      • special features

  • Person

    a. award them (promotion)
    b. for a job
    c. for a scholarship 
      • skills (job-related)
      • qualities & personality traits
      • appearance
      • qualifications (education, certificates)
      • interests
      • achievements
      • previous or current experience

  • Media (best way to promote sth) 

    • description (what is involved) 
    • medium used (on TV, on the radio, in the press, flyers/leaflets) 
    • frequency 
    • target audience 
    • cost 
    • positive points 

  • New Course or Specific Book for a Course (proposal) 
    • plot / subject matter 
    • cost 
    • equipment needed 
    • target audience 
    • length / frequency 
    • qualified staff availability 
    • outcome of course / what will students learn from this course / book 
    • prerequisites (students must have certain level of English/ must know how to play an instrument…)

  • New Sport (see "New Course")

  • New Products 
    • description (what kind of product it is) 
    • cost 
    • delivery/shipping 
    • target group 
    • properties / description of product 
    • requirements (must be stored in cool temperatures; must have extra space in store, etc.) 
    • raise awareness for cause, will increase profits, etc.)

  • Design (new Town Hall, library, etc.) 
    • architectural style 
    • materials used 
    • cost 
    • designer’s details & credentials 
    • conveniences 
    • special features (security system, unique object present, cafĂ© present, wireless connection, etc.) 
    • target group 
    • opinion of public

Blog posts will follow that will give specific examples of Speaking tasks candidates could be given and sample answers for Stage 2 descriptions using the list above to help formulate a better response.

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