Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Top Tips for Speaking Examinations: Two-Sided Opinion Questions

Exams which test your knowledge of the English language test oral competency in their majority. The topics on which the questions are based are numerous, so it is much more difficult to predict what candidates will be confronted with on the day of the test.

However, no matter the level of the test, the awarding body or the format of the oral examination, what can be predicted is the type of question that will be asked. 

In this blog post, I will deal with what I call two-sided opinion questions and the steps candidates can follow to tackle them effectively and achieve a better score than if they had no idea what to expect before entering the exam room.

Examples will follow for clarification, naturally.

One of the things I see students do wrong when they practice for oral examinations is that they tend to keep answers short, because by directly answering the question briefly they think they've managed to satisfy the examiner. For example, their reply to the question

"Do you think everyone would like to be a celebrity?" 

ends up being one-sided and short

"Yes, I think everyone secretly wants to become famous and be a star, because it's great to be a millionaire and be well-known, have a nice house, a fast car and be liked by people."


"Well, not really. Many people don't want everyone to know where they are, what they're doing ... to have all these photographers chase after them. I mean, it's nice to have money, but you wouldn't have any privacy."

These sample answers are fine, but the point of taking an exam is to show what you can do, what your knowledge of the English language is. Even if your answer is grammatically correct and you use vocabulary accurately, the fact that it's a brief answer means that your score will be satisfactory and nothing more. The difference between a marginally passing grade and an exceptional grade is the depth of your answer. So, the main thing to keep in mind is the following:

ELABORATEsay as much as you can about the topic as possible. It's better to communicate ideas and make some mistakes while doing so, than saying just a few correct phrases.

What this means for two-sided opinion questions is that they should be dealt with from at least two angles. Let's take the example we just mentioned. 

"Do you think everyone would like to be a celebrity?"

The two ways to answer this question would be 

a) yes, we'd all like to be celebrities
b) no, not everyone wants to be a celebrity

So, the way to best answer the question is by covering both angles, just as you would if you were writing an essay discussing advantages and disadvantages (or a pros and cons / for and against essay). Say a few things about why some people would want to be famous and why others wouldn't. Then you could finish off by stating your personal point of view (would you want to be famous?).

Let's look at some other examples (some of these take the discussion to another level in that they deal with a question from 4 different angles):

1) "You need to decide about what job you should do. Should you seek advice from your parents or decide on your own?"

Angle 1:
  • seek advice from your parents (reasons why this is a good idea)
    • they are experienced
    • they can give you a second or even third opinion
    • they may bring up factors you may not have taken into account (what bills you'd have to pay, what the minimum pay would need to cover)
Angle 2:
  • not seek advice from your parents (reasons why they aren't the best people to turn to)
    • they might have high hopes for you, meaning that they will want you to do a prestigious job even though you may hate this line of work (e.g. they want you to become a lawyer, but you're more the creative, artistic type and would like to do something like fashion design or become an architect)
    • the generation gap creates insurmountable differences. What was considered unacceptable, lowly, or respectable and praiseworthy has now changed with time, but your parents seem stuck in the past.
 Angle 3:
  • decide on your own (reasons why you're the best person to decide what job to do)
    • you'll be the one stuck with the job (hopefully for the rest of your professional life, but in this economy, chances are you'll be unemployed at some point in your life) so getting up in the morning to do something others decided for you is not the best option
    • money isn't everything -- job satisfaction also plays a role in the decision
 Angle 4:
  • not decide on your own (reasons why you shouldn't base your decision solely on your own strengths and knowledge)
    • you might be too young to decide; not have enough experience of the job market; not be able to predict employment trends -- which jobs might be the jobs of the future, which graduates or trainees will be in high demand
Note: In this example, the 4th angle gives rise to an alternative answer which is to say that parents are ok and you need to decide as well, but going to someone who might be in a better position to answer your queries, such as a career counselor, is the best option. In this way, you provide a different take on the situation (that allowed you to put the words "career counselor" into play, awarding you extra points for lexical resourcefulness).

An answer like this, seen from 4 different angles, would certainly last at least a minute and a half to two minutes for someone who is a fluent speaker. Less fluent speakers would leave out some points mentioned or would take longer to answer. The key is to think about a variety of things to say and to make answers more substantial and less superficial.

2) "Would you like to move to a different house?"

Angle 1:
  • I'd like to move (the place I live in has drawbacks)
    • small bedroom/ inconvenient size
    • old / high cost of maintenance 
    • noisy neighborhood
    • far from friends and school 
    • nothing to do here at the weekends / after I finish work
Angle 2:
  • I'd like to stay where I'm at (the place I live in has advantages)
    • within walking distance from places I want to get to (school, friend's house, supermarket, sports center, gym, cinema, etc...)
    • safe neighborhood
    • adequate-sized bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, living room, etc...
    • low rent and utility costs, building fees, etc...
    • easy to find a place to park the car
    • regular bus/rail service near the house; easy to commute to work or school
 3) "Is it important for young people to watch the news?"

Angle 1
  • yes, young people should watch the news (advantages of watching the news)
    • aware of what is going on around them = broadens their minds, allows them to be able to discuss events/topics with others or as part of their school work
    • know what is happening in their own country and abroad: can help them understand socio-political situations and tensions or scientific / technological / environmental developments = this will help them deal with future issues (choosing a career; deciding where to study or work)
Angle 2
  •  no, young people don't have to watch the news (disadvantages of watching the news / advantages of learning about what's going on from other sources)
    • watching the news means watching the news on TV ⇒ TV channels are backed by specific interests so the selection of news items to present or the script itself is written in such a way that influences viewers (i.e. the news isn't objective, but directs viewers' opinions)
    • newspapers and the internet are also sources of information, so instead of watching a news broadcast, you could search for specific articles or posts online or in newspapers written by people with differing points of view to get a well-rounded portrayal of events. Naturally, newspapers and sites can also be biased so the previous point applies here as well.
Angle 3: (the alternative "solution")
  • it's more important for young people to discuss things with others than just watch what one person (one channel) is telling them
    • current events can be discussed at home round the dinner table and at school instead of just being passively watched.


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